Saturday, December 13, 2014


Difficult to watch?  You bet.  But if you are a lover of film this is a must-see cinema event of 2014.

The torture endured by a 1936 Italian-American Olympic runner in a WW II Japanese internment camp is staggering to behold.  Personal rage from the camp Corporal is focused on his defiant prisoner with chilling sociopathic intensity.

This is Louie Zamperini’s true story, shaped and directed with astonishing skill by Angelina Jolie.  Her accomplishment is a stunning slap in the face to a biased industry that gives evidence that only a man can master complex technology and compassionate storytelling.

What Jolie’s film does is lay bare the cruel and hopelessly held belief that human torture, both physical and verbal, are ever justified. 

Consider that the timing of the film’s American release, Christmas Day, is an unwitting wakeup gift that should question the effectiveness of our verbally abusive politicians, our out-of-control police tactics and our newly revealed horrific torture of foreign-born war prisoners.  No nation is innocent.  But from America, shouldn’t we expect better?      


Sunday, May 18, 2014


Two recent comedies generate warm laughter as they approach love from 2 different angles.  Neither rates a 5-star rave but both are worth seeing.


Spending movie time with Woody Allen always makes for smiles, even if we sometimes grumble at his creative indulgences.  In Gigolo he hits the mark as Murray, an aging Jewish Brooklyn bookshop owner forced out of business by ‘the big guys.’

Fioravante, his florist buddy (John Turturro), sympathizes that money is tight.  Murray has a brilliant solution.  His dermatologist (Sharon Stone!) has expressed her longing for a threesome – her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara!!) and a man unknown to her husband.  Whaa?

Murray suggests Fioravante for the job and proposes they share the fee. What’s the harm in pimping for his friend so they can make a bundle together?

Does this sound like a lame plot for a 1970’s film?  Writer-director-star Turturro makes it work in unexpectedly funny ways.   Not only does business boom but he also introduces to the list of Fioravante’s clients the restless widow of an orthodox Rabbi who bore him 6 children yet never has ever been kissed!  Double Whaa??  You get the idea.

This improbable farce happily unfolds yet manages to shed witty light onto love and lust, avoiding a minefield of moral and orthodox religious issues. Turturro’s professional skills bring welcome forgiving insight and humor to summer moviegoing.


A brilliant Chef, Carl Casper, (director-star Jon Favreau) divorced from foxy wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), is challenged by grumpy restaurant boss Dustin Hoffman and alienated from his appealing 11-year son Percy (Emjay Anthony). 

A crisis looms.  Does he cook a WOW dinner for a major and cranky food critic or does he succumb to the demand of his boss to cook the house favorites that have kept the restaurant open for 10 years?

Every film has to have a compelling conflict and this one offers a great catalyst. Chef Casper quits! The Sous-chef cooks all the house specialties and the critic, assuming Casper is in the kitchen, writes a career destroying review. Our chef sends a hilarious but vitriolic response by email which goes viral. His fury is so wild that he becomes unemployable.

Solution? Inez is sympathetic and gets her other ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) to give Casper a tired old food truck that he has to pick up in Miami. It’s a chance for him to try his hand at independent cooking without a boss. The catch? Casper agrees to take his son on a promised trip to New Orleans for new taste treats if the boy will help dad cook Miami inspired Cuban food.

With the help of his former Grill Chef (John Leguizamo) the trio begin a road trip whose success is propelled by young Percy tweeting in advance the funny viral video coupled with word of mouth raves to each town they visit. Crowds greet their arrival and success is assured.

The musical soundtrack supervised by Mathieu Schreyer features a lively Latin and jazz based score that propels the film and generates viewer excitement.

The bonding that occurs between Percy and his dad comes from their intense hard work, cooking, and their efforts to sell great food to ever hungry throngs. This irresistible father/son bonding is the cinematic salsa that makes this film a winner. 


