Sunday, December 29, 2013


Martin Scorsese’s new film THE WOLF OF WALL STREET makes Gordon Gekko, famous for his “Greed is Good” speech in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie WALL STREET, look housebroken and tame by comparison. This wild and offensive cinematic experience is overly long, with a kinetic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the real life, shameless Jordan Belfort (who wrote the book from which this movie was made,) an individual who reminded me of an evangelical preacher - stirring up his congregation of hungry, amoral brokers to bilk working class people - seducing them to invest in fraudulent penny stock transactions. The rapid ascension to personal enrichment is made to seem smooth and simple.

While many people in the audience laughed at Jordan and his team’s gaming of the “suckers”, I wore a dour expression during the three hours of what some experienced as exhilarating entertainment. I despised Scorsese’s celebration of the perks of debauchery. Though some critics might see this film as a sharp indictment of the culture of Wall Street, I found the opposite to be true; there was absolutely no penetration of the surface capitalist veneer of grasping wealth at the expense of others. On the contrary, this movie plunges into the dank, muddy swamps of excrement and attempts to beguile us with the empty putrid spoils that are found there.

Jonah Hill is proving to be a good actor playing Jordan’s co-conspirator, Donnie Azoff - introducing him to the world of getting “high”, giving him the "gift" of hallucinatory release, ecstasy and eventual addiction. Also Matthew McConaughey in a very short cameo role, almost steals the show as Belfort ‘s early “mentor” in the business of exploiting corporate acquisitiveness. It was also good to see Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, the one sane person in a room of “animals” all unfettering their “ids” in unison.

We witness the hackneyed culture of “the good life,” lots of drugs, (quaaludes  and cocaine,) constant screwing – women’s bodies were all of the typical  fantasy mold  - existing to satisfy the “boys” in both classic and extravagant positions. Despite the illusion of “extreme” dissipation, the unfeeling and repetitive acts of dissolution became tiresome, and that was one of my major problems with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Jordan Belfort is a cardboard,  onanistic testosterone driven, self-indulgent man who can motivate others with the passion of his own greed, but there is no sense of an actual person behind the beautiful clothes and cars that he surrounds himself with, and so frankly I don’t give a damn about him or his ilk.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Peter Jackson, the wonderful maestro of the magical world of Middle Earth has now directed THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, the second in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s great novel The Hobbit, prequel to The Lord of The Rings, and it is another big budget film, and more importantly to the studios and its investors, a huge successful moneymaker. Looking at the closing credits took at least 15 minutes – filled with name upon name of all those involved in the making of this spectacular “much of the same” and for me alas a yawning bore of a cinema experience.

My problem with the film is that it felt like last year’s model, the territory including the mood and “light” is visually too familiar. The landscape and special effects are panoramic, both natural and artificial – products of the digital age we live in - filled with fierce, snarling animals, teeth bared accompanying equally vicious and savage creatures called Orcs, along with gigantic spiders weaving viscous entangling webs, and a rapacious fire-breathing flying dragon, Smaug – of the title - who resides in The Lonely Mountain protecting his copious bounty of purloined coins and jewels.

Despite the inclusion of many of the same actors such as Gandalf the Wizard (a bit more bedraggled Ian McKellan) who can still conjure up enchanted divinations, and the beautiful Orlando Bloom, heroic as ever as an Elvin Prince, I felt confused by the addition of characters that were never in the original book. I can accept a director creating composites in their screenplays that diverge from the book, but this time it was at the expense of the wonderful  Bilbo Baggins (delightfully played by an often bewildered Martin Freeman,) the brave Hobbit who reluctantly again leads a band of 13 dwarves on their urgent quest to reclaim their homeland, the dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the overlord of Middle Earth, Smaug, the green-eyed, molten bellied monstrosity, at any moment primed to expectorate flames annihilating all those who step into his realm. Unfortunately, Bilbo’s humanity disappears in the CGI effects, and for much of this barely under three-hour movie, he is an ancillary personage in the plot. One inclusion I did respond to was that of a female Elfin warrior Tauriel (lovely Evangeline Lilly,) who is excellent at her craft and refreshingly human, inserted into this practically all-male cast to attract female audiences, creating a whisper of a possible “interspecies” romance.

The most intriguing part of THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG addresses the age-old question of isolationism vs. interventionism in the face of dictatorial chieftains preparing to expand their territory. Absolute power vs. the exploited; tribal factions, self-interest, and ethnic purity with its accompanying disdain for the “other,” are still recognizable in our contemporary universe. The grab for world superiority aligned with the corrupting dominance of lucre is never-ending, and the fictional Middle Earth is no exception.

For some context - here is last year's review of the first of this Hobbit Trilogy:

THE HOBBIT 12/25/12

Very simply The Hobbit is a tale of a displaced people (in this case Dwarves) struggling to reclaim their Lonely Mountain Kingdom; in doing so wandering through the lands to reach that home. There are trials by fire and the "help of Wizards - one being Gandalf The Gray - subtly and merrily not-so-subtly played by the wonderful Ian McKellan and Galadriea the fairest and most powerful Maiden in Elve Land acted by the beautiful Cate Blanchett. I regretted not seeing more of her as she is such an aesthetic feast for my eyes.

That this adventure takes place in Middle Earth - prequel to The Lord of the Rings does not change a basic tale of mankind's journey and fight for their homeland. I found the early scenes in the Hobbitshire charmingly fairytale-ish and the dialogue between Bilbo Baggins ( a well-cast Martin Freeman) and Gandalf quite amusing and also touching on another universal theme - the quiet, unassuming home-body who goes on an adventure and steps out of his/her "ordinary" life and thereby changes him/herself and the "world."

I must admit to terrible boredom with fight scenes between goblins and various creatures on scary wolf-like animals and wait for those scenes to end-my only fascination with them is how they are choreographed.

The pivotal and most moving scene in the film is between the wonderful Andy Serkis as the schizophrenic Gollum (fighting between his dark and light side - evident by his eyes and facial expressions) and Bilbo who discovers more about his own character through this encounter.

This film also uses special effects, and all that CGI can do to make a small lovely book The Hobbit, into a 3 part movie - with all the money that it will rake in. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


The con artist mentality – everyone is a sucker and the more you say NO to “marks”, the more they want what you are selling; conversely everyone likes to play the flim-flam game – that is the basic premise of David O. Russell’s goofy, madcap new film AMERICAN HUSTLE. And the Federal Government turns out to be the ultimate hustler in the “idealistic” pursuit of justice or “entrapment”– a thin line that bends and sways depending on the ambitions of prosecutors. The word “real” is used in the dialogue over and over and over again…disguise is the norm – being “real” involves a rare moment of trust and exposure of your inner self which always reeks of a putrid scent, barely camouflaged by the fragrance of nectar that we employ as a shield of body armor.

This convoluted, crazily complex movie originated “somewhat” with a true story-the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970’s. Understanding the source will help make sense of AMERICAN HUSTLE, giving you the opportunity to relax and be entertained, without being distracted trying to puzzle out what is going on. ABSCAM was an FBI sting operation in the late 1970s and early1980s, initially trafficking in stolen property but later converted to a public corruption investigation. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con man, to help plan and conduct the operation. "Abscam" was the FBI codename for the undertaking, because it involved Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., as its front company, using an FBI employee posing as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictional Middle Eastern sheikh bribing targeted government officials in videotaped meetings. Suffice it to say Atlantic City and its burgeoning casino industry were in the mix, ultimately leading to the conviction of a United States senator, six members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Christian Bale (terrific) still handsome after gaining over 40 lbs playing the beer bellied mastermind and proud-of-it charlatan, Irving Rosenfeld (based on Abscam’s Melvin Weinberg) who owns many dry-cleaning and window glass stores in the Bronx and Manhattan – all small time establishments fronting illegal loan activities. The movie opens with Irving fashioning his daily make-over on an elaborately funny and very serious comb-over – a source of pride and concealment before attending a cocktail party where he glances over and BAMMM sees a gorgeous Amy Adams who portrays the seductive, alabaster toned Sydney Prosser, and Irving Rosenfeld is hooked on the spot – meeting his match in brains and larceny. But this dame is a classy one, who has already “masked” her persona, and intuiting a fellow traveler responds to Christian Bale in kind.  A love story is in the making, despite the fact that Irving is married to a surprisingly, (for me) wonderfully, eccentric, often inept, and unsuitable (to his chosen profession) wife, Rosalyn played by Jennifer Lawrence, who might be the most authentic person in AMERICAN HUSTLE.

