Thursday, December 19, 2013

Guest Blogger: Carrie Lynn Patiño: Mud (2012)

MudAnother movie with a shirtless Matthew McConaughey? Well yes and no. McConaughey plays a character named Mud and does have a small scene in which he is indeed shirtless (I don't know if it's in his contract to appear shirtless in all his films just like I don't know if it's in Anne Hathaway's contract to show her breasts whenever she stars alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, but I digress); however the movie is about much, much more. It is a young boy's journey learning about life, love and trust. The main character is 14-year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a romantic at heart who believes in a love that is pure. That is until he learns that his parents are separating and that his "girlfriend" has been untrue.

Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hear about a boat in a tree on an island down river from their home in Dewitt, Arkansas. The boys take Ellis's boat to the island to lay claim on the treasure in the tree. They find proof that someone is living on the boat. That someone turns out to be 30-something Mud (McConaughey). Mud and the boys hail from the same neck of the woods and even share a common acquaintance—a recluse called Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard).

As the unlikely relationship develops between the boys and Mud, we learn that Mud is waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who Mud has known since she saved him from a Copperhead snake bite when he was 10. Mud tells the boys how Juniper is the most beautiful woman on Earth, that he loves her and she him. This prompts Ellis to help Mud reunite with his true love.

One afternoon while Ellis is searching for a reason to speak to the 17-year-old girl he loves named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), he sees a boy groping her. Ellis runs across the street and coldcocks the boy, a senior at May Pearl’s high school. May Pearl is impressed by Ellis’s chivalry and tells him to give her a call if he can find her number. At the same time, Neckbone spots a blonde woman that fits Juniper’s description. The boys follow to confirm that it’s her and deliver a letter from Mud. She seems happy but has a noticeable ambivalence as well. Ellis is elated that he is bringing the two soul mates together, especially after learning his own parents are separating.

When the boys visit Mud again, they report what happened with Juniper and that he is a wanted man. Mud tells them why he is  wanted. He then devises a plan to use the boat as his and Juniper's getaway, reneging on his deal with the boys. They strike a new deal and the boys help Mud get the necessary items to restore the boat and get it out of the tree which includes a visit to Tom. The relationship between these two men is uncertain but essentially Tom has helped raise Mud. Tom knows the reason for Mud’s return involves Juniper. He knows the mad love that Mud has for Juniper but believes she manipulates Mud and will be his demise.

Ellis has moments of clarity regarding love. He is hurt and betrayed by his dealings with women and with Mud. This leads to the climax where Ellis will see what Mud is really made of.

This film is beautifully shot and honestly acted staying true to the essence of the movie. You as a viewer really feel that you are part of the story because you can identify with characters portrayed because each one of us has experienced life, love and trust. And we have all made choices whether right or wrong, but ultimately without regret.

cutmypicCarrie Lynn is a hip single mother of two. When she’s not working her fingers to the bone at three jobs, she’s rooting for the Chicago Cubs or taking in a rock show. Her favorite cocktail is a blackberry mojito brought to her by her favorite bartender at Ñ.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Enough Said (2013)

Enough SaidWho would have guessed that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini would have such great chemistry? Nicole Holofcener, that’s who.

Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is a single mom and masseuse. She attends a party where she meets poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) who becomes a client and then a friend. After the party, Eva starts dating Albert (Gandolfini). Despite Albert not fitting into her preconceived categories of good looking, she is attracted to him and they have a lot of fun. As she gets to know Marianne and hears about Marianne’s issues with her ex-husband, Eva begins to second-guess her relationship with Albert, his bad habits and his overflowing belly.

Eva is also preparing for her only child’s departure to college across the country in New York City. She is contemplating her ex-husband and what initially drew her to him because he is a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh. Her best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and Sarah’s husband Will (Ben Falcone) are frequent companions and we are privy to their marital foibles.

Enough Said is a feeling person’s romantic comedy. The story develops well, pulling us into a spiral that will leave several people scathed. It rolls up its sleeves and digs past the surface into the relationship dynamics and struggles affecting new couples, couples who’ve been together for a long time and friends. It poses questions about what is appropriate, the complications relationships present and the cracks that surface. It also showcases the differences between men and women’s thinking and problem solving.

I liked the ending. My companions did not. I would love to go on and on about it but that would ruin the ending for you. Go forth and enjoy this delightful offering and note it is one of Gandolfini’s last films.

Writer/Director: Nicole Holofcener

Country: US

Genre: Comedy

Run time: 91 minutes

Scale: 4

Uno (2004)

UnoAksel Hennie is a recognizable face in Norwegian cinema. Perhaps his most recognizable role stateside is as Roger in Headhunters based on the eponymous novel by Jo Nesbø. Uno is Hennie’s directorial debut; he also wrote the screenplay.

Twenty-something David (Hennie) lives in a cramped apartment with his distant mother, terminally ill father and younger brother Kjetil (Espen Juul Kristiansen) who has Down’s Syndrome. David actually sleeps in the apartment’s storage space, ceding the shared bedroom to his brother.

David spends his days working at a gym with his best friend Morten (Nicolai Cleve Broch). Gym owner Jarle (Bjørn Floberg) would have his hands full with his inept thug of a son Lars (Martin Skaug) were it not for Aksel’s constant interceding to get Lars out of jams. Lars sells steriods and brings guns to the gym while holding on to his dream of becoming a cop (social commentary?). Jarle disapproves of Lars criminal missteps, not in the criminal activities themselves. Lars’s floundering illegal activities thrust David into the crosshairs of real gangsters when Lars backs out of a shady steroids deal with Khuram (Ahmed Zeyan), a deal David helped Lars secure by assuring Khuram that Lars was good for an outstanding 40,000 worth of drugs. When Lars can’t meet the deal, David is on the hook. This follows a steroids bust at the gym when David is faced with a choice that will change his life.

Uno delves into friendship dynamics and betrayal. It’s a character-driven drama and while David is no longer an adolescent, Uno plays like a coming-of-age meets loss-of-innocence meets welcome-to-the-world movie. Hennie gives us clues. The ending has problems but overall, the movie works. There’s even a subplot involving a dog but that doesn’t end well, especially if you are a dog lover.

If you like Uno and want more of Hennie and Broch, check out Buddy, another Norwegian offering starring Broch and Hennie. It’s a feel-good movie—very different from Uno.

Writer/Co-director: Aksel Hennie

Country: Norway

Genre: Drama

Run time: 100 minutes

Scale: 3

The Heat (2013)

The Heat

In one corner, we get FBI agent Ashburn (Sandy Bullock)—tightly  wound, ruthless and arrogant (characters Sandy has played well in her film past)—all traits that could keep her from getting her desperately coveted promotion. In the other corner, we have hard-mouthed-cursing-every-other-word, ruthless and arrogant Boston cop Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) verbally abusing her entire precinct. Sounds like a good match, eh? When Ashburn invades Mullins’s turf, the two spar until they have to go into cahoots to bring down a crime boss.