Thursday, April 17, 2014


Hot, Hotter, Hottest!  Move over HUNGER GAMES.  This is a female AND male survival of the fittest epic that encapsulates self-reliance and free will – a compelling premise.

After a Great War, cities have been leveled.  A new political order, set in futuristic Chicago, is established to eliminate further devastation.  For this to happen all youth must face Choosing Day when they hit age 16 and declare acceptance in 1of 5 seemingly enlightened categories.  These will define how they must peacefully live for the rest of their lives.  God forbid if you think outside the box.

Since we all are currently living in a polarized U.S. political system, the film resonates.  Speak out and disagree with a commonly held belief?  Duck!

In this film, being labeled Divergent (a free thinking spirit), puts one at serious risk.  Of course.  Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley) wants to fit in with her perception of family and friends so she goes through a rigorous training program to prove how she can overcome almost unimaginable physical challenges to fit in and make her loved ones proud.  Her assigned State-sanctioned Monitor, named Four, (Theo James) is a steely and sizzling athletic judge who pushes her to the max. 

When Tris falters, you recognize the compelling look that Four suddenly gives her now compromises his detached objectivity.  She is revealed as Divergent.  The tension that precedes their first kiss -- and how their compromised lives subsequently unravel --  drives the rest of the film. 

Sure, it may seem overly long for the plot to develop, as did Veronica Roth’s trilogy aimed at young adults.  But this adaption is geared for a broad audience and delivers nicely.  Kate Winslet certainly adds luster to villainy, stirring welcome pepper into the stew!

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Laugh-out-loud funny doesn’t begin to capture the perverse humor that director/leading man Jason Bateman plops onto the screen.

Personally, I love to spend time with really smart kids.  However, Bateman, playing Guy Trilby, pulls the rug out from under his version of Spelling Bee brainiacs in ways that border on child abuse.  But no harm is done except to send up obnoxious and pushy parents plus the competition director, Dr. Deagan, played by Alison Janney, who brings new meaning to phrase ‘prune face.”

Bateman, acting since a kid, knows his way around a set and particularly how to work with actors.  He sails through his feature film debut with zany wit and assurance and expands his sardonic comic chops in the process. 

Screenwriter Andrew Dodge delivers a well-crafted black comedy that is a welcome addition to contemporary film humor for grownups.  My other gold star goes to the recent AMERICAN HUSTLE.

Playing opposite Bateman is a 10-year-old ball of sunshine, New York born Indian actor Rohan Chand.  This kid can’t stop sparkling, even under the most adversarial situations tossed at him by Bateman.  I wanted to love him and smack him at the same time.  An example?  As the lad leans over the top of his airplane seat and endlessly pesters Guy, the audience exploded with laughter when Trilby blurts, “ Hey kid, shut up, turn your curry hole around and sit.”

The burning question is why does 40 year-old Guy Trilby enter a nationally televised competition limited to kids who have not yet graduated from the 5th grade? All unravels in the final frames, and, while seemingly an author derived dénouement, the ‘get-even’ revelation works just fine in this high-spirited comedy.

Take a break and look forward to some delightfully spiteful giggles.  

Friday, March 7, 2014


The cheers that arose when 12 YEARS A SLAVE won Best Picture were well deserved.  I am proud the Academy seemed to rally around this film in spite of its weak box office and deeply distressing illumination of our nation’s embarrassing exploitation of Blacks.

The Academy membership is 94% Caucasian so this was also a concern.   Because it is a difficult film to watch I worried whether it would even find an audience.  These thoughts shaped my early January thinking as I tried to balance my personal opinions with what seemed likely to be manifest in the minds of industry voters. 

Perhaps a palette cleansing comedy like AMERICAN HUSTLE would snare the gold.  I was wrong.

The evening’s consensus represented a spot-on collection of winners that, in my opinion, has seldom happened in Oscar’s past.  Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong’o and Jared Leto deserved their honors. 

