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.