Adams and Bale join forces and become partners in crime, and business is soon flourishing until a wildly enterprising, tightly curled poodle cut, FBI undercover agent, Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso) shows up and snares them in his net.  From then on our heroes are working for the impulsive, righteously manic, Cooper in order to stay out of jail.

And then the fun begins! Larger and more intricate schemes including Abscam (Arab scam) loom ahead. Passionate avidity blossoms as a Mafioso - a critical bit part by a barely recognizable Robert De Niro - gets enmeshed into the conspiracy. Despite harebrained shenanigans and lots of heedless bungling, and plot twists, the underlying romance perseveres, complicated by Christian Bale’s hesitant equivocation concerning the age-old choice between wife and girlfriend. Another memorable character, a linchpin of the FBI shakedown operation - Jeremy Renner is startling as the oblivious, charismatic Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden NJ, complete with an Elvis-style mop of hair, and the only politician who actually cares and works for his constituents. He is the one genuinely tragic figure in this tale.

AMERICAN HUSTLE is a complicated mosaic of cynicism, questions of credibility, legitimacy and the art of illusion tempting desire. The energetic soundtrack weaves through each scene punctuating the activity; passages are episodic - some hilarious and others predictable. Absurdity nesting in farce can be sublime…those resplendent moments appear and vanish like the hypothesis of the film itself.

Friday, December 13, 2013


I was on my way home on an icy day in NYC, after going to art galleries in Chelsea, and decided to pop into a theater and see Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  The wintery weather befitted the mood of this slow, strange, original movie  which left me with a lingering unexplainable feeling of pensive melancholy. I exited the cinema confused and stunned thinking of beginnings, endings, and repeated beginnings, a cycle which spins round and round – “ the times they are a-changin.” Afterwards, I took the bus home to my Greenwich Village apartment - deep in thought - the very locale where in 1961 an aspiring folk-singer named Llewyn Davis attempted to maintain his creative integrity in the face of commercial and personal ambush, often self-inflicted; youth is the period for reckless and self-righteous inquiry as well as outbursts of peevish anger and defiance.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a road trip with an expressive dark-eyed, bearded Oscar Issac playing the lead character – a young man stumbling along the path he has chosen for himself; a young man determinedly serious about being a folk singer who wants to be taken seriously; a young man who is careless and yet caring, a young man who is finding out about himself and his effect on others with haunting revelations from his past and present shaping future actions. Llewyn’s songs sung in a mellow, resonant voice (arranged by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett} are an audible measure of the depth of the complexity “inside” Llewyn Davis - more so than any of the dialogue he laconically utters.

Communication with family and friends are almost farcical if they were not so ruefully inadequate. The Coen brothers skirt the line of caricature and burlesque when depicting these incidents, lightening the acutely dispiriting ambiance. There are many weirdly compelling bit parts by actors that contribute to the surrealistic mood of the film. One example being John Goodman who is grotesquely sinister, playing a fellow traveler in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an automobile, spraying a frenzy of wildly bizarre dialogue during those staccato moments when he is not “nodding off” from whatever actions he is performing every time he staggers off to the bathroom.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS flows at a pace all its own. A cat by the name of Ulysses flits in and out of various scenes, referencing Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, alluding to the “trials” that our hero must go through to return a changed man to himself. This is also a movie about being an artist, hanging on to one’s own vision in the face of the marketable embrace of mediocrity. The sadness I felt when INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS ended was the bitter shroud of familiarity. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013


I am drawn to dark, edgy films depicting characters that are nasty, brutish and amoral, doing inexpressible acts to their fellow man; not horror films - they are too over the top - but movies that awaken my dread of what many people gravely experience as reality. The idea of vengeance quenched is quixotic, but in the transported world of the movies retribution is possible and often probable. Director Scott Cooper’s OUT OF THE FURNACE falls into the above category, joined by a terrific cast, but disappointedly full of plot inconsistencies which to a person like myself – who tries to figure things out, those incongruities loom large getting stuck in my head becoming a prickly disturbance.

This is a film that does not equivocate about the bonds between family; the responsibility of being your “brother’s keeper”; tending to one’s ill parent, attempting to sustain an ethical life despite the roadblocks that chance and circumstance put in life’s path. The lead actor, Christian Bale, who gets better and better with each movie, stars as Russell Baze – a man who cannot “catch a break” - who we first encounter working amidst the hot, blazing steel mill furnaces in a working class, economically scarred town in Pennsylvania. Bleak images of rows of clapboard houses are familiar – we have seen them many times in many movies - photographed in the beclouded grays of hopelessness. Russell is a bright light in this fog of desolation, an inference of religious “saintliness” hangs over his persona; penance and redemption follow.

Casey Affleck, an actor who physically looks like the classic clean-cut high-school football star, though slighter in build, portrays Russell’s younger brother Rodney – wounded, erratic and traumatized from multiple tours of duty in Iraq; the sibling who his Uncle (a reliably comfortable and comforting Sam Shepard) tells us in an aside was “trouble even as a kid”. Psychologically seared by the war, Rodney cannot adapt to the ordinariness of existence and the economic deprivation he finds at home, propelling him to bizarre solutions, including gambling and bare-knuckle fighting; his Manager, a greedy and rapacious William Dafoe pushing the plot into even darker regions of emptiness and abyss.

Woody Harrelson is riveting as the vicious personification of evil ruling over his inbred clan of loathsome reprobates dealing drugs and wagering on mano-a-mano battles - not in the mountains of Appalachia but in the hills of Ramapo, NJ. Soon the “lost” brother becomes a master brawler in the arena of predatory slugfests, surrounded by fierce bloodthirsty spectators. Eventually the two worlds –one from the factory and the other from the backwoods - collide in an explosion of violence and reckoning; the interior core values of Christian Bale's character teetering at the tipping point.

Despite good supporting performances by Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana (though women play a small part in this testosterone suffused film,) OUT OF THE FURNACE has scenes that made me groan with frustration – how can a director get away with interspersing a deer-hunting stalk-and-kill spectacle with images of dripping blood from the movie's climactic combat fisticuffs, without resorting to cheap pretentious obviousness? There were also anomalies concerning time and place that I felt were due to sloppy editing, unsuitable to an otherwise gripping and sensitive cinematic production - a tale of a man, Russell Baze, scorched by the contingencies of fortune, fiercely struggling to maintain his innate compassion and humanity when faced with the depraved ambiance that he is impelled to confront.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

PHILOMENA 12//1/13

PHILOMENA directed by Stephen Frears is a fact-based film, which on the surface might seem like a sentimental “human interest” tale, but the impact of one woman’s heartrending story and the ramifications on society and its outdated laws and customs loom much larger. Martin Sixsmith (played with a certain cynicism and dashing aplomb by Steve Coogan,) a recently unemployed BBC journalist searching around for a book topic to keep him occupied as well as warding off incipient depression, serendipitously meets the daughter of Philomena Lee who urges him to write about her mother’s secret/ silent preoccupation with finding the son that was monstrously wrested from her 50 years earlier. Sixsmith reluctantly agrees and his life is inexorably transformed when he meets Philomena (Phil) Lee, beautifully played by Judi Dench, a wonderful actor able to convey with convincing authenticity a steadfast woman of deep, devotional faith, who at the same time revels in a childlike delight and humor. The two begin a journey into a harrowing past that eventually reveals the present.

