Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Birdman


The angel on Michael Keaton's shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

The angel on Michael Keaton’s shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Merritt Weaver, Natalie Gold, Clark Middleton, Jimmy Marsh Garland, Akira Ito, Michael Siberry, Katherine O’Sullivan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu

Our identity is sometimes self-affixed. Other times it is forced upon us by circumstances, or by others. When you are a celebrity, you are often trapped within the latter situation. A memorable role or performance can change people’s perception of you until you realize that you aren’t seen as anything separate from that performance or role. You become trapped in that role forever.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has had such a role. The superhero Birdman made his career through three hugely successful movies but after three of them he decided to turn his back on the part which by then was far too late. By the time he’d turned down Birdman 4 he was already yesterday’s news, a has-been.

Itching to make a comeback, he’s putting on a Broadway production that he has written, directed and is starring in. adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With his closest friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) helping him with the business end, he has cast his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts) and Ralph (Shamos), possibly the worst actor ever. When a fluke accident knocks Ralph out before the first preview performance and Jake frantic to find a replacement, Lesley offers to call Mike (Norton), with whom she once had a relationship. Mike, being a big star who could certainly draw larger audiences, is immediately brought in even though some have misgivings about Mike’s general attitude and backstabbing tendencies.

Riggan and Jake have sunk everything into this venture and know that if it fails, Riggan’s career is done. With Riggan’s adult daughter Sam (Stone) acting as his personal assistant to offer support – okay, to rip her father a new one at every opportunity, a vicious New York Times theater critic (Duncan) waiting in the wings to savage the play because she hates Hollywood stars with a passion, it is no wonder Riggan is beginning to have delusions of telekinetic superpowers, of hearing the voice of his cinematic alter-ego in his head with whom he has long conversations. Can Riggan pull this off and save his career?

Inirritu has tended to do dramas with a kind of heavy hand in the past with movies like Babel and Biutiful to his credit. This is more of a heavy handed comedy in many ways although at the end of the day I think it is more accurately classified a drama with fantasy and comedic overtones.

Keaton, who once played Batman in two Tim Burton movies back in the day, is inspired casting. In return he delivers his greatest performance to date. Riggan is a tortured soul of missed opportunities, bad turns and ill-advised choices. Those are the kinds of things that keep a person up all night and Riggan clearly isn’t getting much sleep. His chance at redemption is a long-shot at best and Riggan knows it. Years wasted away from his family that ended his marriage to a faithful wife (Ryan) and created a rift between Riggan and Sam. On top of that, he’s having delusions, hallucinations – call them what you will – which make more sense to him than the sensory input from the reality around him.

Give him a good supporting cast and a terrific script and you have a winner without fail. One of the things I like about Birdman besides Keaton is the ambiguity within the script. In many ways, you are given “just the facts” without any editorializing. You are left to make your own opinions with the information you’re given. If you need an example ask yourself this when you leave the theater: What did Sam see at the window? Those who have seen the movie will get the reference. My friends and I debated that very question after the movie was over and I don’t think any two of us had exactly the same answer.

Inarritu chose to shoot the film to resemble one long continuous shot a la Rope by Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of critics have praised this technique but I thought it got a little gimmicky, particularly near the end of the movie when they were running out of ways of transitioning from one point of view to the next.

This isn’t a mainstream movie although it isn’t so far out that mainstream audiences can’t enjoy it. This isn’t a typical indie movie either although it isn’t so Hollywood that indie audiences won’t embrace it. Not everyone is going to like it although critics have thus far enthusiastically recommended the movie but while most of the people who saw it with me admitted that they liked it, there were some who were ambivalent about it. I won’t say it’s a transformative movie experience although I will say it’s insightful – and allows you to reach those insights honestly. It is likely to be an Oscar contender although I suspect that there are other movies that are more likely to win the gold statue come February. However, I think a lot of people are going to see this as one of the year’s best movies and I really can’t fault them for that.

REASONS TO GO: May be Keaton’s best performance ever. Line between fantasy and reality is thin. Ambiguous where it needs to be. Terrific supporting cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A little gimmicky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of swearing, some brief violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was shot at the St. James theater on Broadway, one of the most prestigious theaters on the Great White Way where such plays as Oklahoma, The King and I, Becket and Hello, Dolly all made their Broadway debuts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: St. Vincent

My Old Lady


That moment when you realize your drinking buddy is a boar.

