The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society


Wheels keep on turning.

(2018) Drama (NetflixLily James, Michael Huisman, Jessica Brown Findlay, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtnay, Katherine Parkinson, Clive Merrison, Bernice Stegers, Penelope Wilton, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Florence Keen, Andy Gathergood, Nicolo Pasetti, Marek Oravec, Jack Morris, Stephanie Schonfeld, Pippa Rathbone, Rachel Olivant, Emily Patrick. Directed by Mike Newell

 

In 1946, England was still picking itself up and dusting itself off after the war. In London, the ruin of the Blitz was still very much in evidence and while there was an attitude of starting fresh, the pain and horror of the war wasn’t far from the surface.

Author Juliet Ashton (James) is making a tidy amount off of plucky war-set stories that are popular but bring her no intellectual satisfaction. A fan letter from a book club in picturesque Guernsey, a Channel Island that had been occupied by the Nazis during the war (a fact that this ignorant American wasn’t aware of) leads her to visit the club to perform a reading. She is captivated by the beauty of the island but even more so by the people, particularly those in the club. Although she is engaged to a flashy American diplomat (Powell), she finds herself drawn to farmer Dawsey Adams (Huisman). She is also drawn to the mystery of Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), once the heart and soul of the club but whose absence nobody seems to want to talk about.

Mike Newell is one of the UK’s most capable directors with movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the better installments in the franchise, to his credit. He does a marvelous job of evoking the post-war Era and gathering together an even more marvelous cast. James is never more attractive than she is here, and nearly all of the ensemble cast has some wonderful moments, particularly veterans Courtnay and Wilton, particularly Wilton who is much undervalued as an actress. There are sequences here where the raw emotions brought on by survivor’s guilt are communicated without theatrical hysterics. It’s a nuanced and brilliant performance that very nearly steals the show.

The romantic elements of the movie are a bit too sweet, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in the mouth – I truly wish that the plot had revolved more on the tale of Elizabeth McKenna than on the romance between Dawsey Adams and Juliet Ashton which came off like a British period soap opera only less interesting. I can’t not recommend a Mike Newell film however and the strong performances in this one make it a perfect candidate to Netflix and Chill.

REASONS TO SEE: The era is recreated beautifully.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contains more than a little bit of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are somewhat adult; there are also some sexual references and occasional mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James, Findlay, Good and Wilton also have appeared in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey; one of the filming locations for the show also doubled as exteriors for Guernsey (the Charterhouse in cases anyone is keeping score).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Went Up a Hill & Came Down a Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Jim Allison: Breakthrough

The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)


In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook

 

What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Aspie Seeks Love


Dave Matthews - not the guy with the band.

Dave Matthews – not the guy with the band.

(2015) Documentary (Animal) David Matthews, Diana Dugina, Zo Weslowski, Wayne Wise, Aaron Schall, Ryan Dugina, Elizabeth Kaske, Dina Matthews, Heather Conroy, Chuck Kinder, Diane Cecily, Nikki Trader, Erika Mikkalo, Phil Gorrow, David Cherry, Rebecca Klaw. Directed by Julie Sokolow

Florida Film Festival 2015

One thing that nearly all of us have in common regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender or any other defining statistic is the need to be loved. We all want it; to be in the company of someone whose emotional connection to us is as deep as ours to them. To live out our lives with the one person we feel safest with, who accepts us as we are and who makes our hearts beat just that much faster when they walk in the room.

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome are no different. Asperger’s is a mental disorder in the autism spectrum, although it is high-functioning; often you won’t know from talking to them that they have any disorders at all. Asperger’s affects the ability to read nonverbal communication and makes social interaction much more different and frustrating. So much of courtship has to do with non-verbal cues; an Asperger’s sufferer won’t be able to pick up on any of them.

David V. Matthews lives in Pittsburgh and has his own style which some may write off as quirky. He’s a gifted writer, an artist and a bit of a bon vivant in the sense that he can captivate a room with his personality. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the tender age of 41, which came as a bit of a relief – his mental tics and eccentricities now had an explanation beyond “that’s just something David does.” There was a reason for the way he behaved and the difficulties he had relating to others.

At the same time, it also meant – to his mind – that there was something broken with him, which can be a scary thing. Suffering from clinical depression myself, I know that feeling, alone in the dark when once you’ve discovered that you have this issue, you wonder “What else is broken in me too?” Asperger’s is not something you can take a pill and are then able to deal with social situations normally any more than someone with depression can take a pill and be happy.