This is a movie about connections and aberrations; the ineffable bond between mother and child; the clash of cultures, religious beliefs, and individual moral convictions all played out against the background of a devious and powerful system that fosters abuse and corruption, and piously believes in the “truth” of their mission.

Philomena conceived a son 50 years earlier when she met a handsome lad at a Carnival during a moment of youthful abandon and joy; the teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is both innocent and seductive, becoming pregnant at 18 years of age - a shameful act in 1952  - whereby she is sent to live in a “home for unwed mothers” run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. In this establishment we witness the cruel, manipulation of the adolescent inhabitants who are forced by the rigid, sanctimonious nuns to near servitude, signing away their rights to their offspring - with the "reward" of being able to spend one hour a day in physical contact with them. When the children become toddlers they are then “sold off” to rich Catholic American tourists. The mothers are agonizingly kept ignorant of their whereabouts. And that is the history of a painful era in Ireland between 1945-1960’s in which thousands of infants were placed in homes as “forced adoptions.”

The conflict between the Church’s teachings and the doctrinaire callousness of the nun’s brutality is starkly drawn, as is Philomena’s own essential humanity and her ability to forgive, when contrasted with Martin Sixsmith’s more pragmatic investigative instincts, and his often sardonic wry approach to the idea of theological dogma; nevertheless  they make a good team.  The “road trip” that the two of them undertake to find Philomena’s son, and the disclosures that are unearthed, creates an irrevocably poignant bridge between individuals of different class, education, beliefs and temperaments. PHILOMENA addresses issues that I was unaware of; concerns that need to be brought into the glare of light, so that all of us can see with greater clarity, in the hope that the exploitation of women in the name of  spiritual "chastity“ is forever eliminated.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

NEBRASKA 11/23/13

This is the year for actors (among them septuagenarians) who have been on the back-burner for years, or been cast as one-dimensional movie “idols”, finally getting the opportunity to forego the razzle-dazzle of stardom, and actually “strut their stuff.” Bruce Dern who stars in NEBRASKA directed by Alexander Payne is formidable as Woody Grant, a man clearly in the early stages of dementia, consumed with the belief that he has won a million dollars in one of those unscrupulous Sweepstake scams that target “senior citizens.” The official looking papers that come in the mail announcing the “award” are designed with such a flourish that unwitting recipients are blinded by the gilt-bordered inscriptions, oblivious to the realities secreted in the fine print, and clutch their “prize” notifications as if it were an antidote to the pain of past aberrations and disappointments.

NEBRASKA is an eccentric movie, in that it is both comedic and tragic, filmed entirely in black and white referencing the stark, bleak landscape populated by mostly elderly folk who are living out their last years sitting around watching “the cars pass by”. The lack of color suggests the wrenching nostalgia of time gone by, and befits the mood of Bruce Dern’s depiction of an elderly man who is dreaming of the future, but in his attempt to reach that dream, steps back into his past.

There is a fierce urgency about Woody who refuses to be hindered from leaving his home in Billings Montana (the local police have found him on the road and deposited him back to his family numerous times) in an attempt to reach Lincoln Nebraska to collect his winnings. Woody’s whole being is concentrated on reaching that goal - both psychologically and physically - white wisps of electrified hair creating a halo of wild disorder framing his head, and a look in his eyes that is both determined and vacant. He moves slowly with a staggering, faltering gait that belies the strong conviction that he is finally a “winner.”

We meet Woody’s family, frustrated in their ability to control his obsession, aware that he is slowly “disappearing” as evident by the often emptiness of his fixed gaze. His son David, sensitively played by Will Forte, has compassion for his father’s situation, eventually accompanying Woody on his quixotic quest with the hope of finally garnering the emotional connection that he had never received. A spirited June Squibb is wonderful as the sturdy, clear-minded, foul-mouthed, and fiery wife Kate, who has had it with her husband, exhausted from watching over him, but the tensile bonds of time, despite the impediments of drinking and womanizing, cannot be expunged. She is the person we all want on our side when the sharks are circling. 

There are many wonderful characters in NEBRASKA, although at first I feared that they were too stereotypical, but as the movie unfurled getting better and better – the director’s affection for his colorful, laconic characters became apparent. Stacy Keach, plays the perfect rogue as the former business partner of Woody Grant, initially basking in the reflected glow of a friend’s jackpot - as do the rest of the community and extended family - excited by being in the presence of the idea of so much money, but shortly we see the emergence of self-interest and avariciousness exposed. 

NEBRASKA deals mainly with sentiment and rarely gets sentimental, giving the audience both an entertaining and penetrating portrait of a man who is evaporating into his own body, and the persistence in which he pursues what we all know is a barren mission. The will to accomplish this pursuit and how it affects those around him makes this movie a gem.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Matthew McConaughey having lost about 40 pounds is almost unrecognizable – not the “hunk” that we are familiar with from his other movies - but a scrawny, unlikable character in his greatest role to-date, in a film he anchors with his presence and performance. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a bio-docudrama directed by Jean-Marc Vallée depicting the true story of Ron Woodroof, a drug addicted, homophobic, sexist, racist, womanizer who will f-ck any ”pussy” he can lay hands on in the free-wheeling rodeo cowboy arena he inhabits, who discovers to his utter stupefaction that he has AIDS and is given a 30 day prognosis to live. This movie addresses how HIV was contracted by diverse groups in the population besides the LGBT community – through IV transfusions, heterosexual liaisons with other infected persons, drug addicts using contaminated needles, etc. But the focus of this film is the botched Federal response to this disease when the urgency of time was critical.  The Government’s deliberativeness in approving experimental treatments hastened the decimation of the lives of people who were dying prematurely. Kaposi's sarcoma erupting on the flesh of the affected like stigmata run wild - outward symbols of what was once seen by Ron Woodroof as the  contamination of “sexual deviants.”

The time is 1985 – the AIDS epidemic is beginning to surface and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as well as doctors and other bureaucratic officials do not know how to deal with what is slamming society with the mystery and uncontrollable ferocity of a plague. The search for a cure involves the tried and true scientific method of recruiting patients for experimental, blind studies using AZT vs. placeboes. Woodroof, illegally obtains AZT and instead of getting better his condition deteriorates. He is then determined to survive by whatever means necessary, and begins to investigate other medical alternatives outside of the USA,

How Ron Woodroof becomes business partners with a transvestite named Rayon (touchingly as well as convincingly portrayed by Jared Leto) in a scheme to create “Buyers Clubs” with memberships for those in desperate straits so they can purchase non-approved medications imported from Mexico circumventing FDA laws, is at the “heart” of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. And of course speaking of “heart” we witness Woodroof’s own transformation from his once rigidly held bigoted perceptions to a reluctant acceptance of the “other.” What makes this movie better than a feel-good “personal is the political,” morality tale is the amazing performance of Matthew McConaughey. Here is an actor who knows how to use bodily movement, underscoring the dialogue - resulting in a depiction of a fully developed, compelling character. He struts, writhes, stumbles, almost becomes acrobatic in tandem with his foul-mouthed, abject, and occasionally even charming self.

Today, there are more than 35 antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat HIV infection. These treatments do not cure people of HIV or AIDS. Rather, they suppress the virus, even to undetectable levels, and life expectancy rates have risen dramatically. Watching the movie I felt a deep melancholia, reminiscing on the “accident” of time wishing that these ARV drugs had been available when a dear beloved friend of mine hiccupped his way to an untimely silence. In the 1980”s and mid-1990”s there was a feeling of hopelessness – a death sentence from which there was little reprieve; this film gives us an inkling of that futile and wretched era, and the determination of courageous men and women to “hang on” despite harrowing, mostly fruitless attempts to find remedies for this execrable disease.