In their quest to track their target, the ladies cross paths with Marlon Wayans as an FBI agent, Jane Curtin as Mullins’s disappointed mother, Demian Bichir as Ashburn’s boss, Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real-life husband) as a past fling of Mullins and Michael Rapaport as Mullins’s brother. Neither these secondary characters nor even the plot can compete with the antics of the two leads. This is not a believable movie but it’s a treat. The lengthy bar scene alone will be worth it.

If you like Sandra Bullock, you might like this one. If you like Melissa McCarthy, you’ll probably like it. If you enjoy both ladies, see it!

Director: Paul Feig

Country: US

Genre: Comedy

Run time: 115 minutes

Scale: 3

Monday, December 2, 2013

Secrets & Lies (1996)

Secrets & LiesMike Leigh is a master at dissecting the dysfunctional family. He fills a cauldron with sadness, regret and shame. He gives it a swirl, adds a man as peace-keeping patriarch among three women seeking solace but with simmering recriminations. He serves it up, introducing us to the Purley family.

Factory worker Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn) and her nearly 21-year-old daughter Roxanne Purley (Claire Rushbrook) bicker as Cynthia tries to forge a closer relationship. Roxanne pulls away, horrified her mother wants to meet her boyfriend and talk about birth control. Cynthia is estranged from her brother Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall) because his wife Monica Purley (Phyllis Logan—you’ll recognize her as Mrs. Hughes of Downton Abbey) isn’t fond of Cynthia. Monica suffers cutting disappointment at not being able to conceive while Cynthia has been fertile under less-than-ideal circumstances.

When photographer Maurice drops by unexpectedly after nearly a year to see Cynthia, they snap back into their relationship and we learn about the deep familial wounds and strong connection they share. Maurice decides to throw Roxanne a 21st birthday party.

Add to this already volatile mix a young African-American woman Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who comes calling for Cynthia, claiming to be the child she gave up for adoption when Cynthia was 15 years old—a secret that will be unleashed and create upheaval in the Purley households.

Secrets & Lies is a classic that holds up 17 years later. The dialogue is rich with characters deflecting questions and offering more in non-answers. The movie rolls like a play. It beckons the viewer to join the characters in their sadness, anger, frustration and humor. The viewer readily obliges because it’s a well-made movie.

Writer/Director: Mike Leigh

Country: UK

Genre: Drama

Run time: 140 minutes

Scale: 4

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Daniel & Ana (2009)

The high after Searching for Sugar Man didn’t last long because of Daniel & Ana, a disturbing movie that left a part of me dead.

Ana (Marimar Vega) and Daniel (Dario Yazbek Bernal) are siblings in a tight-knit family. They share an ease that shows the viewer they are good friends outside Daniel & Anasharing DNA. Ana is in her early 20s planning her upcoming nuptials. The only snag she’s facing is that her husband-to-be Rafa (José María Torre) would love to relocate to Madrid for a job. Ana won’t leave Mexico nor her family.

Daniel is 16 and exploring his budding sexuality with girlfriend Mariana (Jéssica Castelán). They haven’t gone far but “doing it” is on the horizon. He takes every chance to drive the family car and is angling for his parents to get him his own automobile.

One day, Ana asks Daniel to accompany her on an errand. As they drive there, Daniel misses the turn. In circling the block to return to the street, two armed men jump into the back seat and instruct them to remain calm and follow directions.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Daniel and Ana are addressed by name by the men and are forced into the trunk. They are taken to a house where they are made to strip and presented with a choice: either engage in sex with one another or be shot and killed. No explanation is given for how they were known to these men or why they were chosen. After great reluctance and mental anguish, the two are filmed as they have sex. Afterwards, they are dropped off. The two return home. They don’t tell their parents. They don’t discuss what happened. They isolate themselves in the emotional fallout of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ana tells her fiancé she has doubts and ceases further wedding planning. She avoids Daniel. Daniel skips school, stops talking to his girlfriend and spends a lot of time in bed. As Ana tries to re-gain her life, Daniel spirals. His concerned parents keep removing privileges to get through to him but nothing impact him. He’s catatonic, cares about nothing and gets through his days like a zombie, until the day he loses it with an act of savage consequences.

Daniel & Ana brutalizes you. At the start, the viewer is told that this is a true story, that only the names have been changed. The movie doesn’t explain what the kidnappers/video makers had to gain by making the video, outside of black-market porn profits. Neither victim nor their parents are threatened with exposure. The movie takes a horrific what-if situation, exploits it, shocks the viewer but doesn’t provide any resolution. Reminiscent of a less-artful Michael Haneke film taking similar risks, Daniel & Ana proves less satisfying.

Writer/Director: Michel Franco

Country: Mexico

Genre: Drama

Run time: 88 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar ManReading about Searching for Sugar Man, the documentary piqued my interest but it’s the resounding reviews from people who’d seen it that sold me. The story will be especially attractive to music aficionados. The facts about Rodriguez and his trajectory are specific yet possess a broad appeal.

The story is about Sixto Rodriguez, a talented folk singer, guitarist from Detroit. Compared to Bob Dylan for his powerful lyrics, he performed with his back to the audience. A terrific lyricist who put out two records in the 1970s to no financial success. He was dropped from his label and went into obscurity. Except that in South Africa he was a superstar, selling at least half a million records. But what happened to Rodriguez?

Enter Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname, we learn comes from the eponymous Rodriguez song “Sugar Man”), a jeweler and later record store owner, who tells us about Rodriguez’s musical prowess in South Africa. That he’d heard that he’d set himself afire on stage during a show—the most disturbing rock suicide of all time. When Segerman writes liner notes for a Rodriguez CD reissue, he adds an inquiry in the liner notes to see if anyone has information on the legend. Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a music journalist, answers the call and starts his investigation, eventually solving the mystery.

The storytelling in Searching for Sugar Man is excellent, as is the Super 8 footage, rich images, colors, hues. We are taken from the picturesque landscape of South Africa to California to Detroit. We get a fable, complete with myths about Rodriguez. We learn about Apartheid in South Africa and how deeply it cut of the country from the rest of the world. Sanctions and boycotts kept out foreign musicians and bands. Inside the country, the conservative pro-Apartheid regime of PW Botha censored music, including Rodriguez (by scratching the songs on LPs so they were unplayable). Story goes that an American woman visiting her South African boyfriend brought a Rodriguez bootleg and it caught, like fire. According to Segerman, during the ‘70s, most middle-class white households with a turntable owned Abbey Road (Beatles), Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Simon and Garfunkel) and Cold Fact (Rodriguez).

Searching for Sugar Man is juicy story with dead ends, switchbacks and a beautifully uplifting ending. The music, cinematography and rich interviews with music industry folk, a brick layer, a construction worker and a bartender round out a movie, underscoring the importance of dreams and that it’s never too late to make it.