That moment when you realize your drinking buddy is a boar.

(2014) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Stephane De Groodt, Noemie Lvovsky, Sophie Touitou, Christian Rauth, Jean-Christophe Allais, Stephane Freiss, Nathalie Newman, Alexandra Chandler, Jocelyne Bernas, Delphine Lanson, Elie Wajeman, Michael Burstin. Directed by Israel Horovitz

Before seeing this film, I’d never heard of the French term “viager.” Chances are, you haven’t either. It is an actual thing, although I can’t imagine who thought this thing up. A viager is a French real estate transaction in which the seller remains on the property until they die and only then does the seller take possession. In the meantime, the buyer pays the seller a monthly fee. In some cases, the seller outlives the buyer.

Matthias Gold (Kline) is a penniless New Yorker in his 50s who has only three failed marriages and three unpublished novels to show for his life. That and a parade of empty bottles although he is on the wagon at present. He has inherited a gorgeous apartment in Paris (the La Marais district) with a lovely garden and enormous space from his estranged father. That and a gold watch. The apartment however has Matthias’ interest; it could be the key to his financial solvency. With every penny to his name, he purchases an airline ticket to Paris.  When he meets realtor Lefebvre (Pinon) he finds out he could make as much as $12 million on the open market.

Sadly for him, however 92-year-old Mathilde Girard (Smith) is comfortably ensconced in the apartment and has – yes, that’s right – a viager contract with Matthias’ father. Which means that he hasn’t inherited an apartment, he’s inherited a debt. One that he can’t afford to pay. Madame Girard offers to let Matthias stay in a spare room until he can figure out a way to sell the viager. Madame Girard’s daughter Chloe (Thomas) however is not so sanguine about having Matthias there, particularly as she will be thrown out on her ass the second her mother shuffles this mortal coil.

Matthias though has a French developer (Freiss) lined up to buy the apartment – in fact, he’s already bought up all the other units in the building. His plans are to put in a luxury hotel or condominiums on the location and make a killing. Either way, there goes the neighborhood.

However, Matthias and Chloe – who detest each other – turn out to be much more closely linked than Matthias could have imagined and an old family secret resurfaces. Matthias is devastated by revelations made by Madame Girard and as his money dwindles down to nothing and time begins to run out, he finds himself in a quandary in which the right choice may be impossible to make.

Horovitz is in his 70s and has written almost 75 different plays and screenplays; this one is based on a 2002 play of his. There is a bit of a theatrical feel to it – there are really only three essential characters and most of the action takes place in the apartment. Horovitz does take us out into the streets of Paris occasionally and it is clear he has a love for the city – for example, Matthias while walking alongside the Seine discovers a female opera singer practicing by the waters. That adds the kind of charm that makes the city come to life for us.

He also casts this perfectly. All three of the main actors are among the best there are; Kline can be charming even when he’s an utter bastard (remember A Fish Called Wanda?) and Matthias often is, yet thanks to Kline we end up identifying with him anyway. Smith is beguiling as the occasionally befuddled but iron at the core Mathilde while Thomas, who has essentially become a French actress, makes Chloe very much her mother’s child.

Pinon  may be best known to American audiences as Vriess in Alien: Resurrection but he has appeared in more than a hundred films and is better-known in France for his comedic acting but he is marvelous pretty much in everything he does. He’s one of those actors who enhances every movie he’s in.

There are some cliche moves here – the old saw of two people detesting each other so much that you know eventually they are going to fall in love – but for the most part this is compelling fare. There are some pretty rough moments here, particularly when Matthias tells Chloe about a horrible childhood incident, and the message is that the consequences of our actions can be far-reaching and devastating to those closest to us. It does take the plot awhile to unfold and some might not be patient enough for it. Still, I found this to be highly enjoyable and one of those lovely unexpected treasures that surface from time to time that come at you without warning. This is likely not playing anywhere near you for now but do catch it on home video when you can.