The Directors Guild awarded Alfonso Cuarón  (GRAVITY) its top prize, which is usually an indication of what film will win the Oscar.  I nevertheless applauded the Best Director gold going to Steve McQueen (12 YEARS A SLAVE).  I had been plugging for David O. Russell (AMERICAN HUSTLE) because directing great comedy is really really difficult. Nevertheless the fact that social, emotional and political issues dominated story lines was welcome. 

HIGHS & LOWS:  What they wore

1. Julia Roberts in a sad black Givenchy gown with a matronly peplum and ill-fitting black lace that covered her plunging décolletage with Victorian modesty.  No tits. Yawn.

2.  Will Smith wearing a tux and open neck white shirt with scarf peaking out that seemed to suggest -- ‘I’m just too cool and too important to be bothered with all this dress up shit.’

3. Kevin Spacey in a smart blue Burberry tux, a nice relief from tuxedo black, black, black.

4.  Sally Field looked matronly in a net embroidered long dress with short sleeves that looked positively dowdy on camera. Alas.

5.  Lupita Nyong’o floated in pale blue Prada with a neckline that plunged to her navel.  Here’s a young woman, flat chested as a boy, who looked sexy and lady-like at the same time.

6. Anne Hathaway’s Gucci designed gown featured her chest completely neutered with what looked like sparkling armor plating. That and her closely cropped hair completed a decidedly butch look.  Dull.

7.  Bette Midler showed up in a red floral Reem Acra gown that blended amusingly with the floral red Oscar carpet.  Remember her singing “Gonna lay down on my bed of roses”?  No, not tonight, Bette, we’ll “walk all over you.”


8.  Bradley Cooper and Brad Pitt vied for wearing perfectly tailored tuxes. At last Brad wore pants hemmed so they didn’t tumble 6 inches over his shoes.

9.  Charlize Theron in knockout Dior that parted as it swept over her left and right breast and hung deliciously suspended just below each shoulder.  This offered tension then release as the gown descended into a sheer floating train that delicately offered an elegant finale.

Enough with the frivolity.  Except for one note.  Plastic surgery victims included Goldie Hawn, Kim Novak and John Travolta.  And one billion viewers wondered if maybe it was just the lighting.

HIGHS & LOWS:  The show

1.  Ellen DeGeneres delivered a funny and free flowing opening monologue that was scripted yet came off spontaneous and even zany. It seemed to promise a great evening.

2.  Jared Leto gave a very moving acceptance speech upon receiving Best Supporting Actor for his stunning performance as a transgendered prostitute in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.  He exceeded his 45 seconds but effectively urged compassion for everyone to be allowed to love whomever they choose without fear or prejudice.  He was graciously allowed to finish without being played off by the orchestra.

3.  Pharrell Williams sang a knockout HAPPY from Despicable Me 2 which brought the house down.  Kids on stage and celebs in the front row danced with him to create an opening number that will be remembered.

4.  Boredom set in during the next two hours until Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress for her wrenching performance in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  What radiance she brought to thank-you.  The audience loved her.

5.  DeGeneres asked the audience if they were hungry and ordered pizza.  Sure enough a chap delivered 3 boxes and Ellen passed out slices much to everyone’s delight.  Later she canvassed the audience to tip the delivery boy.  She conned $200 from Harvey Weinstein.  All Lupita could offer was her lip gloss, which Ellen immediately applied to her own lips!

 6.  Pink sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a distinctively phrased version in honor of the 75th anniversary of the WIZARD OF OZ.  Liza Minnelli, draped in an off-the-shoulder electric blue schmatta and blue streak in her hair, seemed pleased but miffed when Ellen said she made a convincing drag queen, then topped it off with ‘great job, sir’.  It was funny to everyone except Liza.

7.  At 11:00 p.m. (EST), it was 2.5 hours into the show and best Actress, Actor and Film had not yet been awarded.

8.  To add to the tedium Bette Midler sang a sappy and draggy rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings that seemed endless.