Rodriguez Coming From Reality

Writer/Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Country: Sweden/UK

Genre: Documentary that plays like a mystery

Run time: 83 minutes

Scale: 5

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

It’s the 1980s. Bull-riding Southern boy Ron (Matthew McConaughey) drinks hard, snorts a lot of coke and engages in heaps o’ sex.

After being electrocuted, he lands in the hospital where he’s diagnosed with AIDS. He’s told that his T-cell count is 9 (a healthy range is 150-200) and will be dead in 30 days. Ron doesn’t like gays and the news is too much to bear. He leaves the hospital against doctor’s orders despite his persistent cough, his emaciated frame and dizzy spells.

He delves into research to learn all he can about AIDS, its causes and what drugs have success combating the virus. He learns about AZT but trials won’t start for another year. He treks to Mexico to get drugs. He shares the diagnosis with his best friend and soon, Ron’s friends turn on him, he gets evicted and he loses his job.

Ron’s resourceful and intelligent. He battles the FDA, bamboozles at border crossings, travels to other countries to get supplements and proteins. He starts a drug buyers club where he sells the meds that are helping people with the virus. Early on, Ron’s finesse needs work. With the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite he meets in the hospital, they build a very successful business that helps scores of sick people despite the incessant obstacles.

This is a remarkable movie that delves into interesting history about a dark era. The facts are alarming and moving. The resilience of Ron and Rayon is inspiring as are their personal struggles. The movie tells its story without beating us with how we are supposed to feel or respond. We are given insight into information in ways that don’t distract from the main events, such as how Ron contracted AIDS.

The cast bursts with talent. Jennifer Garner as the doctor who supports Ron and Rayon’s mission. Bradford Cox (lead singer of Deerhunter) as Rayon’s boyfriend. A white-haired Griffin Dunne as a doctor exiled from practicing in the US. Steve Zahn has a bit role.

You’ve heard about McConaughey’s physical transformation for this one. He’s difficult to behold, he’s that thin. His acting is his best yet, but it’s Jared Leto that is the pulse of Dallas Buyers Club. He’s unrecognizable: his voice, his walk, his shaved eyebrows. He seizes the role of Rayon.

Dallas Buyers Club details the strength of a person who transforms from homophobe to tireless supporter of individuals whose dire needs were largely ignored by the slow-to-act medical establishment. The movie stays with you afterwards.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 117 minutes

Scale: 5

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

En soap (A Soap) (2006)

En SoapEn soap has a black-humored backbone. Think Transamerica’s darker Danish cousin.

Salon owner Charlotte (Trine Dyrholm) absconds from the home she shares with her boyfriend Kristian (Frank Thiel). She gives him no warning and does it while he’s out of town. She brings to her new pad few possessions and little furniture. The voiceover narration tells us she is bored but does Charlotte have deeper issues? (Yes) Is she a sex addict? (Likely) Is she seeking a feeling that eludes her? (Definitely) Has she found it in Veronica? (All signs point to yes.)

Downstairs neighbor Veronica (David Dencik) is a male-to-female trans woman waiting for approval for her sex-change surgery from the health ministry. She leads a solitary life with Miss Daisy, her scruffy Jack Russell mix. She brings in cash turning tricks with men in her apartment. Her mother (Elsebeth Steentoft) stops by regularly but never for very long. She brings Veronica pâtés and pills and refers to her as Ulrik, much to Veronica's chagrin. Their mutual discomfort is palpable; each wants something the other won’t give. The family patriarch (whom we never meet) is the source of distress to Veronica (who wants to reach out and have him acknowledge her) and to Veronica's mother (who lies to her husband/Veronica’s father about having visited Veronica). After an emotionally trying visit with her dismissive and disappointing mother, Veronica attempts suicide.

When Miss Daisy’s barking, whining and whimpering keeps upstairs neighbor Charlotte awake, she charges downstairs and bangs on Veronica's door. It opens and Miss Daisy leads her to Veronica's bed where she is lifeless in her own puke. Veronica is taken to the hospital and Charlotte watches Miss Daisy. When Veronica returns and fetches her dog, she offers to return the favor.

Charlotte is brusque and offensive to Veronica. Charlotte engages in sex with random guys. She’s uninterested in anything steady or long term. Around Veronica, she’s vulnerable and unguarded and then, Charlotte lashes out and backs off. They play cat and mouse as their chemistry intensifies. Charlotte is taken with Veronica; Veronica is curious about Charlotte. Charlotte grapples with her feelings. Her defenses crack open, especially with the impending final chapter of Veronica’s transition.

Neither is filmed outside the two apartments: Charlotte’s is sparse and bright. Veronica’s is dark and cramped. Veronica introduces Charlotte to a soap opera. Through it, Charlotte gains an understanding about Veronica and the love and acceptance she seeks. There’s a great scene where the two declare themselves boozy lightweights and get their drink on. They dance to “You Take My Breath Away” by The Knife. I loved their moves, their expressions, the moment.

En soap is depressing, leaves a lot unturned but offers hope and longing. We watch the two characters journey and grow closer. Most of their intense feelings are conveyed without words, instead using expressions, silent reactions and subtext. Both actors are expressive and possess a sensitivity that makes this movie work.

Co-writer/Director: Pernille Fischer Christensen

Country: Denmark

Genre: Drama

Run time: 104 minutes

Scale: 4

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Springbreakers (2012)

Springbreakers--James Franco as AlienJames Franco as a cornrowed gangster? Young women financing a spring break trip by committing armed robbery? Could it possibly be good?

It is not. It is, in fact, awful. Yet, I can’t discount it altogether.

We meet three party-loving collegiates, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine). I had difficulty telling the three—all blondes—apart early on. They stand around, engage in banal discussions and encourage their wholesome raven-haired friend Faith (Selena Gomez) to let loose.

They’re pumped to head to Florida for spring break but their bank accounts don’t match their enthusiasm. The downtrodden girls hang in the echoing dorm, abandoned by their peers. The blondes have a light-bulb moment. One borrows a professor’s car, they rob a restaurant and thus, finance spring break. You’d think that they’d return the car and be done with it. No, they torch and watch it burn.

They arrive in Florida and debauch with other spring breakers. All is going well until a party they are attending gets busted. They face several days in the clink when they are unexpectedly bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a rapper and drug dealer with an arsenal of weapons. He takes them back to a house party. The blondes are delighted. He takes a liking to Faith, who already uncomfortable in her surroundings, reaches her breaking point. She takes a bus home and that’s the last we see of her. (It’s so early in the movie, you wonder if Gomez decided that her brand could go only that far.)

Franco jumps into the role of Alien and is so over the top, you forget it’s him. The girls are smitten with the bad boy. Alien gets into his past and how he got to his heights of gangster-dom. His former best friend, Big Arch, also a gangster, warns Alien to stay out of his turf.