Monday, November 11, 2013

ALL IS LOST 11/11/13

Survival, when one is totally left to one’s own initiative in this age of technology, is at the heart of this almost wordless parable. Like GRAVITY which depicted Sandra Bullock as a scientist unleashed from her space ship drifting alone in the universe, the director of ALL IS LOST, J.C. Chandor gives us a view of the mechanics of perseverance, and the struggle of man to abide, but this time in the infinite trackless breadth of the sea. These lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner can describe what one must endure:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

ALL IS LOST opens up with a smattering of the few words uttered by Robert Redford in a grueling, almost silent, singular performance as Our Man (what the character is called in the closing credits,) apprising us of his hapless situation, and his fierce determination to stay alive. What Redford briefly vocalizes in a clear unwavering voice is an apology for attempting to pursue a moral, good life and his shortcomings in reaching that objective - poignantly articulating the frailties of being human. Those few words cried out in despair - a fleeting moment of self-revelation are the only clues we have to this man’s background. We get to see the character through his actions and the accouterments/provisions housed in the thirty-nine foot yacht that has been his “home” on the sea. We also know from the onset that this is the 8th day of his ordeal and the consciousness of time hovers over each and every confrontation he has with the vagaries of Nature. ALL IS LOST then steps back in time, filling us in with the details.

The movie continues with the camera focusing on a weathered Robert Redford being jolted out of a comfortable sleep by a loud thud, the result of an idly drifting container vessel (ironically composed of children’s shoes) colliding with his ship, water rushing in, and totally disabling the boat, radio, and navigation tools as well as his life which is tumultuously up-ended. A child’s lone shoe is seen bobbing on the driving waters breaching his cabin - perhaps a reference to this famous line in William Wordsworth’s poem (My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold) “The Child is father of the man.”  

From that moment, I became fascinated with the tools, ingenuity and methods Redford applied in literally keeping afloat. Nothing is explained; we are only shown the process. Redford’s facial expressions indicate the varying subconscious strategies forming in his mind, in his decisive battle to exist. The silence of Our Man is now overtaken by the grating, grinding, moaning sounds of a craft in distress, falling apart - accompanied by the slapping of the waves which can be both benign and harrowing depending on the weather’s temperament. The resonance and beauty of the accompanying music was inherently necessary to a film without dialogue, as was both the breathtaking and occasionally “conventional” cinematography. Yet shots taken from under the life-raft; schools of fish lyrically darting back and forth among the menacing activity of sharks, moonlight creating the only semblance of light in the inexhaustible darkness actualized the ordeal.

Robert Redford going solo against the backdrop of Dame Nature at the age of 77, unquestionably relinquishing glamour, gives the performance of his career as Our Man – a person who is indefatigable, tapping into his interior resilience in order to fight the capricious heartlessness of chance.

Monday, November 4, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE 11/4/13

Saw Steve McQueen’s film 12 YEARS A SLAVE and was disappointed in his depiction of a damning period in American history, that I thought might beome a classic. The true story based on an autobiography written by Solomon Northrup in 1853 is a horrific indictment of slavery, and despite my reservations to the way the story was filmed, I firmly believe this movie should be seen to make audiences aware of how black people became chattel - property rights with total disregard for their humanity. I keep mulling over and over in my head what it was about the way the narrative was presented that just did not make it into the transformative experience that I had hoped for. By writing this review I attempt to make sense of it.

 12 YEARS A SLAVE is faithful to the original book; the brutality – vivid and visceral - is omnipresent to the point of predictability like a horror film. So much so that we become inured – as Hannah Arendt said with such clarity - to the “banality of evil.”  Every frame is filled with the hatred of those in power towards their economic “stock,” ironically often in tandem with the Masters’ righteous readings from the bible. The cinematography of place (Louisiana), the cotton fields, the plantations, the dark secret niches of evil, are brilliant, but when the camera tilts upward towards the heavens, we view the ever familiar light (hope?) dappling through the trees; we might be dazzled, but also we are being manipulated.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup – a free black musician who lives a middle-class life with his family in Saratoga, NY. One day he is tricked into going to Washington D.C. where he is kidnapped into the slave trade, and sent to work on a plantation in Louisiana. He is now a person who has lost his identity, his name, and the freedom to live the life he had chosen for himself.  A slave is denied access to any internal growth, be it cultural or educational – a slave is only considered a work animal - and 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes that chillingly clear. The life of a slave is one of savage beatings that are administered daily throughout the film.  From being regarded with dignity and compassion, Solomon is now part of America’s execrable relationship with its black population, and is treated like a beast of burden. At the same time, we are made privy to Solomon’s  “exceptional-ism” which is evident throughout the film. He can read and write, has engineering skills, and is a fine musician, but his true persona must be hidden to be able to survive.

Sadly, I felt that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, his facial expressions, the slump of his body missed a beat, and did not succeed in conveying the breadth of intrinsic wrestling that a man whose life had been stolen from him must be undergoing; this detachment left me emotionally confused and unmoved.

Many films have been made chronicling heinous chapters in the history of humanity, but for a film to be distinguished from all the others, the images and content must be transmuted in such a way that we, the viewers, leave the theater unsettled, our minds and hearts having been pierced, and our certainties put into question.  That is what makes a good movie powerful; one that does not give in to the calculable, sentimental or the gratuitousness of violence. Like any art form - a major film moves us and does not numb us. We gain fresh insights and this adaptation might have skirted excellence but did not attain it.

 A footnote: I could not help comparing 12 YEARS A SLAVE with DJANGO UNCHAINED – a movie which gave us an un-expurgated barbarous vision of overweening racism, the slaves and the plantation slave owners as well as a look into the hierarchy of slave society and their roles vis-a-vis their Masters. Employing the bitterly ironic humor, theatrical violence and over-the-top Tarantino style, the dialogue is often humorous and campy but deadly serious. I felt and still do that DJANGO was the most incisive denunciation of slavery I had ever seen in a movie. I have not changed my mind.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


The winner of the 2013 Palm D’Or in Cannes for director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is about Adèle, a young 15 year old girl’s sexual awakening, confusion, and psychological wrestling with the realization that she is “different” from her friends in the choice of her sexual preferences. This is also a view of the torrid love affair which ensues with an older art student (a terrific performance by Léa Seydoux  as Emma – with blue hair) spanning a period of almost 8 years. This movie has the most erotic and extended love scene between two women that I have ever seen on the screen. Beautifully choreographed with stunning close-ups that clearly present what is going on… and on… and on... Both of the actresses’ faces reveal the astonishment of such a passionate engagement – eroticism that fuses the tenderness of combat with surrender.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR begins with a high school teacher discussing a book about love and desire with his young adults – a preamble for the rest of the film. Adèle a student in the class, a lover of romantic literature, has the soft baby flesh of a child emerging into adulthood, and at the same time the sensual full-lipped budding of a burgeoning woman – reminding me of the carnality of Elvis Presley. Her every orifice is lovingly caressed by the camera, insistently moving its lens, shooting her from every angle, fondling her face and slowly sliding down to her painted toes. Adèle is seen repeatedly smoothing and tossing her hair around as if she is uncertain as to what she looks like; the act of fingering her wild tresses gives this sometime awkward young woman an aching reassurance.  Food also plays a large part in this movie as Adèle has a voracious appetite – an obvious metaphor, but the director uses the sound and visual effects of slurping pasta and the sucking down of viscous oysters, to underscore the craving and hunger of the two women’s intimacy.

As with any relationship, time and life imposes its tribute. We no longer view the “other” as just the “object’ of our desires, and the boiling heat we once felt with such urgency, erupts more gradually; conflicts emerge. Emma is on her way to becoming an exhibiting artist with questions of creative compromise cropping up.  As Adèle matures and eventually becomes a teacher of young toddlers, her own gifts surface, and we see how wonderfully she relate to her charges – who are charmingly angelic. At the same time the veneer of innocence slowly fades from our lovely heroine. The fear of being “outted” is still not resolved and Adèle will pay a price for her equivocation.