9.  At last, Cate and Matthew won Best Actor Awards and 12 YEARS A SLAVE received a thunderous applause when it was announced as Best Picture.  Amen!


Bottom line?  The show was only fair.  We needed more of Ellen and a tighter evening where the awards of lesser interest to one billion viewers are moved to an off-camera ceremony.  If the goal is to increase movie attendance, give us 2 zippy hours of genuine broadcast entertainment rather than 3.5 hours of drawn out of narrowcast self congratulations.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


The Oscar race has now bunched up the competition. Much to my surprise   I’m encouraged.  The Awards are often expressive of emotional favorites. This time talent and bold risk-taking have enriched the stew.        

Based upon directing, writing and acting, AMERICAN HUSTLE gets my best 2 out of 3 votes.  I’ve gone into detail in my review as to why.  However, I really admire Spike Jonze’s original screenplay for HER.  It is uniquely fresh and explores relationships in countless intuitive and insightful ways.  Rarely have I experienced love and heartbreak so completely in cinematic terms.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is a film that a colleague said he could only bear to experience once.  When I first saw it I too sat quietly as the lights came up, unable to have a conversation.  I have put off reviewing it.  An opportunity came up to see it again the other evening and enough time had passed making me feel brave. 

It is even more disturbing the second time around.  As I watched, however, I had sufficient perspective to mull over the flesh searing violence that Director Steve McQueen reveals compared with how Quentin Tarantino dealt with this in DJANGO.  The whipping in the latter was unvarnished and raw and objectified its victims in the same way that pornography objectifies the anatomy of sex.

Director McQueen lets us meet and experience his characters and suffer with them as they experience unbearable physical and emotional agony. They are real people enduring horrific torture from entitled sociopaths that stretches contemporary understanding of our recent history in searing and visceral ways not easily forgotten.

I’m grateful and impressed that this film, the director and leading actor, Chiwetal Ejiofor, have all received nominations. 

It doesn’t surprise me that AUGUST OSSAGE COUNTY and SAVING MR. BANKS scored weakly or not at all.  Meryl Streep is a beloved icon and even her excessive overacting seems to have been forgiven.  However, Julia Roberts is just imitating Mama Streep.   Amy Adams will win Lead Actress.  Tom Hanks, also much loved, was passed over for both his performances in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and SAVING MR. BANKS.  As I mentioned in both my reviews, nice guy that he is, he just didn’t manage to surrender to the paradoxes of each character that he was attempting to become.  He ranges from nice to sort’a angry.  But we really do love him anyway.

What will become of GRAVITY?  It is an international box office phenomenon and it’s Sandra Bullock’s performance that humanizes the technological genius of Director Alfonso Cuaron.  It is also life affirming in quietly spiritual ways that chill and shock us into a consciousness few movies manage to achieve.  It is, for me, a masterful piece of filmmaking. 

My sense is that it will surrender its pride of place to Best Director David O. Russell, Best Lead Actress to Amy Adams and Best Picture (all for AMERICAN HUSTLE).  

Of the 5 directors nominated there are 3 who equally deserve the top award – Steve McQueen (12 YEARS A SLAVE), Alfonso Cuaron (GRAVITY) and David O. Russell as mentioned above.  Alexander Payne’s direction of NEBRASKA is noteworthy and he skillfully handles the camera and his actors with great skill.  But the competition is fierce.

It is Director Martin Scorsese who has disappointed me with his work on THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.  That he is a master is without question, this being his 8th nomination.  However, his endless 3-hour repetition of the sexual, drug and alcohol fueled excesses of his main characters ended up desensitizing me to the point that I started looking at my watch.  At 2-hours it might have been intriguing, even humorous, but ultimately I left the theatre wanting a cleansing shower.

Let’s see, what else?  Ah, Best Actor will probably go to Christian Bale (AMERICAN HUSTLE) although my heart belongs to Joaquin Phoenix in HER.  He is so simple, evanescent and of the moment that I was with him every second.  Jennifer Lawrence sizzles in AMERICAN HUSTLE and will walk away with the best Supporting Actress award.  Jared Leto should win for best Supporting Actor, shaved eyebrows and all. 