The movie rambles, meanders and takes a long time to get no where. We don’t find out what drives any of the characters besides basic hedonistic urges. It escalates to an unbelievable anti-climactic conclusion. Candy and Brit stay with Alien, cavorting and robbing. The lame dialogue, the annoying Hudgens and Benson and the empty plot plod along. It does possess elements perfect for cult-classic standing. It has stylized bits and cinematography that work really well. Pink ski masks, black light effects, slow-motion action and James Franco, especially James Franco, keep Springbreakers from being a zero. Alien deserves his own movie.

I can’t recommend Springbreakers to anyone who wants a plotted story with three-dimensional characters. It does have its moments, and under some conditions, like a midnight movie, bring it on.

Director: Harmony Korine

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 94 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Crazy Heart (2009)

Crazy HeartPerhaps it’s the influence of my favorite not-so-new show Nashville, but I loved Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges can go from The Dude to Bad Blake and make an oft-told story shine.

Alcoholic country crooner Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is playing gigs across the Southwest at unknown saloons, tiny bars and even a bowling alley. With no new songs in years and his unpredictability due to his drinking, washed up Bad is living in the shadow of his former protégé Tommy Sweet, a huge star in the new wave of young Nashville.

Bad grants his first interview in years to a young, unknown writer Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). During their interview, the chemistry is electric. Their banter is easy. They possess a comfort level unique between strangers. When Jean asks him about his four marriages and kids, the spell is broken and the interview is over. They agree to meet again the next night. The unlikely pair can’t fight the attraction. With his addiction to whiskey and her affliction for bad boys, can they forge a future?

His agent Jack (Paul Herman) presses him to write songs again and make his way back up. Jack secures him a gig headlining for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). It bring a crushing blow to Bad’s ego. He wants the big bucks but he can’t stand to be an opener and for the star who has surpassed him. Bad balances his life with Jean and her son Buddy, his life on the road and his drinking. He’s even inspired to write until he hits a series of snags that lead to a life-altering rock-bottom.

We don’t meet Tommy Sweet until 42 minutes in but we have heard about him so much, he deserves a drumroll advancing into the shot. The cast is an eclectic delight. The friendship between Wayne (Robert Duvall) and Bad give us perspective into the two men. Bridges as Bad comes alive on stage and provides glimpses into Bad’s past glory. (Bridges and Farrell contributed their own singing.)

Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Cobb, the movie scored Bridges a Best Actor Oscar, Golden Globe and several other awards. Crazy Heart isn’t a new story but the writing and cast make it a worthwhile viewing. Several folks told me they liked the it despite the country music. I loved the music. If you don’t like the music, you can blame Nashville.

Co-writer/Director: Scott Cooper

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 106 minutes

Scale: 4

Hævnen (In a Better World) (2010)

Elias and ChristianDanish director Susanne Bier starts Hævnen with a father and son in mourning, following the death of the family matriarch.

Following the funeral, pre-teen Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) and his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) relocate to Denmark from London. Claus will commute to London while Claus’s mother watches Christian.

On his first day at school, Christian witnesses a peer being bullied by a group of much bigger boys. The bullied boy Elias (Markus Rygaard) ends up in Christian’s class. The two learn they share a birthday, sit together and begin a friendship. After school, the bullies await Elias. Christian calmly comes to his rescue, gets a basketball pummeled at his face and ends up with a bloody mess of a nose. He goes home, escapes into his shoot-‘em-up video game. He tells his father nothing as their fractured relationship continues to worsen.

Christian returns to wield revenge and send a message to his opportunistic bullies. The school calls in Christian’s dad and Elias’s mother Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) who is upset; the school hasn’t done anything to keep her son safe from bullying and now they are accusing him of conspiring against the bully. Elias’s father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works abroad in Africa as a doctor in a refugee camp and is gone for long periods. He’s a pacifist and it has rubbed off on Elias who until Christian’s intervention took the violence.

On one of Anton’s visits back, he takes Elias and Christian into town. Anton gets into an altercation with a man at a park. The man lashes out at Anton. Christian seethes at the injustice and disrespect. He urges Anton to exact revenge. Anton explains that remaining calm is the right way; that peace wins in the face of violence, much the way he conducts himself against the barbarity he witnesses in Africa.

Christian cannot accept it. Already struggling with his mother’s death and feelings about his father’s behavior during her illness, his rage explodes and pushes him toward irreparable violence.

The movie examines the effects of bullying on friendships, relationships between fathers and sons, the expectations of men in society and interplay between bullies and victims. Bier is a master of digging deeply into the messy swamp of people’s compulsions, fears and desires. The acting is terrific, especially from the two young leads. Elias displays the emotive side of fear and confusion, while Christian portrays the middle-aged seething at life’s injustices from the perspective of a young man.

Director: Susanne Bier

Country: Denmark

Genre: Drama

Run time: 118 minutes

Scale: 4

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Flight (2012)

FlightDenzel Washington brings new meaning to drunk driving while portraying boozy pilot Whip Whitaker. The opening scene depicts among the most terrifying plane-going-down sequences in recent memory.

Whip lands the plane in what his peers, superiors, the public call a miracle. He’s hailed a hero because only four of 106 die in the crash landing, but Whip isn’t off the hook. When admitted to the hospital, his blood was drawn and tested and his hair was snipped and examined for drugs and alcohol. The results cause Whip professional and personal problems that put him under the watchful public eye. Two empty airline-size bottles of vodka are found in the a bin only Whip and the crew had access to. Because of turbulence, beverage service had been suspended on the flight, making the empty bottles even more mysterious. Will Whip reveal what he knows or will he throw his dead friend under the metaphorical bus?

Whip has to face other issues he’s veiled himself from behind a wall of drugs and anger: his ex-wife only contacts him when she wants money. His son doesn’t get in touch at all. Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) his partying friend is dead. Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), an addict in recovery after an accidental OD, at the hospital and the two form an unlikely friendship. While this relationship gave some insight to the depth of Whip’s disease, the character of Nicole doesn’t anchor strongly in the plot. There isn’t investigation as to why Whip turned to drugs and alcohol, which would have given his character more insight but it didn’t occur to me until afterwards.

Flight is compelling. You see the scheming that goes on behind the scenes when big business stands to lose a lot of money and how deep pockets can erase medical records, skew evidence and disprove facts. Washington delivers an honest portrayal for which he was deservingly nominated for an Oscar. He may not have taken that prize but he does Flight right.

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 138 minutes

Scale: 4

Smashed (2012)

SmashedI gravitated to Smashed because it co-stars Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame. I also wondered if a movie called Smashed would deliver a serious or ironic portrayal of addiction. Would it overpromise and under-deliver?

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) oversleeps and wakes up, hung over and soaked in urine. She and husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) realize Kate has peed herself as they awake in the wet spot. Kate readies herself for work, taking a swig of beer as she showers and nipping whiskey before entering school to teach her grade schoolers, who are equally cute and aggressively nosy. When Kate suddenly pukes, missing the trash bin, her students are disturbed and horrified. They pummel her with questions, including whether she’s pregnant. To move along quickly, she affirms them but this white lie is the first complication in a series of events that stand to separate Kate from the two things she loves—her husband and drinking.