Adèle Exarchopoulos gives a delicate performance as a woman who is in the throes of finding love and sexual abandonment; every ecstatic high and agonizing low are noted on her wavering face. Some might find BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR at 3 hours too long to sit through, but I embraced time passing and the languid unfolding of an intense relationship, containing trespasses that some might find unforgivable, with the knowledge that the consequences of our frailties linger, but our humanity and compassion remain intact.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I was not going to review director Ridley Scott’s new movie THE COUNSELOR, because of my aversion to Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s pretentious dialogue in this, his screenwriting debut. But I changed my mind because I yearned to write a “cautionary” review.  I listened to what was fumblingly coming out of the mouths of actors I respected in this “morality” tale and felt patronized. Short pithy philosophical thoughts were floating from their tongues, hovering in the air lifeless before falling ineffectively to the ground.

The film opens with the lovely Penelope Cruz under tousled white sheets making love to Michael Fassbender – the Counselor – who is never called by any other name. The erotically charged love scene quickly collapses under the weight of their asinine conversation, a forecast of what I will have to sit through for the next 2+ hours. Next the camera quickly cuts to the “dark” side of Mexico, where high-stakes drug deals are under way, and then we jump to Amsterdam, Columbia, Chicago, and continue hurtling back and forth to various sites on the Tex-Mex border.

Our Counselor – a avaricious newbie at the drug game - is about to do a deal with some “bad” boys –a strange Javier Bardem with an even more bizarre hairdo, and Brad Pitt, a mysterious man who is at ease with the under-world and seems to smoothly snake his way through it, unscathed and a step ahead of calamity. For me the star of this den of reptiles is Cameron Diaz who I found fascinating as the cold, shrewd, wildly evil and often mesmerizing mistress of Bardem, Diaz, is often guarded by two muscular and sleek Cheetahs (who are tamer than their master,) appreciatively observing them hunt innocent prey. She is the best part of this movie –a carnal and hard beauty with tattoos of Big Cats’ paw-prints adorning her body.

Suffice it to say the deal goes bad and the Counselor is in a dangerous dilemma. Having been apprised by his “partners” (part of the metaphysical drivel) as to the capriciousness of doing business where there are no guarantees – all of the warnings come to fruition. What I found most ineffectual about THE COUNSELOR was the attempt by Scott and McCarthy to make a weak character the archetype for greed and arrogance in a “game” against seasoned predators. I did not care about The Counselor at all – he was whiny, vain and as shallow and lightweight as the stream of conversations we the audience had to endure.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ENOUGH SAID 10/20/13

I watched ENOUGH SAID by director Nicole Holofcener with the knowledge that this was James Gandolfini’s last film…the credits at the end say FOR JIM casting a pall over this lighthearted love story between two divorced soon-to-be empty nesters and their unlikely union. Unfortunately I could not shake “real life” from intruding on the onscreen story. I was traveling from one world into another – make-believe vs. the tragic circumstances of June 19th, 2013 when we heard that this charismatic actor had suddenly died. I was annoyed with myself for being distracted by what I perceived as signs of impending doom within the movie.

Meandering between memory and the fictive romantic plot on the screen felt like nothing that I had experienced before. The mood of ENOUGH SAID had an intimacy, reinforced by the naturalness of dialogue that abetted this drifting frame of mind. I listened to Gandolfini’s labored breathing, and viewed the slow heaviness of his movements, part of his role as Albert - a sweet, decent man falling in love again after a bitter relationship with his ex-wife – all with the knowledge that this man’s imposing presence would soon be no more.

Julia Louis Dreyfus appears as Eva, a masseuse who goes to a party where she meets Albert, a man who against type, she is surprisingly attracted to. At the same event she also encounters a sophisticated and beautiful Catherine Keener as Marianne, a successful poet who becomes a client, friend, and confidante – continuously exhorting against her ex- husband - who unbeknownst to Eva is Albert. The plot gets circuitous, but suffice it to say Eva’s duplicity and lack of courage or conviction in her deepening relationship - despite an affinity that feels true and right - leads to heartbreak and remorse.

There are ancillary characters in ENOUGH SAID – a strong supporting ensemble of actors including Toni Collette and Ben Falcone, as well as Eva and Alfred’s adored daughters (Tracey Fairaway and Eve Hewson) who are leaving home for college to “brave” the world on their own - a plot catalyst revealing the neediness and anxiety of the protagonists. What makes this film more affecting than others with similar story lines is the honesty of the communication between two middle-aged individuals who are willing to “risk” another try at romance despite the bitterness of the past. The story is written with delicate affection towards the performers, and keen insights into our vulnerabilities when we let down our defenses and allow another individual to penetrate who we are. Trust not only in the other, but also oneself - that is the key.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Paul Greengrass is a director who in his 2006 movie UNITED 93 made my heart pound and my arms tingle to the point that I imagined I was having a heart attack or stroke, and began agitatedly searching my pocketbook in the dark of the theater for a quick aspirin– even though I knew the plot outcome. Coming from a documentary background this British director, screenwriter and former journalist did not disappoint with his newest thriller, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS based on the 2009 true story of the hi-jacking of the US container ship, Maersk Alabama by a group of Somali pirates – the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. What makes this movie more than just your routine anxiety-provoking suspense drama is the beauty of Barry Ackroyd’s camera work, slowly alternating between clear, chromatic aerial shots of the sea, the sky, the ships to chaotic, frenzied close ups of confusing claustrophobic moments  - placing us, the audience in the center of the action and at times making me literally seasick.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is also a David and Goliath tale – the desperation of the Somali fisherman-turned pirates in small skiffs attacking a huge cargo ship; they who have nothing to lose as their meager livelihoods have been usurped by wealthy global conglomerates gobbling up their natural resources. They are beholden in these kidnapping ventures to their ruthless Somali “warlords”, and risk their lives preying on vulnerable targets in international waters in order to sustain themselves economically, to the point of taking on the full force of the US Navy and Merchant Marine. The contrast in physiognomy between a robust Tom Hanks as the Captain and the bone-thin, almost skeletal appearance of the pirates makes the distinction between “haves” and "have-nots” frighteningly apparent.

The movie opens up in a small town in Vermont supposedly giving us some insight into Captain Richard Phillips’ (a stoic and vulnerable  performance by Tom Hanks) life and family. But this short introduction is a weak, commonplace beginning to a film, which thank goodness, grew more “uncommon” as I continued watching. The Somali actors were excellent, particularly Barkhad Abdi as Muse the fiercely determined, burning cavernous-eyed leader of the group, and a nuanced, sensitive performance by Mahat Ml Ali as a 16 year old young man whose innocence had not yet been patinaed by the harsh reality of hostage-taking.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS left me feeling conflicted  - relieved that Captain Phillips was rescued, and dispirited by the nature of the wide gulf that separates humankind. This chasm was accentuated cinematically, and metaphorically by the vast expanse of the open seas as opposed to the brutal confining architectural space of Phillips captivity.  By the end of the film, I did not know whether to weep from joy or cry out in anguish for the abjection of lives lived in hopelessness.

Monday, October 7, 2013

GRAVITY 10/6/13

GRAVITY directed by the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron from a script by Cuaron in collaboration with his son Jonas Cuaron, is a luminous film with fine performances by Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a Bio-Medical Engineer on her first outing into outer space, accompanied by George Clooney as the veteran, wisecracking Astronaut, Matt Kowalski who is her guide on this mission working outside the shuttle Explorer trying to fix the Hubble Telescope. Soon the idyllic beauty and silence of the deep blackness, which was only punctuated by soft far-off sounds of the other crew members is threatened by debris rushing at them from a Russian Satellite test gone awry. Suddenly the “heavenly” environment has changed from peaceful quietude to thundering menace.

