NIghtingale (HBO)


Happy wife, happy life.

Happy wife, happy life.

(2015) Drama (HBO) David Oyelowo, Barlow Jacobs, Heather Storm. Directed by Elliott Lester

It isn’t often that we here at Cinema365 review movies made for television, even for HBO, perhaps the most prestigious maker of television movies. While ’tis true that Nightingale got a limited and minuscule theatrical release both here and abroad, this movie, which continues to play on the cable giant and is also available on such streaming/downloading services like Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu, demands attention.

Peter Snowden (Oyelowo) has just done a very bad thing. He has brutally murdered his mother. She is a Bible-thumping, domineering woman who constantly treats her son, who served in the Army in the Middle East, as a child, refusing to allow him to invite an army buddy, Edward, over for dinner. That appears to be the last straw.

Except that Peter isn’t what you’d call the most reliable witness. He has anger issues, is a pathological liar and clearly delusional. He is falling apart and his matricidal actions have sent him spinning further out of control down the darkest path a man can take.

This is a one-man show, depicting Peter within the confines of his home. He records video blog segments, speaks to his sister on his cellphone and at times attempts to wheedle Edward into coming over, generally speaking to Edward’s wife Gloria who doesn’t want Peter within a hundred miles of her husband (and for good reason).

To Peter, Edward is more than a friend – “I would do anything for that man,” he declares and judging by his level of obsession towards him we can believe it. As the movie progresses we discover that Peter’s fondness for Edward may go beyond Army buddies; there is certainly some romantic and even sexual overtones that are never overtly stated, but are clearly there.

What makes this film work is Oyelowo’s brilliant performance. Snubbed by Oscar for his work in Selma which by all rights he should have gotten at least a nomination for, he has been at last embraced by Emmy for which he has justifiably received a nomination. We are put in a fairly confined space with Oyelowo and he has to hold our interest for 90 minutes essentially all by himself, and he does so superbly. There is a great deal of nuance, from the fits of rage, the moments of sadness and loneliness, and the calm near the end when events are spiraling towards their inevitable conclusion.

Of course, it’s not just a crazy war veteran talking to himself, although there are moments of that. We hear him trying to deflect concern of his sister and his mother’s friends from church who all want to know where she is; their increasing suspicions drive Peter further around the bend. Besides the phone conversations, he talks to a folding mirror in which his reflection is refracted into three separate images, an overt symbol of his splintering mind, and often he addresses his dead mother as if she is still with him. At other times he feels crushing guilt for what he has done.

This is an emotional roller coaster ride, the intensity of which might catch some by surprise and others may be too much to handle. The filmmakers pull no punches; they make no judgment on Peter (and in fact at times we feel sympathy for him) but only present his deeds and his words for review. Certainly we recoil in horror at what he does to his own mother (thankfully, all off-screen) and at his attitudes towards those who would keep him away from Edward who more and more seems to resemble some sort of life preserver to his psyche which is clearly going under.

This is very much like watching a car accident; you’re horrified but you can’t look away. If I have a quibble with the movie, it is that at times it is more acting exercise than film, but the acting is so extraordinary that you can forgive the movie its flaws.

We have reviewed documentaries that HBO has created, and this and other films have shown an increasing willingness from HBO to exhibit their films in theaters, which of course is an entirely different experience than seeing their films at home. This is a movie that works perfectly well on the home screen and in fact, that may be a better medium for a film like this. Regardless, Oyelowo’s performance is worth viewing all by itself; it is one of the finest you will see in a theater or at home this year.

REASONS TO GO: An exceptional, Emmy-nominated performance by Oyelowo. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: More acting exercise than movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Very loosely based on a case that occurred in Illinois.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: ‘night, Mother
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Trainwreck

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Breaking News (2004) (Dai si gin)


I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy...

I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy…

(2004) Crime Drama (Palm) Richie Jen, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu Fai, Hui Siu Hung, Lam Suet, You Yong, Ding Hai Feng, Li Hai Tao, Simon Yam, Maggie Siu, Yuk-Keung Kwok, Chi Wai Wong, Wah Wo Wong. Directed by Johnnie To

Our reality is shaped to a large extent by the media. Our lines of thought and conclusions are largely a product of how things are portrayed online and on television.

That’s as true in Asia as it is here. An attempt by the Hong Kong police to capture Yuen (Jen), a notorious criminal ends in a devastating shootout and an indelible image of a terrified police officer surrendering to the vicious brigand. The media picks up on it and the criticism of the police department becomes intense, leading them to assign Superintendent Rebecca Fong (Chen) to spin control.

In the meantime Inspector Cheung (Cheung) has cornered Yuen in a high rise apartment building and the criminal has taken a taxi driver (Suet) and his kids hostage in his apartment. As Fong continues to feed the media stories reflecting favorably on the police, Yuen – amused as all get out – uses his captives’ web cam and cell phones to feed stories to the same media outlets that are far less complimentary of the police.

With the reputation of the police at stake, the pressure is on not just to capture the miscreants but also, as Fong puts it, put on a good show. It doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire as long as the ratings are high.

To, one of the most capable action directors in Asia (if not the most capable) outdoes himself here. Known for long tracing shots, the opening shot which lasts about seven minutes is a thing of beauty. The camera swoops down into a busy city street like an errant leaf on the breeze, soaring up to a second story building and then following along with an intricate, violent shoot-out without missing a beat and seemingly all in one fluid shot. It’s a masterstroke of technical ability and should be shown to all aspiring film students as a primer as how a tracking shot should be done.

He doesn’t stop there. Some of the gun battles in the apartment building are downright graceful despite the claustrophobic setting. He also knows how to keep the tension high enough to keep audiences squirming in their seats only letting up just enough to keep them from having coronaries. He populates his story with tough talkers and bureaucrats and basically everyone else is cannon fodder.

In fact, most of the characters in the movie are pretty much standard characters you’ll find in most Hong Kong action flicks – the cocky criminal, the tough-talking cop, the clever bureaucrat, the femme fatale – they’re pretty much all here. None of them are given much depth.

Unlike most action movies, this isn’t just stunts for stunts sake. There is a real message here about the role of the media. It’s frustrating though that To is basically just wagging his finger at the problem like an irritated schoolmarm. He had the opportunity to explore the issue more thoroughly but chose to go for a car chase instead. Lamentable.

And therein lies my issue with the ending as well; as opposed to the beginning of the film, the end of the movie brings nothing new to the table. You see it coming and you keep waiting for the twist you’re sure is going to come. Then the movie ends. Makes me wonder if To ran out of time to write a decent ending because compared to the rest of the movie it’s awfully disappointing.

Still, this is a high octane Chinese action thriller that is one of the better ones to come from there in the past ten years or so. If you haven’t seen it and you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to rent it.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing opening sequence. Terrific action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Missed opportunities. Ending misses the mark. Clichéd characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a pretty fair amount of violence and some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Russian version of the movie was released in 2009 under the title Newsmakers although it hasn’t yet been released in North America.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.0M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: We’re the Millers