Kate and Charlie go out. They drink to excess. Kate wakes up on the street the morning after offering a stranger a ride, drunk driving and smoking crack. After another one of these nights, Kate tells Charlie she wants to slow down. This is not music to Charlie’s ears—drinking is what bonds them. She takes the advice of a fellow teacher and pal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) and attends an AA meeting. She attempts sobriety and enlists the help of Jenny (Octavia Spencer), another AAer, who becomes her sponsor, but can she get clean and keep her husband?

I loved Smashed. I sought it out for Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame but the movie belongs to Winstead (a nearly unrecognizable Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim). Smashed is honest, funny, sad, hopeful and sad again. Charlie and Kate’s relationship isn’t maudlin or sentimental. Megan Mullally, as Principal Barnes, in a non-comedic role takes some getting used to. For Parks & Recreation fans, we also get Offerman in a very un-Ron Swanson-like role (no whittling).

Smashed is the indie film for the addiction section of your DVD collection. It deserves a watch, two, even three. I was riveted watching a couple who are so in love with one another until one of them ends the relationship with the bottle.

Co-writer/Director: James Ponsoldt

Country: US

Genre: Drama with funny moments

Run time: 82 minutes

Scale: 4

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Red Hill (2010)

Red HillNew jobs can be murder.

Shane (Ryan Kwanten) and Alice (Claire van der Boom) move to the small town of Red Hill seeking a quiet existence.

As Shane readies for his first day at the cop shop, he can’t locate his gun. Rut-ro. This tells us that Shane will need it. His reception at work is icy at best.

He’s assigned to an investigation no one else wants to cover as it’s deemed irrelevant. Shane finds a mortally wounded horse and whatever got to it doesn’t look like the usual beat. Before Shane can act further, Red Hill is paralyzed by prison escapee Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), an alleged wife and cop killer. Conway goes on a killing rampage that targets all of the Red Hill police department.

Men square off, puff out like peacocks, shoot one another, crash cars. Newby Shane is looking to find his place. Head cop Bill (Steve Bisley) is gruff, brusque. His character overdoes it. Conway is a badass. He resembles a robotic-Matrix morphing of John Oates. He can Snipe, Ninja and Hulk it up. And, even though he’s shooting the supposed good guys, they are creeps and you find yourself rooting for Conway. He hasn’t uttered a word. His determination to decimate has a vengeful flavor that makes you wonder if he wasn’t wronged.

Red Hill is a predictable Western. It’s good versus evil. Serpico in small town Australia? Not quite. True Blood fans will recognize Kwanten as Jason Stackhouse. I won’t re-watch Red Hill but Kwanten and Lewis carry it. The subplot feels forced but in the end, they round back in an unexpected finale.

Writer/director: Patrick Hughes

Country: Australia

Genre: Thriller

Run time: 95 minutes

Scale: 3

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Take This Waltz (2011)

Take This WaltzIt’s summer in Toronto when married Margot (Michelle Williams) meets painter and bicycle-rickshaw driver Daniel (Luke Kirby). He awakens the desire missing in her relationship with Lou (Seth Rogen). Once they realize they are neighbors, things get complicated.

Margot and chicken-recipe creator Lou engage in juvenile discussions. Lou cooks away and Margot hangs on him. (Twice, it looks like a burn accident waiting to happen). Their interactions are klutzy. For most of the movie, I was certain Margot was suffering from some form of mental illness. By the end, she just seemed awkward.

Margot’s yearning for Daniel consumes her, but she also can’t leave Lou. Her guilt overwhelms her but she can’t stay away from Daniel. Margot and Daniel relate on different level. When she makes a decision, her life with Daniel is happy but after seeing Lou again, she leaves sad. Her time with Lou wasn’t bad, just beige. They had a connection, albeit a different one that was no longer sustainable.

Take this Waltz has its peculiarities. Lou and Margot’s relationship is stuck in junior high. When he’s taking an important business call, she is sticking her fingers in his mouth, making it nearly impossible for him to respond. They regularly banter about the violent things they will do to each other, trying to one up on the scale of disturbing. Rogen’s limited acting skills didn’t bother me. In fact, it worked with the role of the blank-page guy who simply wants the girl to love him.

There’s a subplot involving Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), Lou’s sister in recovery. Her relationship with Margot is genuine but it gets little time, which is unfortunate because it gives insight into Margot from a platonic perspective. Silverman does a good job with a role that doesn’t center on scat jokes. To celebrate Geraldine’s sobriety, Lou and Margot throw an excellent party with food, dancing and a stand-out song by Feist covering Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time. (Loved it.)

The movie’s hazy colors and depiction of summer intertwine with the plot’s complex feelings. I bought the kooky Margot-Lou pairing and I understand how it worked until it didn’t.

Writer/director: Sarah Polley

Country: Canada

Genre: Drama

Run time: 95 minutes

Scale: 3

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hodejegerne (Headhunters) 2011

HeadhuntersHeadhunters, based on the Jo Nesbø novel, centers around Roger (Aksel Hennie), a recruiter who will get you the fantasy job if you are hungry enough. And, if you own any one-of-a-kind art, even better because Roger is an art thief—a successful one.

He thieves to finance the high-rolling lifestyle he maintains for his art-gallery owner wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). This is the life Diana is accustomed to. She has model good looks and loves Roger but Roger has been cagey about giving her the thing she wants most—a family. Roger’s insecurities, including his short stature, have led him to create distance from Diana and engage in an affair.

When mystery man Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) appears at Diana’s gallery party, Roger believes he may have found his golden egg. Clas is a perfect candidate for a job Roger is looking to fill and has in his possession an original Rubens. If Roger and his thieving partner can get their hands on the Rubens, their futures will be secure. That is, unless Clas beats him at the game and moves in on Diana and maybe even makes a play for Roger’s life.

Headhunters initially paces its plot and then, hits a sudden sprint—it’s abrupt but works. The ending is unexpectedly satisfying.

Director: Morten Tyldum

Country: Norway

Genre: Thriller

Run time: 100 minutes

Scale: 4

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy shit, I loved Holy Motors.

As the movie rolls, we are introduced to a blind man (the director, Leos Carax) waking. He and his dog guide us into a viewing room where we are introduced to protagonist Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaving home very early morning. His house is Holy Motorsenormous and white, resembling a land-locked submarine. He walks his long, heavily guarded driveway down to his waiting white limo where Céline (Edith Scob), his elegant driver, awaits him. Oscar takes calls and we are led to believe that he is a heavy hitter in the business realm. But, then, Céline provides the details for his first “assignment.” He reads the portfolio and we watch him prepare with make-up, wig, clothing.