REASONS TO GO: A reminder of what a lovely place Paris is. Kline, Smith, Thomas and Pinon are always strong performers.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little slow. Utilizes the hoary “I-hate-you-no-I-love-you” cliche.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult, and there are some frank sexual moments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film as a director for playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gone Girl

Blended


These two hate each other so much you know they're going to wind up together.

These two hate each other so much you know they’re going to wind up together.

(2014) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Joel McHale, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Terry Crews, Kevin Nealon, Emma Fuhrmann, Bella Thorne, Braxton Beckham, Alyvla Alyn Lind, Abdoulaye NGom, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Jessica Lowe, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Patrick, Jackie Sandler, Alexis Arquette, Josette Eales. Directed by Frank Coraci

As a young boy, the maxim “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” was hammered into me by my parents, my teachers and whichever adults happened to be handy. Personally, I wonder if they would have been quite as fervent about it if they had seen this movie.

Despite my upbringing, I am a film critic and sometimes it becomes necessary to discuss a movie that you literally can’t say anything nice about. I had some decent expectations about this movie to begin with – after all, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have had great chemistry in  the past (particularly in The Wedding Singer) and the director from that film is on board for this one. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, everything. The plot is a mish-mash of unlikely coincidences and rom-com cliches guaranteed to knock your IQ points down a couple after you’ve seen the movie. The jokes take an interminable amount of time to set up and when they arrive, they simply aren’t funny.

The story, briefly put, is this; Jim (Sandler), a widower and Lauren (Barrymore) go out on a blind date and like most blind dates it’s a complete train wreck. They each arrange to get fake emergency phone calls just to get out of the Hooters that they are dining in. Note to single men – never take a first date to Hooters. There won’t be a second.

Anywho, through a convoluted set of circumstances, the two wind up together on an African safari vacation along with her two sons and his three daughters. At first the families fight like cats and dogs (or more to the African theme, like hyenas and jackals). But as they discover that they are all made for each other, the attraction begins to grow and…oh, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Sandler has been on a cold streak as of late, appearing in several movies that have been absolutely horrible. It’s not because Sandler himself is horrible – given the right script, he can absolutely kill. However, he’s been choosing to go the PG-13 route trying to appeal to a family crowd who appreciate a little bit of an edge. The problem is, in my opinion, that he has mined that territory so thoroughly that everything he does is essentially déjà vu for the audience.

And Barrymore’s personality seems to have been diluted someone by her recent motherhood. She was always so free-spirited and spunky in all of her movies, not just the ones with Sandler, but here there’s a blandness to her that I’ve never seen in one of her performances before. I sincerely hope this is a one-time aberration.

And the kids…Oy, the kids! I have another maxim for you; spending time with your own kids is a joy; spending time with someone else’s is a chore. The kids here are all written one-dimensionally as a cluster of neuroses; one is a hyperactive terror who strikes out every time he comes to bat in Little League. One of the girls talks to her dead mother which isn’t a bad thing, but she insists that Mom be set a place at the table. There’s nothing funny about a kid who is in desperate need of therapy. One of the kids is an oversexed perv who tapes the face of his babysitter to centerfolds and…eww. See what I mean about there isn’t anything funny?

Even the bit with the best potential for actual laughter, a kind of African Greek chorus led by Terry Crews that seem to show up at every crucial moment, gets old quickly and dies a horrible death by over-repetition. I mean, did anybody actually watch this movie before they released it?

That the movie is flopping big time at the box office is somewhat comforting in that audiences are at least recognizing that these are not the type of movies they want to see. Hopefully Sandler will take heed and start doing comedies with a little more intelligence and a little less pandering. He’s too big a talent to waste on crap like this.

REASONS TO GO: Nice African images.

REASONS TO STAY: Not funny. Too many kids, all of them obnoxious. Appeals to nobody.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rude and sexual humor and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alexis Arquette makes a cameo reprising his role as Georgina from The Wedding Singer which was the first time Sandler and Barrymore teamed up.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: To the Wonder

Think Like a Man


The cast gets the box office figures for the film.

The cast gets the box office figures for the film.