David has tried a lot of different things to find love, including going to mixers that his support group throws, leaving quirky fliers around Pittsburgh essentially advertising himself as a romantic possibility for lonely ladies, to online dating through the service OKCupid. He is a handsome enough man although now pushing 50, most of the women available are single moms, divorcees or women who have either not had the time for a personal life or the inclination for one.

Sokolow divides the movie by holidays which is an interesting way of organizing the footage, but effective. She doesn’t pull punches here; watching David sometimes flounder in social situations makes you want to yell out advice to the screen. Then it hits you.

None of us are born with a manual that tells us how to attract the opposite sex. Mostly what we go through is a system of trial and error, emphasis on the latter. All of us, myself included, can recall painful episodes of wasted opportunities, catastrophic mistakes and missed chances when it comes to romance. We all have had painful experiences that have (hopefully) taught us for the next time around. We can all relate to what David is going through, but whereas those without Asperger’s can learn from their experiences, so too can David and others with Asperger’s but only in a limited sense; if they miss non-verbal cues the first time around, they’ll miss the same cues the second.

David, like many Asperger’s patients, has an atypical speech pattern; in David’s case, it is clipped and hyper-precise. This sometimes makes him sound condescending when I don’t think that’s really what his intention is at all. He also has a sense of humor that runs to the surreal and absurd; not everyone will connect with David as a person for these reasons. Some will find him to be overbearing but some will also find him to be the coolest person in the room and judging from what I saw over admittedly just over an hour of footage I would tend to characterize him as the latter. Of course, that’s all instinct on my end; your results may vary.

We can all see ourselves a little in David for the most part. Trying hard, sometimes too hard to connect with others only to be faced with disappointment and rejection time and time again, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and launch ourselves back into the fray. Not all of us find the right one, at least not right away, but we keep on trying. You admire that about David; he knows that he is playing the game of love at a disadvantage but he perseveres. To use a sports metaphor, he’s the Muggsy Bogues (a 5’3″ point guard for the Charlotte Hornets who was the shortest player in NBA history) of romance.

The movie has a sweet ending that will put a grin on your face when you leave the theater which is priceless; it will also teach you something about Asperger’s and the everyday lives of those who live with it or have loved ones who do. Although the movie feels slow-paced at times, the short running time makes that a bit more tolerable than it might ordinarily. Still with all that, Aspie Seeks Love will get a favorable reaction from you solely depending on how you react to Matthews, and how you react to him says a lot more about you than it does about him.

Incidentally, you can connect further to Matthews at his blogsite where you can read excerpts from his forthcoming novel. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet ending. A real warts-and-all look at a real world issue. Educational about Asperger’s Syndrome for those unfamiliar with it.
REASONS TO STAY: Matthews’ personality may take some getting used to by some. Laid-back feel and pacing may not appeal to everybody.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sokolow began as an indie rock performer with a critically acclaimed album Something About Violins to her credit; this is her first feature-length film after directing several shorts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Keeping Room

Our Film Library 2015


Our Film Library 2015For the second year, Cinema365 is presenting a mini-series of four reviews based on films with a literary background. Movies based on books have been a Hollywood staple since back in the silent era and while the types of movies that come from books can be as varied as literature itself, so too can the quality. Here, we have a classic mystery, a horror story from a master of terror, an adventure novel with an oceanic bent and the conclusion to one of the most popular book series’ of all time.

It’s a varied bunch and like most books, they may connect with you or not but all of them may well take you to places you’ve never been and in the process may teach you something about life, or about yourself. A book can do that; so can a good movie.

So as you pull our first editions off the library shelf, do indulge in a quick read of my words describing the movies based on their words. Hopefully you’ll be moved to see the movie or even read the book. Reading is essential in firing up our imagination and rounding us out as people. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the words of William Shakespeare, Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkein, James Michener and an endless list of others who have transported me to strange worlds, shown me my own world in a different light, stirred my heart, tickled my funny bone and given me insight into the human condition.

We all need a break from life once in awhile and a book can provide that for you. So whether you read on a Kindle or a dog-eared used paperback scrounged from a used bookstore, take a few moments out of your day to exercise your brain and imagination with a book. It’s good for the soul.

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards

Hereafter


Hereafter

Despite how it looks, Matt Damon is NOT sleepwalking his way through this movie.

(2010) Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Thierry Neuvic, Lyndsey Marshal, Derek Jacobi, Steve Schirripa, Rebekah Staton, Declan Conlan. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are three things we all have in common; we were all born, we all are living our lives and all of us will eventually die. The last is perhaps the most terrifying thing in our reality; when we die our existence is over…isn’t it?