During the drive, we are treated to the view of the tranquil green-line roads that will eventually lead us to the City of Lights.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Assignment #1: Oscar disembarks from limo to stand on a busy Paris street dressed like an elderly woman—hunched over, babushka’d and asking for spare change. People pass him/her on the street but no one interacts. Following this assignment, he’s back in the limo, conducting the same ritual: reading the assignment, dressing a new part and being dropped off. And, so it continues. But, why? For whom?

Assignment #2: Oscar is dressed in a black skintight body suit adorned with pellets. He is holding a scepter as he enters a building and into a simulated video and porn shoot wherein your senses will feel the impact of this visual feast.

Assignment #3 is what might happen if the Leprechaun from the ‘80s horror flicks came to life and wreaked havoc onto unsuspecting visitors at the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Eva Mendes has a non-speaking yet unforgettable role as Kay M, a high-fashion model (rumor has it this role was written for Kate Moss but she dropped out due to a conflict). One of the words uttered in this scene is weird. Yes. Very.

Assignment #4 is a father-daughter fight that escalates, leaving emotional scars that will be the source of resentments and recriminations that will surface any time either hears Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Assignment #5 is a musical intermission of accordionists and, of course, Oscar is leader.

The next few assignments revolve around death, assassinations and lost dreams.

We get insight into Oscar when his limo collides with another limo transporting Eva, an “actor” on her way to an appointment—someone who Oscar knows (we know her too because it’s Kylie Minogue). While the drivers discuss the accident, Oscar and Eva scamper into a vacated mall strewn with mannequin bits. She sings to Oscar. If you pay attention, she’s telling him about a child they may have had together. (Is this segment simply another assignment?)

Oscar is dropped off for his final assignment (or is it his real life?). He and Céline say goodnight. Oscar enters a house and greets his wife and child who are chimps. Does this symbolize a less complex life with fewer disappointments? Is there a real Oscar or is this part of the commentary—that we are always playing roles and may not really know ourselves, after all.

In this Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/selfie era of instant fame, is each appointment a new chapter or episode in “reality” shows in which Oscar stars? Has he compromised himself for fame? When he takes his lunch break, he turns on the TV; instead of watching a show or the news, he watches the Paris streets and longs for forests.

Acting? Longevity? Life and death? What are the themes in Holy Motors? We’re taught to interpret surroundings and deconstruct tones and expressions. Holy Motors challenges our ability to do this. The way we’re socialized makes it difficult to not try to extract an absolute meaning. Is it not enough we have the gifted Lavant who carries the film with precise body movements, his ability to embody each new role and his expressive face?

I don’t guarantee you will like Holy Motors. You may watch it and have a WTF moment. It’s a kaleidoscopic romp through nine (or ten) assignments, many which will linger. For me, it was a spectacular viewing adventure. My only regret was missing it on the big screen.

Writer/Director: Leos Carax

Country: France

Genre: Drama with fantasy elements

Run time: 115 minutes

Scale: 5

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dans la maison (In the House) (2012)

Dans la MaisonIn the House takes voyeurism, adds a dash of humor and cooks it over low heat. The plot simmers to a rolling boil until it overflows into a disturbing and epic implosion.

It’s a new school year. Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded English teacher, assigns his students an essay to describe their summer. The results are disappointing to him. His students lack imagination. That is until he reads the essay from Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). The essay divulges that Claude’s summer was spent spying on classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and his parents from the park outside their house. His goal, he admits, was to get inside that house.

Germain reads the essay to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who deconstructs it by adding a psychological spin. Germain thinks the essay is ironic. He talks to Claude who is flattered but confused.

What if Rapha were to read it?” He repeats Germain’s question.

“I wrote it for you,” Claude declares.

They spar on the matter of whether or not Rapha and his family are okay fodder, but they are both hooked—Germain sees raw talent in Claude’s writing and Claude wants to become a better writer. Claude continues writing essays telling the tale about how he gets into the house and the drama that unfolds once he’s in. Germain begins to work with Claude on writing outside of class and this draws attention from the school administration and other students.

The movie parallels the process of watching a novel unfold. Surreal details are thrown into scenes. Occasionally, it’s difficult to decipher what’s actually happening from Claude’s imagination. We delve into complex characters with a lot at stake: relationships, friendships, adolescent challenges and the banality of reality. None of the characters remains untouched by Claude existence. His actions will result in the destruction of everyone’s lives as they knew it pre-Claude. Claude brings forth several personal apocalypses.

Director: François Ozon

Country: France

Genre: Drama that plays like a thriller

Run time: 105 minutes

Scale: 3

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Atmen (Breathing) (2011)

This offering from Austria presents a trifecta win: visually stunning, acting that makes you feel tremendous blows and unexpected highs and a profound character-driven plot.

Eighteen-year-old Roman (Thomas Schubert) is dead inside. He lives at a juvenile detention facility. His social worker/parole officer is frustrated that Roman keeps screwing Breathingup his go-sees. He’s up for another parole hearing and a job would help. He implores Roman has to care.

It’s still early days in our getting-to-know-Roman process when he hands his PO a job ad and declares that this is the job he wants—the reaction conveys all. This man who has been grumbling for Roman to get a job is dumbfounded and wonders if the serious Roman is joking.

Roman leaves very early for the first day of a trial work period at the mortuary. Roman takes in every experience as if seeing dead bodies for the first time. We learn that five years ago, he committed a crime that landed him at the detention center. At the new job, one of his co-workers alludes to Roman’s crime (we, the audience have yet to been enlightened) and hazes him.

Roman learns bodies are heavy, they stink and there is a process involved in this work. What shakes up the plot is the day he handles a corpse sharing his surname. We learn that Roman doesn’t know his own mother’s name. The mystery deepens.

Schubert, as Roman, carries Breathing. His loneliness is heavy and he shares this burden with the viewer. He’s sweet, he’s hard, he’s hurt. Breathing takes its time telling us the story. The dialog doesn’t bore us with filler. When Roman meets his mother Margit (Karin Lischka) for the first time, she’s testing a mattress at IKEA. They converse as if polite acquaintances. Their real conversation goes down in the IKEA cafeteria. It’s a darkly comedic yet gloomy moment. (Makes you wonder how many pivotal conversations germinate over Swedish meatballs or seafood salad?)

Another rich aspect is experiencing what gaining freedom looks like to a teenager who has been raised in institutions his entire life. Each outing—each train ride to work, each house he visits to pick up a dead body, each item in people’s home and even the inside of IKEA—is a rebirth. And, Roman’s expressions convey this. You experience freedom as Roman deconstructs it. It’s an incredible experience to capture for an audience. I watched it twice and no detail is there by chance.

One detail was opaque. Roman swims on his own in the pool at the detention center. The other boys don’t swim until he is done and I don’t know why. Does it mean they won’t swim with him or is there a reason he must complete his laps alone? Additionally, the European furlough system is shocking to an American used to our system where offenders are locked up and not released until the sentence ends and with little preparation for the outside world, employment and assimilation back into society.