(2012) Urban Romance (Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence J., Jenifer Lewis, Romany Malco, Gary Owen, Gabrielle Union, La La Anthony, Chris Brown, Wendy Williams, Sheri Shepherd, Caleel Harris, Arielle Kebbel, Steve Harvey, Angela Gibbs, Tika Sumpter, J.B. Smoove, Keri Hilson. Directed by Tim Story

Navigating the waters of modern relationships is tricky at best. A woman can use all the help she can get frankly – even if it comes from a man.

Ostensibly based on comedian Steve Harvey’s self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man the film follows four different couples trying to make a go with it – the Dreamer vs. the Woman Who is Her Own Man pitting Dominic (Ealy), a struggling sous chef with ambitions of owning his own restaurant someday against Lauren (Henson), a self-made woman who has worked hard to make a success of herself.

Then there’s the Mama’s Boy vs. the Single Mom which pits Michael (J) whose life has been spent trying to please his mama (Lewis) against Candace (Hall) who finds her boyfriend’s mom an obstacle despite her best efforts to please her as well. There’s also The Non-Committer vs. The Girl Who Wants the Ring, which gives us Jeremy (Ferrara), a confirmed bachelor who is in no hurry to take the next step and his girlfriend Kristen (Union) who is and will go to whatever lengths necessary to push him into popping the question.

Finally there’s The Player vs. The 90-Day Rule Girl with Zeke (Malco) a smooth lady’s man who loves ’em and leaves ’em and doesn’t seem to mind against Mya (Good) who has a strict policy of never dating a guy for more than 90 days. Both of them find in each other the person they want to make the exception to their normal modus operandi.

I’ll be honest with you; when I saw the trailer for this I really wasn’t very interested in seeing the movie – it seemed to be just another rom-com with an attractive ensemble cast in which misperceptions and untruths put the characters in hot water, particularly situations that can be resolved with a single phone call in the real world. However, I was pleased to discover that the movie had much more going for it than cliché although it has its share of those.

The cast is certainly about as attractive as they come, and there’s a pretty good rapport among them. The chemistry within all four of the couples is pretty solid and there’s additional comic relief from Kevin Hart as a happily soon-to-be-divorced man and Gary Owen who offers the counterpoint as a happily married man. While there are a few too many coincidences, you can believe that these are actual friends trying to help each other find someone to spend their lives with.

The conceit of the movie is that all four of the women are using Harvey’s book to help them overcome the issues their men bring to the table and the guys find out about it and attempt to turn the tables on their girlfriends with predictably disastrous results. Like with most Hollywood movies the ending is what you’d expect it to be – who wants to go to a date movie to see a couple break up after all – but let’s face it, not only are you rooting for these couples to make it work as Tim Gunn might say, but you’re actually enjoying the time you spend with them…which is pretty good news for Screen Gems since they’re making a sequel which will be in theaters next Spring. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind catching the next installment in a theater next time instead of on home video if it’s going to be anywhere near as good as this.

WHY RENT THIS: Funnier than I expected. Explores the differences between how men and women think. Some pretty decent performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls into a lot of rom-com traps. Tries too hard to be inoffensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a whole lot of innuendo and some blatantly sexual commentary, a fair amount of bad language and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Dominic discusses For Colored Girls with his pals and in particular the scene in which “the psycho drops his kids out the window.” Ealy, who plays Dominic, also played the role of that very psycho in the film version of For Colored Girls.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 5 minute gag reel is included but there is really not much in terms of extras on the DVD.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $12M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Why Did I Get Married?.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Europa Report

The Hunt (Jagten)


The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkoop, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont, Rikke Bergmann, Allan Wilbor Christensen, Josefine Grabol, Daniel Engstrup, Katrine Brygmann, Hana Shuan, Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg   

Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

Western culture has this tendency to idealize children. In our eyes they are truthful little angels, incapable of lying. Well, any parent will tell you that they do lie, through their teeth at times. Sometimes, well-meaning adults  can push children into saying what they think those adults want to hear. We are defenseless against the word of a child.

Lucas (Mikkelsen) is working as a kindergarten assistant in a small town in Denmark (the school he previously taught at has been shut down). Divorced and regularly denied visitation rights with his son, he is nonetheless well-liked and well-regarded in his community in which he has deep long-standing ties. His best friend, Theo (Larsen) has been known to drink himself insensible in Lucas’ company, always relying on Lucas to get him home to his wryly understanding wife Agnes (Hassing).