If there were an honorable mention award for Lead Actor I would want it to go to Matthew McConaughey (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WOLF OF WALL STREET).  He inhaled both characters impressively and gave up his hunky good looks to stretch and grow into a dramatic and then comedic actor that caught many of us off guard.  Bravo.

The Oscars 2014 | 86th Academy Awards
March 2, 2014


The electronic buzz that underscores the film’s opening moments sets an audible motif for what is to follow.  From this monotone can a story with the provocative title, HER,  promise love, yearning, probable heartbreak yet unfold with believability and possible eloquence?

When a very tight close-up of a man’s face next appears, caught up in absorbed concentration as he speaks tenderly to a computer screen --  the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) finishes speaking and signs off as Loretta.  He reaches over and, from a printer, pulls out a femininely scripted letter he has just voice-dictated.  He works for “Beautifully Hand Written  It’s a futuristic twist on Dear Abby and the company seems to be thriving.  The camera pulls back to reveal myriad cubicles of similarly focused verbal scribes. 

On a slick and quiet subway ride home, ear piece inserted, Theo voice activates his waiting emails.  Restless at home, he activates a cyber female who simulates sex with him, calling out in ecstasy for him to grab the dead cat underneath her bed and strangle her to the point of inducing her sexual climax. ok.

Theo fumbles awkwardly, then plays along.  She gets off, thanks him and hangs up.

Theo plays around with a new Operating System and discovers how to create a sensuous woman with whom to interact.  That is, a bodiless woman whose voice offers the sole definition of her existence.  Scarlett Johansson’s wafts into Theo’s technological fantasy.  His whim turns into an interaction, then gob-smacked affection  and ultimately a deep and dependant love that becomes obsessive and excludes his real girl friend who develops her own OS obsession.  It’s a new age of dating one’s private OS.

Samantha grows and evolves in ways similar to that of a human child’s mind and body.  She bubbles with innocent curiosity.  “What’s it like to have a vagina?”  Yes, a big word but she seems to precociously read Theo’s mind. “Why does it have to be ‘there’?  Why can’t it be under my arm?” Samantha spontaneously draws on Theo’s screen a reclining woman, arm upraised, and a male who is merrily plunging back and forth into her newly placed pudenda! 

Samantha’s point is that an OS can do anything that a real person can do except possess a body. Theo tenderly embraces Samantha, bringing to the fore a quintessential male/female relationship that defines the hidden intricacies of love modern.  Is the significant other really just a manifestation of oneself? Do we seldom get to see who the other really is because we are so self-absorbed in our own needs?

The relationship moves forward, hiccups and struggles as they attempt to comprehend each other.  If I say more I will might discourage you from seeing this remarkable film on your own.  Trust me.  Just go.  Be prepared to have your heartstrings plucked, strummed, then snapped.  Perhaps you will wake up to what is really going on in your own love life.  Maybe you will fall asleep and not want to cope.  Either way, this film has the potential to pull you out of yourself and leave you unmoored.

Director Spike Jonze, also the screenwriter, breaks all the boundaries that define human relationships. His work tickles our synapses while caressing the heart strings. And listen to the score composed by Owen Pallett.  It unfolds subtly and makes it’s appearance when least expected.  His music lifts and illuminates. 

At last we have a film that has the potential to leave you breathless.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Saving Mr. Banks . . . the story of Lady Grump and Mr. Charm – a Technicolor film dealing with black and white characters.

Perhaps this is no surprise since the first image on the screen is ‘Walt Disney Presents”.  What follows?  A middle age woman (Emma Thompson) slowly comes out of a Zen-like meditation with a stern scowl.  We get it.  She can’t get over the anger that must be buried deep within.  Poor thing.  