Breathing is simple yet profound. The writing is strong and the cinematography is lush and impressive—many shots able to pass as exquisite photographs. It’s the acting, though, that will sock you in the heart. You feel Roman’s loneliness, his pain, his mother’s shame. You warm to the parole officer in the end because any of these characters could be you. I’m not a criminal, a parolee nor was I a teen mother but Breathing made me feel what they experienced.

Here’s a nice morsel. If you saw, the award-winning Austrian movie, The Counterfeiters, you will recognize the director of Breathing, Karl Markovics, who played the lead role.

Writer/Director: Karl Markovics

Country: Austria

Genre: Drama

Run time: 94 minutes

Scale: 5

Die Welle (The Wave) (2012)

The WaveDie Welle opens inside a car careening around corners while the driver belts along to a cover of The Ramones’ Rock and Roll High School. Mr. Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is at the wheel. He’s on his way to school where he’s teaching a segment on autocracy. Wenger is a dynamic teacher but he’s disappointed because he preferred to teach anarchy. Wenger begins a discussion on dictatorships. When Nazi Germany comes up, the students make a collective eye-roll. Being Germans, they are exhausted on discussing the topic because it would “never happen again.” Couldn’t it though? Wenger counters and thus it begins.

The class discusses the attributes required for a dictatorship: uniforms, a code of conduct, discipline. The students begin wearing white shirts, they exclude those who dissent. The usual traits that help students excel, such as smarts and the ability to verbalize a point are ignored. Following the code is most important. And, what starts happening? A logo and a hand gesture are created. New members can join at the invitation of current members. They name their movement, The Wave. They graffiti. They use body guards. They tattle on dissenters. Students are dropping other classes to attend this one. In one week, the students have gone from being ambivalent to cult-like reverence for Wenger, who is drinking his own Kool-Aid. Sounds familiar? This is Hitler and Third Reich fodder. The sense of belonging and conformity appeal to most, except a few who are squashed. All in less than one week in Wenger’s class.

Within this week, the majority of the class is aggressively crossing lines with an anything-for-the cause attitude. One student takes things to the extreme with a gun and, while seeming plausible, it comes off as forced.

The movie was inspired by true events that happened in the Palo Alto classroom of history teacher Ron Jones in the late 1960s. He said the experiment results scared him deeply because of how fast and easily the students fell into the conformity when just days earlier they guffawed as they argued that history couldn’t repeat itself.

Director: Dennis Gansel

Country: Germany

Genre: Drama that plays like a thriller

Run time: 107 minutes

Scale: 4

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Before Midnight (2013)

SONY-BDOS-01_Onesheet4.16.13_Layout 1A fan of the Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy-Richard Linklater franchise, I was quick to see Before Midnight. The first two installments are charming and left me needing to know what happened with Céline and Jesse. Could segment three sustain itself and meet expectations?

Before Midnight picks up eight years after Céline (Delpy) serenades Jessie in her excellent Paris flat in Before Sunset. Since then, they got together, lived in NYC, sired twin girls and now live in the City of Lights. As the movie opens, Jesse (Hawke) is dropping off his tween son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport. He’s spent the summer with Jesse, Céline and the twins in Europe.

Immediately afterwards, we are in the car on their road trip discussing their concerns. Jesse is troubled by living a continent away, especially with Hank heading into his teens. Céline is offered a dream job but is unsure. Their connection is still visible. The way they bicker is genuine. As they head to a seaside home where friends converge and dine, chatter swirls around love and relationships. This scene feels contrived. I’m bored watching Céline pretend to be an adoring fan of Jesse’s and the way the conversation drifts because truth is, I prefer to be with Céline and Jesse and see how they are when alone with one another.

I get my wish when the two receive an unexpected night alone. A big fat fight follows. It builds in their hotel room. As they recriminate, I experience that familiar crappy feeling. The one you get during a quarrel. Céline erupts. Jesse is gentle with his volleys but neither backs down. We get backstory tidbits that reveal fissures and relationship issues: feeling put upon, ignored and burdened with the hard work of raising kids. Céline goes the mean route. Is she reacting to the guilt of Jesse having left his wife, that he lives in Paris with Céline and that he is missing this son’s life in Chicago? Is she afraid he might leave? She doesn’t ask about his feelings on it. Instead, she’s adamant that she’s not moving to Chicago.

This one, like the others, is talky but some of discussions run laborious and despite the fighting being realistic, I want to better understand Céline’s motivations. I tired of the yelling. Are they setting up for the next installment—a separation, a divorce? Will they move to Chicago? Will Céline complain incessantly? All said, I’m in the minority; ALL the reviews I read gave nothing but praise for Before Midnight. I’ve thought about it a lot and still wonder what’s next. That fact alone might be the best recommendation.

Co-writer/Director: Richard Linklater

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 109 minutes

Scale: 4

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Compliance (2012)

Imagine you are the manager at a fast-food joint on a busy Friday night. You are short staffed. You are out of bacon and pickles. You are a happy-go-lucky type and your fiancé is about to propose. You tell yourself, you can weather this night. You huddle with your employees. You stress the importance of teamwork.

This is Sandra’s (Ann Dowd) scenario as the phone rings at ChickWich. A detective on the other end of the line tells Sandra he is on different line with her regional manager. Detective informs Sandra that her employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer and that Sandra needs to question her. The questioning leads to searching Becky’s purse. The interrogation escalates and by night’s end, several people will push the boundaries of logic, rational thinking and harassment.

The beauty of Compliance is that you will criticize how far several characters go to following direction from a supposed authority figure over the phone. A few question but don’t push; they extricate themselves so as not to make waves. It will take the unexpected to say what you, the audience, will be declaring from the start: Stop.

Writer/director Craig Zobel was inspired by experiments conducted by sociologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s at Yale University. Milgram documented the lengths people will go to follow directions from authority figures, even if they diverge from the individual’s person code of conduct. Milgram’s conclusions have inspired many movies. In Compliance, Zobel applies Milgram’s findings to a frenzied Friday night in the back room of a fast-food establishment and shows you how it can happen. You will say over and over, I wouldn’t do it but many people have done just that.

Writer/Director: Craig Zobel

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 90 minutes

Scale: 3

Magic Mike (2012)

Getting abseyThe eponymous hero is Mike (Channing Tatum), a roofer by day and stripper by night. His goal is to finance his furniture-making business.

Mike and Dallas (Matthew “When Do I Get to Take Off My Shirt” McConaughey) run a growing male-stripper joint with hopes of expanding into a second location.

At his roofing job, Mike meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who is 19, aimless and crashing on his sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) couch. Mike and Adam quickly get bromantic. Mike sets up Adam to become the club errand boy. When the club has a no-show, Mike pushes Adam on stage. He does an emo-boy routine to a funk version of “Like a Virgin.” Unchoreographed and sexy, Adam earns his g-string wings.