Theo’s daughter Klara (Wedderkoop), an angelic blonde little girl, adores Lucas…maybe too much. One afternoon when Lucas is rough housing with some of the boys, Klara rushes in and plants a rather adult kiss on his open mouth. Taken aback, Lucas admonishes her never to do that, and promptly forgets about the incident.

Klara doesn’t however. Humiliated, she sulks. Principal Grethe (Wold) finds her and quickly realizes that something’s wrong but she misinterprets and assumes that the reason she’s upset with Lucas is because he touched her inappropriately. She calls in a child services advocate (Dupont) who questions Klara. Klara, eager to be on the playground with her friends and tired of the incessant questioning, finally agrees that is what happened to her.

Lucas finds himself in the middle of a storm that he didn’t see coming. His denials are met with anger – Klara is a child not known for lying, why would she lie about this? He is quickly ostracized by the community, by people he knows well who suddenly see him as a child molester and a pervert. Theo is torn – he can’t believe that Lucas would do such a thing but Agnes has no such qualms. Of course he did – her angel said so and when Klara, seeing the rift developing between her parents and Lucas exclaims that he never did anything wrong, Agnes is sure that she is blocking out an unpleasant memory and tells her daughter so firmly that Klara believes her. And now other kids are coming forward, claiming Lucas took them into his basement and fondled them.

Even Lucas’ girlfriend Nadja (Rapaport) has some doubts about his innocence which causes the enraged Lucas to dump her. Worse still, his visitation rights to his son Marcus (Fogelstrom) are suspended. Rocks are thrown through his window. Klara however doesn’t see the enormity of what’s happened – she shows up at Lucas’ door to walk his dog, something he would normally allow her to do but he gently shoos her back home.

Lucas is shown the uglier side of those he has known all his life as despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing other than the word of Klara (the other stories are discredited when it is discovered by the police that Lucas’ house has no basement). As Christmas comes, Lucas is completely alone, ostracized and subject to being assaulted when he shows his face in a local grocery store.

Vinterberg, known as one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement of minimalist filmmaking with his masterpiece (to this point) Feste has crafted a movie that surpasses even that fine film. I can’t remember a movie in which I felt so emotionally drained after having sat through – some might consider the act of watching it a bit of an ordeal.

But it’s a good kind of ordeal, the kind that reminds us how ephemeral those ties that bind can be and how quickly our whole life can be turned inside out. Part of what draws us into this story is Mikkelsen’s outstanding performance. If this were a studio film (and I defy you to find a Hollywood studio with the guts to release a movie this harrowing) he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January. Because this is being distributed by Magnolia – a fine distributor of indie and foreign films, mind you – chances are it won’t get the notice and the push needed to get him the votes needed to get him on the ballot. Rest assured however that Mikkelsen’s work is as good as anything  you’ll see on the final ballot. It’s searing; Lucas is basically a quiet, good man trying to pull his life back together after a rough patch who is suddenly thrust into a situation that makes everything he went through previously look like a walk in the park. When things go South, Lucas reacts at first with incredulity then with denial and then with rage before finally going into a kind of shock.

The photography is simply exquisite as the bucolic Danish town, covered in snow or shining in the late summer/early autumn sun looks idyllic on the surface but like often happens, the rot is just below the surface. There is a scene near the end of the movie where Lucas stumbles into a Christmas Eve service where he is clearly not wanted. His face bruised and bloodied from a beating earlier that day, he sits in a pew, receiving disapproving glares from those around him. Nearby sits Theo and his family and Theo and he lock eyes several times. Theo gradually realizes that his friend is innocent – because he knows his friend and he sees the truth in his eyes. It’s a powerful scene and one that resonated with me long after the movie ended. I would recommend seeing the movie just for that scene alone.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more going for it than just that scene. Frankly, this is a movie that is as good as anything you’ll see this year. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the intensity might be too much for some. Still, if you are not emotionally fragile, this is the kind of movie that will lift you by the scruff of the neck and force you to see something of yourself whether you want to face it or not. To me, that’s a movie that’s worth its weight in gold.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally wrenching. Amazing performance by Mikkelsen who should get Oscar consideration for it (but won’t).