Marie LeLay (de France) is a popular French television journalist who is on assignment (or is it vacation? The movie isn’t too clear about that) in an unnamed South Pacific/Indian Ocean coastal city. She is there with her producer Didier (Neuvic) whom she is also romantically involved with. He’s a bit of a lazy slob; it’s their last day in paradise and he hasn’t gotten gifts for his children. Good-naturedly (and perhaps wanting one last crack at the marketplace) Marie goes downstairs to the town to shop.

As she is shopping, she is startled to see a wall of water coming at her – the town is being hit by a tsunami. She tries to run, but there’s no outrunning a wave like this. She is sucked under and dragged out towards the sea. She fights with all her strength to try and get a handhold anywhere, but she is struck in the head by debris and sinks to the bottom. Game over, no?

No. A pair of men pull her out of the water and try to revive her. She eventually comes to but only after having an experience she can’t explain, one with white light illuminating darkness, strangely familiar figures in the light and a sensation of peace.

The experience shakes her up. After reuniting with Didier (who was on a high enough floor in the hotel to not even get his feet wet), she goes back to Paris to resume her duties and finds herself distracted. Didier urges her to take some time off and write the book on Francois Mitterrand that she always wanted to write. Realizing she isn’t at the top of her game, she reluctantly agrees.

In London, a pair of twin brothers Marcus and Jason (the McLaren brothers, who alternated in the two roles) are desperately trying to keep social workers from discovering that their mother Jackie (Marshal) is messed up on drugs and alcohol again, knowing that if the authorities discover the truth they’ll be taken away from their mother for sure. With a bit of luck they are able to fool the social workers. Relieved, Jackie sends Jason, the more outgoing of the two, to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription, one that will finally begin the rehab process for her. Jason and Marcus are absolutely overjoyed.

That joy is short-lived. A group of young street thugs spy Jason talking on a cell phone and they want it, as well as the drugs he’s carrying. They chase him down the street, and Jason runs into traffic to escape, directly into the path of a lorry. He’s killed instantly despite Marcus’s pleas to come back (Marcus heard the whole thing over the phone and went running out to save his brother, fruitlessly as it turned out).

In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Damon) is annoyed at his brother Billy (Mohr). Billy has brought over a client named Christos (Kind) for a reading. Not the book kind of reading; you see, George is a kind of a psychic. His readings involve communicating with the dead, and Christos wants to talk to his late wife in the worst way.

The trouble is, George has given the life of a psychic up. He was once fairly well-known – a book was even written about his gifts – and he had a thriving business with a website and everything. However, the cost to George’s soul was too great, and he yearned for a normal life. He is setting out to provide himself with just that, taking a job in a sugar factory and taking Italian cooking lessons from a chef (Schirripa) in a local learning annex, meeting a sweet and somewhat chatty girl named Melanie (Howard) in the process. He is just beginning to really fall for her when she discovers the nature of his talents, which leads to him discovering something about her that she had wanted to keep buried.

All three of these people, touched in one way or another by death are on paths that are getting ready to intersect. What will happen when they do is anybody’s guess.

I had very high hopes for this movie. After all, Eastwood has become the most consistently high-quality director in Hollywood, and writer Peter Morgan has such acclaimed works as The Queen to his credit. The subject matter is also intriguing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, I was left feeling kind of flat by the whole thing. There doesn’t seem to be much insight going on, other than to say that most people who spend too much time thinking about death are forgetting that they have a life. While Damon and de France are solid in their parts (particularly Damon who turns into one of the most compelling performances in his career), the McLaren brothers – who are amateur actors – seem a bit overwhelmed by what they’re doing. Unfortunately (and I hate to criticize child actors), they were terribly inconsistent in their performance. At times there seemed to be some talent there; at others, they seemed completely lost. Eastwood deliberately cast non-professionals in the role because he didn’t want veterans of “Child Acting 101” to deliver an unbelievable performance. While I agree with the sentiment, unfortunately he needed someone along the lines of a young Haley Joel Osment or even an Abigail Breslin to really make that part of the movie work.

The opening tsunami sequence is absolutely astonishing, giving viewers a you-are-there feel and is some of Eastwood’s best filmmaking work to date. Not known for big special effects shots and computer imaging, I thought this scene had enormous power and really set the movie up quite nicely.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really go anywhere and the ending kind of peters out. Eastwood has said in several interviews that he didn’t want to create an afterlife movie, but rather begin a conversation about the afterlife and whether or not it exists. The movie seems to opine that some sort of consciousness remains when the body dies but whether or not this is Heaven, Valhalla or just the brain shutting down is left up to the discretion of the viewer and in that sense, the movie works marvelously. Still, I felt a bit let down at the end and while perhaps I just wasn’t on the same page as Eastwood for this one, I think it fair enough that my reaction be part of the review. Eastwood is a master craftsman and this movie certainly reflects that craft, but it left me feeling…well, nothing.