What happens to these two protagonists when they are stranded – two specks in the vast universe, separated from any contact with Mission Control, contributes to the intensity and apprehension that we feel witnessing their dilemma. Cuaron’s spectacular visuals heighten our awareness of the isolation of Stone and Kowalksi drifting in the infinite sublimity and mystery of outer space, tethering it to the existential detachment and solitariness that we experience as mortals.

Through the breathtaking cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki we view images of the Earth as seen from a Space station, the rising of the sun, the topography of lands and water masses that become abstract faraway places of light and texture. The special effects in this movie are astonishing. From the balletic, slow spinning dance of the two actors, choreographed so that the weightless movement of objects float around them in continuous motion, dizzying, but slowed down enough so we can observe without getting dizzy ourselves, to the interior of the intricate space modules with gadgetry that is continually buzzing and flashing incomprehensible flickering flares reinforcing our sense of dread.

I loved the cinematic moments when there was an absence of sound, periodically interspersed with Steven Price’s music. I wished there had been less dialogue, which was often inane and flippant, piercing the delicacy of the mood. Dr. Ryan Stone loves the “silence” but regrettably we do get the talky, joking Matt Kowalski - the “regular guy” with a sacrificial heart of gold - chattering away bringing us out of our reverie and back down to earth. Perhaps that was the intent of Alfonso Cuaron – as life both in the cosmos and on terra firma are a mix of the transcendent and the commonplace.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

RUSH 9/29/13

Ron Howard has directed a $50 million dollar banal, predictably romanticized, Hollywood film, RUSH, based on a “true story” of a renowned male rivalry in Formula One racing lore. Ironically the movie was so “formulaic” that I found it difficult not to forecast the dialogue and the accompanying cinematography as events materialized. The heavens open up with a blazing sun at the moment of victory; the grinding and spewing of white smoke from the turbocharged engines emit their groans and roar at the moment of orgasm; supercharged cars are like their supercharged drivers – sleek and fast – as fast as they can be pushed before splintering apart. Bombast, bluster, swagger and disdain seem to characterize the protagonist’s behavior toward one another – both are “assholes” – a term they often utter to one another sotto voce and I agree.

This loud, ear-shattering, tumultuous movie is set during the 1976 Formula One racing season focusing on the competition between a handsome blonde British playboy James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) who is the intoxicating, wild Dionysius to the analytical, methodical Appolonian Austrian driver, the “darker” Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl.) The psychological collision between two ambitious men who are willing to risk death in their pursuit of the world championship – racing in grand prix after grand prix – from country to country, delivers some dizzying visual excitement. Yet the film despite its big budget cast of characters, special effects, and pounding musical soundtrack lacks any emotive drama. I am left unmoved.

RUSH gives us a touch of the biographical history of James Hunt and Niki Lauder; each of them born into wealthy aristocratic households, and single-mindedly pursuing their dream of racing in opposition to familial pressure. Ron Howard does not attempt to delve any deeper into their psyches except to bifurcate them as attractive vs. unattractive, reckless vs. deliberate, and loyal vs. unfaithful. There are lovers and wives in the movie but they are basically accessories to the men who love their cars, speed, and have eyes only for one another. The intense competition between adversaries, involving the risk of crashing and burning, creates a subliminal, sentimental attachment between foes. There is a connection that only they can understand having competed in the same fierce battleground.

Oddly what I found most compelling about RUSH was capturing a glimpse of a sub-culture that involves machines and the engineering that goes into making these potential “burning infernos.” The physical vulnerability of the participants is ever-present as is the thin line between adroitness, skill and chance. Once strapped into their Ferraris or McLarens the ace drivers are flying on the racetrack tempting death and incineration, and like life there are no safe passages. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

DON JON 9/28/13

Billed as a comedy, DON JON is a film that has comedic moments, but is wrapped tightly around a young man’s “coming of age’ – no pun intended - in an era of pervasive free-flow porn on the Internet. The media’s ability to manipulate desire is at the core of this movie, whether it be the objectification of the “other,” or the equally insidious notion of repackaging one’s individuality to fit Hollywood’s “romantic” ideal.
This is an ambitious task for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut from a script that he wrote, and a movie in which he stars as Don Jon, nicknamed by his pals for the legendary libertine Don Juan, though Jon is more of a Lothario – a self-gratifying seducer of women – than a lover. We are first introduced to this thickly, accented Jersey boy spending his nights at clubs with his buddies, arguing and rating one woman after another’s physical attributes from 1-10 or the rare “dime” which is the top-of-the-line.

Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a complex performance as Jon who exudes a real boyish charm, which contributes to his success in the bedroom, but his body language is as rigid and taut as his phallus. The drama begins when he lays eyes on the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson who is terrific as Barbara Sugarman (aptly named,) a Jersey girl with her own dreams of “love and marriage.” A culture clash of two different realities ensues – each blinded by their own illusions, caught in the bubbles of both traditional passion and self-indulgent lust.

We learn more about both Jon and Barbara in visits to their respective families. Director Gordon Levitt in a nod to Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL contrasts Barbara’s more genteel household with Jon’s clichéd working class parents, (Tony Danza and an excellent Glenne Headly) seated at a dinner of pasta, the males attired in whiter-than-white tee-shirts, engaging in strident dinner arguments interspersed with screams at the TV, as the football game is blasting in the background, and his silent sister (the wonderful Brie Larson) soaking it all in, while her eyes are glued to the ever-present smartphone.

The movie is structured in such a way that we are given vital information about Jon and his struggle with addiction to pornography through the repetition of scenes involving the Catholic Church confessional, a gym and the computer – the source of intense passion and satisfaction as evident by the accumulation of “used” tissues that are tossed into the garbage bin.  Confusion and a lack of self-examination (other than the physical) contributes to Jon’s attempts to be just as gratified by a flesh and blood partner, as he is by his interactions with the Internet on x-rated sites.

The catalyst for change is the older, beautiful Esther played by Julianne Moore in a lovely performance, as a vulnerable, fragile classmate of Jon’s in the night school they are both reluctantly attending. She befriends him and DON JON, the comedy, slowly becomes a more perceptive and deeper view of what acceptance and reciprocity can be in a relationship. There is a tragic edge to this film that asks the question - How can we take off our rose-colored glasses and eventually connect and “see” one another stripped of our constraints? The answer is simple but difficult to accomplish. This movie makes an attempt though it just skims the surface.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A strangely disturbing, plot twisting, chilling film with a religious/moral subtext, PRISONERS from director Denis Villeneuve, deals with the kidnapping of two young friends whose families are celebrating Thanksgiving together. How the authorities and their parents respond to this horrific event is at the core of this film exploring the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye”, the nature of sin, and its roots in life’s tragic adversities. What lengths can one go in the pursuit of justice without the malignancy of hate corrupting our very being?

Passages from the bible are invoked in the first scene where we come upon a vulnerable deer silently moving through the wet, beautifully lit trees - and then the camera focuses on the barrel of a rifle and BANG – this innocent creature falls to its knees. The tone and mood of PRISONERS is thus established and reiterated by a voiceover verse from the bible. Father and son are the hunters and Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover the tightly wound “survivalist” parent, gives an intense if not frenetic performance of a man who will stop at nothing to keep his family safe even if it means seeking vigilante justice. His wife Grace (Maria Bello,) seems to need sheltering, as she conveys a somnambulistic helplessness in the face of this tragedy.

In contrast the other couple, whose child is also missing, despair and grieve deeply, but keep their moral center intact - or at least attempt to. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch is an actor whose portrayal of an anguished father is more emotive in his understated, quiet, velvety manner than his histrionic bullying male counterpart. Viola Davis as his wife, Nancy Birch, is the voice of quiet reason, but she too is compromised by the need to seek retribution for the disappearance of her adored daughter. The unknowable can be a force for ethical transgression when one is confronted by drastic circumstances.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, is the embodiment of the legal system - a twitching (is this part of his character or the actor’s own affliction?) officer of the law with a 100% clearance rate on his arrest record; so we the spectators put our faith in him to unravel the many clues and suspects that arise, creating a deep climate of suspense. Gyllenhaal’s characterization, though adequate, was not “inspired” which could be due to the many plot zigzags as well as contortions of basic legal procedures that were distracting, and took me out of the small-town Pennsylvania environment back into my own dubious head.