We hope for relief as she takes a meeting with her solicitor – we’re in London, 1961 – but no, she is spitting nails.  That sugarcoated daddy who creates silly American cartoons has been courting her for over 20 years to give him the rights to her beloved 1934 novel, Mary Poppins.  Never, I mean NEVAH!  Definitely Lady Grump.

We are left breathless in anticipation of the dog and catfight that this feisty dame will surely be having with the legendary Walt Disney.

You can only imagine my disappointment when Walt (Tom Hanks) turns out to be kind and patient and charming throughout this entire 2-hour film.  Barely a scowl.  OK, he’ll be Mr. Charm. 

So, the plot has been announced -- goodness vs. badness.  Sure enough, author P. L. Travers, upon arriving in Hollywood, provocatively ratchets up her objections ad nauseam concerning her fear that Mr. Disney will sugarcoat her Mary, introduce animation and, worst of all, characters who sing and dance!  Good old Walt just keeps smiling and nodding patiently.  Really? 

But Neal Gabler writes in his Disney biography of 2005 about a man who inspires all those around him but can become “ . . . cantankerous, abusive, mean spirited, even vicious.” Well, let’s not go into THAT – remember, he and his corporation represent a billion dollar brand of goodness. 

Enough about Walt.  Instead, director John Lee Hancock and his writers treat us to revealing flashbacks of Travers, her childhood in Australia and her playful and ever doting father (Colin Farrell).  The underbelly of her idyllic childhood is that her beloved and story-telling hero is an alcoholic who drinks himself to an early death in 1906.  Seven-year-old Pamela (P. L.) is understandably traumatized.

His loss is so deeply etched in her broken heart that P.L. has unwittingly created a hardened shell around herself in order to never surrender again to such enchanting intoxication.

Enter Walt Disney, the world-celebrated intoxicator of enchantment.  The psychological nightmare that haunts Travers makes sense if you absorb the flashbacks carefully and thus understand the illogical logic of  P. L. Travers’ lifetime of anger now projected onto Disney. 

But no, at the very end of the film, Walt just shares with Travers his own difficult childhood and suggests that they both free their respective Mr. Banks (real and fictional fathers) and resolve to let them fly up and away, like a kite (song cue).  Yeah, just like that.  Unfortunately this filmic denouement comes off as simple-minded fluff.

Is it possible that a movie might have been made about a man and a woman, different in every way, who turned their respective painful childhood traumas into creative fantasies which managed, years later, to enchant the entire world?

I wonder.  Would the powers who control a modern entertainment empire sanction a story about their founder which reveals, according to author Neal Gabler, “ . . . how a painful 1941 labor strike destroyed the collegial atmosphere at Disney’s studio; how this experience embittered Disney and galvanized his fierce anti-communist politics”?  Would the film be allowed to shed light on Disney’s role as one of the first to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee about suspected industry communists and lead him to become a leading player in creating the Hollywood Black List?  Then there is Gabler’s quote about Disney’s “ . . . affiliation with an executive organization famously hostile to Jews.” 

What about the ever-complaining P.L. Travers?  Although she never married, she adopted a son at age 40, separating him from his less appealing twin as advised by her astrologer.  Her self-centered choice caused both men to grow into sadly dysfunctional adults.  In a revealing 2005 Valerie Lawson biography of Travers it is noted that P.L. managed to have some robust romantic relationships with both male and female partners.  Now that’s interesting.

In short, reducing the film’s two central characters to represent Anger and Charm is a missed opportunity.  Both are fascinatingly complex and quite authentically human.  But the filmmakers dare not suggest this.  Instead we are given both as cartoon characters with little depth. 

A grownup film is yet to be made weaving the struggle between two immensely talented people as they attempt to translate Mary Poppins into a film that resonates truth yet remains genuinely entertaining.  Creatively, a spoonful of sugar can still make the medicine go down, don’t you think?


A stupendously unfunny comedy.  

But your 10 year old may love it.