The dance routines are big numbers. Channing can dance. His moves are so fluid, he slithers across stage. Watch the Magic Mike trailer for the high notes.

Mike continues meeting obstacles to his dream. The bank turns him  down for a loan. It’s not clear how much he needs and why. With $13K saved, why he couldn’t launch is unclear. He had a friends-with-benefits/ménage-a-trois situation happening with Joanna (Olivia Munn) that he is trying to morph into something more.

The lifestyle of money, parties, women and drugs agrees with Adam while it irks Brooke who blames Mike for Adam’s benders and all-nighters. In the end, Mike’s bet on Adam costs him big in one respect but might be a victory in another.

Magic Mike wasn’t awful. Mike’s journey winds with no real arc but the story has its moments. McConaughey is good as the conniving co-owner. Had the movie delved into Mike’s path and offered some resolution, it would have been more satisfying. Instead, it ends abruptly and loose ends are left flapping. That said, there are rumblings about a Magic Mike 2.

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 110 minutes

Scale: 3

Monday, April 8, 2013

Carnage (2011)

Initially initially intrigued by the preview for Carnage, I didn’t bother getting my hands on the DVD. Can’t pinpoint why but it looked too smug, despite the quartet of heavy-hitters.


One recent day when I had a visitor, I gave her the choice of movies on hand (thanks Seattle Public Library): The Hedgehog, The Pillow Book and Carnage. After some debate (and a failed effort at watching Pillow Book), we rolled with Carnage.

The movie itself is much like a debate we can break down like this:

On one side of the room, Team A: Penelope (Jodie Foster), point guard and coach of the Longstreet family, married to Michael (John C. Reilly), power forward who (usually) takes direction well. Penelope’s a creative academic; he's a pragmatic, an everyday guy with an edge for scotch and humor. (The Foster-Reilly combo would never have occurred to me but they possessed a chemistry that grew on me.)

Enter Team B: Power-couple Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) Cowan. Even less of an imaginable pairing, but again, it worked. Alan’s cell phone rings incessantly and he always answers. Nancy is increasingly vexed by Alan’s ability to check out.

Their meet-and-greet is precipitated by a violent fight between their sons, the details of which hold the common thread—what happened, how bad was it and what are they going to do about it.

The discussion starts calmly in the Longstreet living room. We can resolve this reasonably, they tell themselves. As the afternoon progresses, we are spectators to an incredible doubles match. They couples quarrel, blame, switch sides, recriminate. There is drinking, crying, vomiting. Followed by more drinking and accusations.

Based on a French play God of Carnage (Le Dieu du carnage) by Yasmina Reza, the entire movie takes place in the Longstreet’s home. The dialogue is rich and keeps you at attention and disbelief as the escalations lead to fiasco. As alliances change, we ride the growing wave of suspense. Each character has his/her strengths to drive the eruptions and wit to the finale.

I loved it. The best part is that each time you think the Cowans are leaving, they don’t.

Director: Roman Polanski

Country: US

Genre: Comedy

Run time: 80 minutes

Scale: 4

Savages (2012)

It’s Oliver Stone. The setting: Laguna Beach, California. The colors are saturated. I can feel the splash of the water and the hot sand. There’s O (Blake Lively) and her boyfriends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) in a functional love triangle—the men are like brothers and she is lover to both.

Ben and Chon cultivate and sell one of the strongest pot strains in the world at 33 percent THC. This puts them in the crosshairs of the Tijuana cartel, who Savagesoffer/compel the two an 80-20 deal (in favor of the dudes) to go into business. Ben and Chon are happy making their lesser millions and refuse the deal. The cartel is relentless. Ben, the philanthropic one, suggests they give up the business. Afghanistan war vet Chon won’t agree, on principal alone. Cartel queen Elena (Salma Hayek) demands the guys be her worker bees.

The trio plan to scamper across the world and live quietly, leaving no breadcrumbs. Before they take action, the cartel with the help of a double-crossing DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) kidnap O. Savages is the story of getting O back.

Sounds good? There are several problems. The story isn’t original. It goes on a convoluted path that takes eons to conclude. The ending isn’t bad but by that time, I was super annoyed with the whole lot. And, they are an impressive bunch: Benecio Del Toro as Lado, Hayak and Esteban Reyes (oh wait, that’s Demián Bichir from Weeds playing the same character). I liked Hayak as the female helming the cartel. Savages heads in possibly redeeming directions a few times but they are red herrings, never going deep with any of the characters. You get fed what you should think of all of them and they end up puddle-deep and flawed in uninteresting ways. The story could have done better with O and Elena. It was ripe for transference and countertransference what with an ignored daughter and an ignored mother, respectively. Savages lacks tension. Considering the double crossing and guns, it makes little impact on the nerves. You know from the beginning that the trio will never betray one another. Albeit a unique and strong detail, it makes for lousy suspense.There’s narration by O’s character through the movie that didn’t work.

I didn’t hate it but I can’t say I liked it without stating the caveats. In the end, it got an extreme eye roll.

Director: Oliver Stone

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Run time: 130 minutes

Scale: 2.5

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Friends with Kids (2011)

Friends-With-KidsThe Proposal opened my horizons to romantic comedies. The character introductions and situations lead the way. The conflict erupts. An untenable situation that stands to divide the two characters that I am rooting for suddenly arises. After some time, the blocking issue is resolved for a predictable happy ending. It’s an oft-tried, oft-failed formula that, when done well, is a blissful ride.

The first scene of Friends with Kids introduces us to six longtime friends—two couples and two best friends (four of them Bridesmaids alums). They are energetic 30-somethings on the cusp of child bearing and rearing. As children arrive, the tension between the couples and friends is tested. It gives voice to the effects of kids on relationships: some will struggle and make it, others won’t.

In the opening scene, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) announce their pregnancy. We see the changes, the struggles and what follows. Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm) follow suit with different results. Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) are best friends who, early on, declared their mutual non-attraction to one another but hatch the perfect plan—conceive and raise a child. The plan works until they start navigating dating and co-parenting.

I had a hard time believing Julie and Jason would end up together if he so adamantly didn’t feel attracted to her. He tries to justify it but it doesn’t seem plausible. Remember the scene in When Harry Met Sally when Harry realizes he wants to be with Sally? There, you believe it. Here, I didn’t believe he would come around.

A few beefs: Hamm needs to stop playing Don Draper. Wiig’s character is criminally underused and undeveloped—1-D all the way. Ed Burns has a bit role in which he is lame and boring. Megan Fox has her usual hot girl role.

I recommend this one with a caveat. The Proposal is a very different movie but after recommending, I learned that some loved it, several hated it and there were eye rolls. Both are worth a roll of the dice.

Writer/Director: Jennifer Westfeldt

Country: US

Genre: Comedy

Run time: 107 minutes

Scale: 3.5