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the themes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Very, very, very adult themes. Some violence, some bad language and some sexuality. Definitely not for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his role here

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100; it’s still early yet but the critics appear to be embracing this film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scarlet Letter

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring Part 2

The Big Year


The Big Year

Making movies is for the birds

(2011) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, John Cleese (voice), Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Paul Campbell, Cindy Busby, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Al Roker, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen. Directed by David Frankel

 

All of us want to leave a mark in some form or another; not necessarily as celebrities but in our own small way we want to accomplish something special, something we can be proud of. Something that says “I was here. I did this. I meant something.” It’s not always an easy thing and often we have to overcome obstacles we never could have anticipated.

In the world of bird watching, birders have a kind of Heisman Trophy that they go after – it’s called, informally, a Big Year and it means essentially spotting as many birds as possible in a calendar year. It requires an insane amount of dedication and not a little expense. The all-time champion is Kenny Bostick (Wilson) who holds the mark at 723 separate species of birds.

He has become bored and restless resting on his laurels. He’s made the decision to tackle another big year, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Pike) who is much more eager to start a family. Still, she recognizes he needs one last adventure and gives it to him, but not without consequence.

Brad Harris (Black) is a computer programmer who is divorced and feeling less sure of who he is. He knows he loves birding and is pretty good at it but has to save for quite a while to mount up the resources in order to tackle something like a Big Year. His parents (Wiest, Dennehy) are less than enthusiastic but mom manages to mount up some supportiveness while his cardiac patient dad is less tolerant.

Stu Preissler (Martin) is a workaholic CEO on the verge of retiring and he knows what he wants to do with the first year of his retirement – a Big Year. His wife (Williams) is a little less sanguine about it with a grandchild on the way but Stu insists that he can do both. However, his company is a bit jittery about his departure and a new merger that is going to save the day is dangling by a thread and Stu’s touch is needed.

The three run into each other in the field and none wants to tip their hand that they are going after a Big Year but soon it becomes obvious that they all are after the same thing. While Kenny will do anything and everything to safeguard his record – and allow himself to shatter it – Stu and Brad quickly realize that the only defense against Kenny is to team up. But who will be the winner at the end of the year?

I hadn’t expected much from the film, having understood that it was a critical and box office failure but I was pleasantly surprised. The three leads are all individually engaging and all of them restrain their normal onscreen personas so that none of them is overwhelming (Black particularly who can be overbearing in some of his roles). Here they all are charismatic but sweet-natured – even Wilson’s character, who can be a bastard, isn’t all bad.

Black gets to have a nice field romance with a fellow birder (Jones) which helps add a romantic element to the movie; all of the leads are at different places in their relationships with Stu’s being more centered, Kenny’s being on the edge of disaster and Brad’s just beginning. It illustrates the role of our partners in our lives quite nicely too.

The cinematography is quite nice, with enough bird shots to do a nature film proud (not all of the footage here was authentic – some was spliced in from other movies in order to bring enough different species of birds on screen). Sure, there are some bits that stretch the believability quotient a bit but none to the breaking point.

The leads aren’t the only reason to see the film. As you can see in the cast list there is a pretty impressive collection of talent, some on for only a scene or two (like Huston as a crusty boat captain) but it isn’t stunt casting so much. We aren’t playing “spot the celebrity” although it makes a nice counterpoint to the bird spotting (and a fun game to play for those watching the second time – see how many birds YOU can spot).

This was a movie that came out with a bit of fanfare, considering the star power in the leads and then exited theaters quickly. For whatever reason it didn’t connect with audiences who probably thought a movie about bird watching would be boring. The point is however that this isn’t strictly about bird watching. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and living. Getting off the couch and into something, anything, that sparks our passion. You can’t really complain about a movie that advocates that.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing heart. Some interesting bird-watching facts. Nice performances from the leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit too obsessive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few bad words and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the bird sightings from the winner of the competition are shown over the closing credits and yes, every one of them is a different species of bird, although they weren’t all spotted by the same person in this case.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing on the DVD but the Blu-Ray has a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on a $41M production budget; there is no way to call this other than an unmitigated flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cloud Atlas