REASONS TO GO: The opening scene is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and Damon puts on one of the performances he’ll be remembered for.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit vague, and leaves one wondering what the purpose of the movie is.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images regarding death and the afterlife, and a few bad words here and there but for the most part, suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes depicting the tsunami were filmed in Lahaina, Hawaii.

HOME OR THEATER: The opening scene should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: MegaMind

Starting Out in the Evening


Starting Out in the Evening

Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella out for an evening stroll.

(Roadside Attractions) Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Karl Bury, Anitha Gandhi, Sean T. Krishnan, Jessica Hecht, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Andrew Wagner

All of us want to leave a legacy of one sort or another and nowhere is this desire keener than with writers. The older we get, the more urgent that need becomes.

Leonard Schiller (Langella) has had his share of artistic triumph. In his career he has written four books, all of which have received acclaim and notice, particularly the first two. However, as the 21st century begins all of his books are out of print and he has been relegated as something of a literary footnote. He has been working on his fifth novel for a decade now and has come to realize that it will be his last.

Into his New York milieu comes comely graduate student Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) who is eager to do her master’s thesis on the notoriously reclusive Schiller. That would mean giving the young woman access to his life in ways Schiller doesn’t feel comfortable with. While Heather promises that her thesis will re-ignite interest in Schiller’s books, Schiller himself is less concerned with interest in books he’s already written and more interested in getting his final work written and published, so he declines politely but firmly.

Browsing in a bookstore later with his daughter Ariel (Taylor), Schiller is bemused to see that Heather’s claims of being a published writer herself are correct and that her previous essay on another writer did in fact result in that writer’s works going back into print again. He also is disturbed to discover that there is little interest in the publishing world in putting the final work of an aging and more-or-less forgotten novelist whose best work was forty years behind him into print. Given all of this, Leonard changes his mind.

Ariel is also going through a difficult period in her life. She had dreamed of being a dancer but is reduced to teaching Pilates and yoga classes. As she is approaching forty, she very much wants to have a child, but seems to have the unerring ability to choose men who don’t. Her latest boyfriend, Victor (Cumpsty) is busy with his legal career. When Ariel stops using her birth control without telling him, the relationship comes to an end, much to Leonard’s disappointment. He’d liked the latest boyfriend, unlike his feelings for Casey (Lester), Ariel’s previous beau who had coincidentally just returned to New York. They had broken up because she wanted to have children and he didn’t, but nonetheless they get back together, falling into the same patterns, living the same lies.

As time goes on, Heather’s motivations for choosing Schiller become more obvious and the attention of a much younger, beautiful woman becomes flattering. What skeletons will emerge from Schiller’s closet and will he find the legacy he so painfully wants?

Based on a novel by Brian Norton, director Wagner (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a world in which authors are revered, good literature is worth saving and people still care about reading. That’s a world which is shrinking in a day and age where people are more willing to vote for the next American Idol than for the next American President. Wagner isn’t necessarily pointing the finger of condemnation at our shallow modern society, but he does so simply by displaying this one. There is depth and layers to each and every character in this film, even the minor ones.

Langella is a force onscreen. He has the gravitas of a Morgan Freeman and the gentility and intelligence of Laurence Olivier. His Leonard Schiller is a complex man, one whose life was altered forever when his wife died in a tragic car accident. From that point, everything about him changed – his art, his relationship with his daughter, his perception of the world. He is discovering that he no longer wants to live the solitary life of a literary icon and recluse, but needs human company, even human love.

Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire in “Six Feet Under,” has a very difficult role and she carries it off surprisingly well. Heather is driven, ambitious and charming on the surface, but below the surface she is conflicted and not nearly as self-confident. She has a tough veneer but she can be wounded and Leonard finds a way to do just that. There is some sexuality in her performance, but it isn’t just sex.

In some ways, we all hear the clock ticking. Perhaps it’s our biological clock, urging us to bear progeny. Perhaps it’s our life clock, counting down the end of our days. Perhaps it’s our career clock, compelling us to take advantage of opportunities while they still exist. Those opportunities, whether for children, success or creating a legacy exist within an all-too-brief period of time. Take the opportunity to see this movie as soon as you can.

WHY RENT THIS: Langella is becoming one of the most distinguished actors in America today, and he demonstrates his skills here. A very literate movie with some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat talky in places and a bit high-falutin’ in others.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief nude posterior in view as well as some sexuality and language concerns. Okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Brian Morton novel this is based on was a PenFaulkner Book Award nominee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 17 Again