Paul Dano plays the prime culprit, Alex Jones – a young man with disabilities who is both sympathetic and repellent and living with his “aunt” the wonderful actress Melissa Leo. He is mentally “a child” and one that becomes the symbol of an infantile captive who is the victim of perverted rage and vengeance. Yet we are left hanging as new stratagems keep turning up leaving the audience exhausted.

PRISONERS not only refers to those who are physically held hostage, jailed, or restricted against their will, but those who are moving about freely yet are psychologically subjugated by fanatical demons that erupt when the stress of an event collides with their inherent emotional being. Despite the beauty of the cinematography that delicately defined the melancholy spirit of this brokenhearted world, the movie could not overcome the tendency to engorge itself in melodramatic horror, and that is its fatal flaw.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 9/11/13

Years ago, I visited a family member – one that I cared about deeply - who was temporarily confined to an adult group home for psychological treatment; the memory of that confinement made me all-the-more curious to see the film, SHORT TERM 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton, focusing on a facility for “at-risk” youth named Short Term 12 . The plot counterpoints the communication challenges amongst the charges in this community, with the personal obstacles that arise in the relationship between the two supervising young adults - Grace (beautifully played by Brie Larson) and Mason (a sympathetic, too-good-to-be-true John Gallagher Jr.) - who have the responsibility of keeping a group of desperately troubled teens, under 18 years of age from sinking further into the abyss, which is always waiting to detach them from the pain of surviving in a slippery world. The Director ricochets back and forth from the Short Term 12 agency to the intimacy of Grace and Mason’s living quarters, and in the process revealing the couple’s private histories and tragic familial affiliations.

The movie spotlights 4 of the individuals who are restricted to the Short Term 12 Center for treatment. All the youngsters are a mixture of the innocence of breached childhood trust, resulting in severely damaged personas. The roots of their problems come from abuse and loss of the gravity that keeps us anchored to a steady, knowable world. Grace, because of personal experience can relate to those in her care, and she does so with a lovely “grace” and demeanor that belies her own unwillingness to confront the anguish she is grappling with.

SHORT TERM 12 is filled with occurrences that I doubt could ever happen in such a facility; where the caretaker and those being supervised merge beyond the traditional boundaries of treatment. But this is a movie and we the audience can “suspend belief,” if only for 96 minutes. A particularly appealing Michael Stanfield plays Marcus – a man who will be discharged because he is turning 18 and his performance is both sensitive and empathetic, though the character’s actions are alas predictable. The more complex Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever,) a new “intake” becomes the catalyst and pivotal turning point upending the lives of many of the residents as well as the staff, resulting in some crucial resolutions to difficult questions.

I was very aware of the use of cinematography as a predictor of mood change. The blinding white glare of the sun on the exterior of the Short Term 12 building contradicted the hue and cry of the lives battling to be free of their inner “specters.”  The movie was also structured circuitously so that the beginning and end used similar narrative and visual devices completing a cycle of never ending repetition, or perhaps continuous beginnings.

SHORT TERM 12 could have been titled “All You Need is Love”; the belief that the love of one’s fellow man/woman harvests a solution to deep-rooted conflict. Yes there is truth to that hypothesis – seeds are strewn, but simple cathartic instances rarely cure complex conditions. Insight develops with time. This film is idealistic, with some delicate performances punctuated with hopeful moments showing that “creativity” – art, and music are central to one’s development of self-respect and worth. BUT I was frustrated by the opposite of what many critics loved about this movie – its supposed authenticity… I thought it was not authentic enough.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


I am old enough to have lived through the events depicted in director Lee Daniels’ ambitious and often beautifully structured new film LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, which vividly brought me back to a passionate and tumultuous period in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. While watching the screen in a crowded theater, I was conscious of the vulnerability I felt, like a laceration where only a pinprick of injustice was needed to make the wound open up and ooze anew. But this movie is more than a documentary of “moments in history” it is about the weaving and interlacing of the personal and the political, and how they bounce and bang into one another; about change and turmoil and how they impact not only a nation but a family – based on the true story of Cecil Gaines who became the White House butler serving eight Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.

We meet young Cecil Gaines in 1927 working with his parents in the cotton fields when a violent life-altering act changes the course of his existence. Shortly thereafter, Cecil leaves home and meets a generous father figure who tutors him in the art of “service”, and Cecil is masterly at this job - maintaining the critical distinction between one’s inner and outer demeanor. He is so skilled at this position that he is asked to join the White House staff as one of their butlers. Able to be “invisible” is a central aspect of this profession – to be discreet and not comment or remark on what is seen and heard in the “halls of power.” Yet THE BUTLER cautiously implies that Gaines’ presence might have had some influence on crucial determinations that certain President’s took on civil rights legislation. Forest Whitaker is a superb actor depicting Cecil Gaines, not only via the spoken word, but the way he moves his body, the subtle changes in his gait, and the slump of his shoulders as he travels through the vicissitudes of time.

There is an Upstairs/Downstairs aspect to this movie and the film often cuts from Cecil’s rigid, restrained daily routines at The White House to his more natural and relaxed own household supervised by Gloria – a strong performance by Oprah Winfrey who willingly foregoes any “glamour” to reveal a warm, sympathetic mother, and a wife who early on feels neglected by her husband, but is transformed by the incidence of public and personal circumstances – some tragic and others comically tender. There is some fine acting by a supporting cast consisting of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow White House butlers, and the always imposing soft-voiced Terrence Howard as a neer-do-well neighbor. On the other hand, the casting of the various Presidents was disappointing – most were shown as transparent, simplistic caricatures, their obvious physical attributes were exaggerated and their more essential natures were ignored.

Lee Daniels juxtaposes the changing strategies of The Civil Rights Movement from the early Freedom Rides to the Black Panther Party, via the vehicle of Cecil’s elder son (David Oyelowo,) representing the generational father/son conflict over the revolutionary methods a black man/woman must take in a society that is filled with race hatred and oppression. Interspersing actual newsreels and TV footage of critical moments in America’s historical narrative – ie: the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King added authenticity to THE BUTLER - the kind of authenticity that is piercing and brought back subjective flashbacks to where I had been at those pivotal mileposts.

 Lee Daniels gives us a raw, desperate, and excruciatingly brutal view of what the participants in the fight for equal rights endured. They are the heroes/heroines whose struggles are memorialized in this movie; as a counterpoint we are shown the striving of one individual to support his family, and at the same time be a witness to history – albeit a silent one. Developing a second skin of “concealment” is lamentably still a tactic necessitated by racism in our contemporary society.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Predictable, obvious, conventional, trite, and stereotypical are words that came to mind as I seethed, mumbling in my seat, watching a film that was “acclaimed” by many critics. Unfortunately this was another Woody Allen writing and directorial disappointment and that makes me angry. I really wanted Allen to embrace me with sensitivity and conviction; to make me laugh and cry, to create characters that were distinctive and demonstrated individuality like he did in the 1999 film SWEET AND LOWDOWN.  Instead BLUE JASMINE, which ostensibly speaks about class divide, pretension, financial immorality, and the fickleness of relationships, focuses on a woman named Jasmine played by Cate Blanchett who is in the midst of having a nervous breakdown moves in with her “lower-class” sister in San Francisco.

Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine, who had been married to a very wealthy, Bernie Madoff-type businessman Hal (a smooth and slick Alec Baldwin,) living a life as the beautiful Park Avenue socialite wife entertaining, doing charity work, and filling her time with Yoga and Pilates is vapidly inconsistent. We are subject to constant flashbacks of her former luxurious life then, contrasted with her penniless life “now,” – before and after the collapse of her seemingly “idyllic high-style” marriage. We are made privy very earlier in the movie, to Jasmine’s histrionic and melodramatic fall from grace. Her excessive drinking, her devouring pills with an avariciously bumbling urgency, all dramatic gestures that imply desperation were repeated over and over again - a view of psychic disintegration that was hackneyed and tired – a picture of nervous collapse pigeonholed into burlesque.

Personally I did not give a damn about any of the characters...except Jasmine’s sweet, good-natured sister Ginger – a natural and beautiful performance by Sally Hawkins who picks “working class” guys as her partners – her taste in men being the opposite of her arrogant condescending sister. Many of the reviewers of BLUE JASMINE spoke about a Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire subtext to this film – I think that interpretation is superficial, and another indication of Woody Allen’s trivialization of the “rank and file” laborer. Just because Bobby Cannavale (who is an actor I loved in THE STATION MASTER) wears cutoff tee-shirts, is muscled up with slicked back hair and has a temper, does not make him Stanley Kowalski; or a fragile Cate Blanchett descending into her interior world of the past, make her Blanche Du Bois. Instead I saw Woody Allen propagating a boilerplate view of class through dialects and visuals that were imitative and unimaginative.

Relationships between siblings, heedless gratification of desire, and the cynical view of the battle of the sexes are always prevalent in Woody Allen’s films. I hope I get to see one soon which is genuine, fresh and authentic. I thought BLUE JASMINE might fulfill those criteria– I was dispiritedly mistaken.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2 GUNS 8/7/13

I am a fan of both Mark Wahlberg, (ever since I fell for him in BOOGIE NIGHTS,) and Denzel Washington who I LOVED in TRAINING DAY  (for which he won an Oscar,) so of course I had to see 2 GUNS. These two charismatic stars clicked as love/hate conflicted buddies, augmented by the fast-paced repartee between them which was comedic and entertaining. 2 GUNS directed by Baltasar Kormákur, with its overly complicated silly plot, involving plenty of crooked DEA, CIA and Naval Intelligence officers, etc. is salvageable because of the chemistry between Stig (Wahlberg) and Bobby (Washington.) On second thought EVERYONE in this film was corrupt – all those who are delegated by law to be our angels/defenders from the crooked, double-dealing “bad guys” are themselves covetous, mercenary and tainted. The message of 2 GUNS focuses on America’s law enforcement system, a contaminated structure populated by officers who are rotten, shady reprobates. Wearing a badge, the symbol of accountability and protection of the rights of individuals, is a mirage.

This film has not much more going for it. The narrative is weak, most of the action takes place in Mexico involving drug lords, missing money, and the grisly consequences of deceiving the chief “honcho” – a welcome Edward James Olmos giving a fine performance as Papi Greco a predictably conventional drug trafficker. Of course this motion picture had its obligatory car chases that I abhor and find unbelievably tedious, but these speeding, clattering scenes had the accompanying spice of the actors' dialogue filled with prosaic bickering, bringing a flicker of humor to the jolting impacts.

The confidence exuded by Wahlberg and Washington is infectious, though we are always aware of their Machismo attitude lurking around in the background and often in the foreground of the film. There is only one woman in the movie - the beautiful Paula Patton, but she has a lightweight role as the mandatory pillow talk girlfriend -  the requisite “eye candy.” Nevertheless I love to observe the way a good actor moves/dances/slides along in a scene. What he/she does with leg/arm/feet and hand gestures can be comparable to a beautifully choreographed dance. Denzel Washington has that ability and another real master of the art of using one's body as an acting vehicle is the actress Jennifer Jason- Leigh. Perhaps one day they will be in a film together as sidekicks, confidants or intimate peers. I’ll go to that one!

Friday, August 2, 2013


Paid my money and went into the Park Avenue Armory on 67th St., an elegant historic brick exterior filling an entire block to see Paul McCarthy’s exhibition WS (White Snow); the reverse initials for Disney’s classic film Snow White based on the original fairy tale written by The Brothers Grimm. The atmosphere of this vast space includes trees and a “magic” forest exuding a deceptive charm giving us an early clue to the upside down, insane/crazy, chaotic nature of this vast installation which comments and revels in the underbelly of the human psyche with the “id” totally unleashed; Dionysian orgies of yore gone mad without restraint. White Snow is innocence willingly corrupted, delightedly carousing in the  debauchery.

As if to emphasize the need to control man’s hidden scabrous temperament, there were more guards - about 20 of them – than actual onlookers (when I was there) overseeing the various “stage sets” - rooms/ tableaus depicting 3-D scenes from the 4 channel 7 hour video which is projected at both ends of the huge space.  I sat through about 2 hours of the video and actually would have stayed longer, but my friend and I had to finally leave to go back home.  I was alternately intrigued, bored, excited, humored, and surprisingly fascinated by McCarthy’s seemingly adolescent wallowing in scatology and pornography, but kept feeling that there was  “something else” going on here. I found myself intellectually aroused by the roots of this sometimes disgusting, sometimes tedious, and sometimes brilliant satirical work with roots going back to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, as well as the cinematic work of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Holland Cotter in his NY Times review compared the “Yahoos” from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the dwarfs in this presentation.

There is a personal element to this video with the psychological merging of Walt Disney and Paul McCarthy who acts the part of Walt, a boorish, fleshy participant and director of the wildly provocative proceedings, complete with mustache and toupee, and is called Walt/Paul. The production stage designs of the house and rooms are based on McCarthy’s own Mormon childhood home in Utah – that fact alone would keep psychiatrists busy for years.

 Yes I do recommend this ambitious exhibition that I anticipated really disliking. It ends August 4th, but it is not for the faint of heart and those who are disgusted by wads of blood, excrement, and lots of humping and dumping, all played out against the innocence of a much beloved childhood tale.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


 Tears are streaming down my face  - I keep taking off my glasses so I can wipe them clean to see. The movie Fruitvale Station based on a true event begins and ends with the shooting of 22 year old Oscar Grant celebrating New Year’s Eve on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Fruitvale Station stop in Oakland, California during the first minutes of the New Year in 2009.

Director Ryan Coogler shows us the actual footage of the tension, confusion and ultimate police homicide that occurred in the early hours of a new year.  We hear a shot and the camera fades out... and we are brought into the daylight back in time - almost 24 hours - and meet the young man whose tragic fate we already have witnessed. Michael B. Jordan gives an incredibly authentic performance as Oscar Grant in all his complexity. We see the human being behind the symbol of another victim of police brutality as we enter into his life, and that makes the tragedy of his early murder at the hands of those who are given the job to protect us - the LAW - even more palpable and wrenching.

Oscar can be sweet, tough, loving, evasive, generous, hot-tempered, excitable, and at this point in time wanting to change his life after a short stint in San Quentin for drug dealing. He is a sympathetic person with a winsome smile, trying to find work to help support his adored and adoring four- year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal,) and regain the trust of the mother of his child – his girlfriend Sophina - beautifully acted by Melonie Diaz, who is both sympathetic and wary of his actions based on Oscar’s past behavior. It is December 31st, not only New Year’s eve which makes one full of resolve for the future, but also his mother’s birthday; the relationship between mother and son is profoundly touching, and Octavia Spencer as his mother becomes the moral focus of the film. She is ever-present in Oscar’s consciousness – whether it be flashbacks or in the present. There is one tender scene depicting a celebratory birthday dinner that takes place a few hours before his crucial trip on the BART which makes evident the joyous and strong familial support system in Oscar’s life.

How many times do we read of young black men being killed in police actions?  Fruitvale Station attempts to show us one of these young men in the flesh, full of the vibrancy, dreams and missteps of a life being actualized in a society that is not color-blind. The end of his life - a life filled with potential and hope brought me to the outpouring of those tears in lamentation and mourning for all the lives that are terminated before they are given the opportunity to continue on this journey we call life.