St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick

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New Releases for the Week of November 15, 2013


The Best Man Holiday

THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY     

(Universal) Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Terrence Howard, Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Monica Calhoun, Melissa de Souza. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

A group of college friends determine to reunite over the holidays in New York. Years after the hi-jinx that ensued at the wedding, they’ve moved on with their lives – some together, some not, However once they all get into the same state, old rivalries and relationships flare up yet again and threaten to make this a Christmas to remember.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Urban Holiday Comedy

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief nudity)

Aftermath

(Menemsha) Maciej Stuhr, Ireneusz Czop, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Danuta Szarflarska. A Pole who has been living in Chicago for many years returns home to visit his younger brother. He discovers that his brother has been shunned and threatened by his neighbors. As he digs into the mysterious affair, he discovers a terrible secret that the town has been keeping and that he and his brother are part of. This is playing at the Enzian as part of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Attack

(Cohen Media Group) Ali Suliman, Evgenia Dodena, Reymond Amsalem, Dvir Benedek. A surgeon in Tel Aviv of Palestinian descent has fully assimilated into Israeli society. When a suicide bomber detonates in a restaurant, he is one of those on the front lines taking care of the wounded. When he discovers his wife is among the fatalities, he is devastated but it becomes far worse when it becomes clear that she is suspected of being the bomber. Now he must take a journey into the dark side of his homeland to discover the truth about his wife. In doing so he will discover that he must question everything about his faith, his life and his dreams. This is playing at the Enzian as part of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some violent images, language and brief sexuality)

Dallas Buyers Club

(Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn. Ron Woodruff was a party hearty Texas cowboy in the ‘80s who like many in that era found his lifestyle catching up to him – he was diagnosed with AIDS. In 1985, that was a death sentence. Not satisfied to lay down and die, he fought to get alternative treatments, both legal and not so much. Traveling the world, he embraces and becomes embraced by elements of society he once would have disdained and establishes a buying club meant to get the drugs desperately needed by the dying into their hands.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use)

The Europa Report

(Magnet) Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu. An manned expedition to Europa, a moon of Jupiter which scientists currently believe is the most likely place in the solar system to harbor life outside of Earth, loses contact with mission control. Their struggle to complete their mission will lead to the decision whether the increase of knowledge is worth the cost of human life. This was previously reviewed in Cinema365 here.

See the trailer and a link to stream the full movie at Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and peril)

Great Expectations

(Main Street/Lionsgate) Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes. This is a lush new version of the classic Charles Dickens novel brought to life by one of the greatest living directors, Mike Newell. A young impoverished boy is lifted from the cruel streets of 19th century London and brought into a life of wealth and privilege, but this act of charity is not without its drawbacks.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Period Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images) 

Hava Nagila: The Movie

(International Film Circuit) Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Connie Frances, Regina Spektor. The story of the iconic Hebrew folk song is examined with performances throughout the years by well-known stars. This is playing at the Enzian as part of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Ram Leela

(Eros International) Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Richa Chadda, Supriya
Pathak
. The courtship of two young people from feuding families has consequences. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, the movie’s released has been temporarily blocked as the title in Hindi refers to the god Rama and the vulgarity, violence and sex in the movie was insulting to Hindus. However, the producers are free to release it here and indeed they have, making this a rare Bollywood film that opens in the United States before it does in India.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

When Comedy Went to School

(International Film Circuit) Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl. Once upon a time the Catskill Mountains and the resorts therein were premium vacation destinations for the Eastern Seaboard. Many of the resorts had nightclubs where stand-up comedians were routinely booked. This area became known as the Borscht belt as many comedians – primarily Jewish – honed their skills here and went on to become superstars. This is playing at the Enzian as part of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Zaytoun

(Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni. During the 1982 Lebanese Civil War, an Israeli fighter pilot is shot down and taken prisoner by a Palestinian refugee camp nearby. Although initially hating him, the young boy assigned to guard him yearns to see the homeland of his parents and is willing to make a deal; he’ll help the pilot escape in exchange for being taken to Israel so that he might plant an olive tree. Despite their mutual distrust, they form an unlikely friendship. This is playing at the Orlando Science Center as part of the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice

New Releases for the Week of September 13, 2013


Insidious Chapter 2

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2

(FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Leigh Whannell, Steve Coulter, Angus Sampson. Directed by James Wan

Following the events of Insidious the Lambert family thinks the terror is behind them. However, little do they know that they were signed to do a sequel and the supernatural forces that bedeviled them in the first film aren’t done with them yet. Not only are they back but they are more frightening than ever – which is good news for gorehounds looking for a pre-Halloween scarefest.  

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror and violence, and thematic elements)

Austenland

(Sony Classics) Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge.  A New Yorker with a not-so-secret passion for the world of Jane Austen, finds herself the perfect vacation – an English resort in a Regency-era estate which has been outfitted to take their guests back to that time, complete with actors playing the characters from the novel. But as she flirts and finds her perfect nirvana, perhaps someone will turn out to be her perfect Mr. Darcy.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)

The Family

(Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron. A mafia boss who testified against the mob has been in witness protection but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Unruly, unable to give up their life of crime and mayhem despite the danger it puts them in, their exasperated handler puts them in a house in rural France but even there they can’t get past that they’re most definitely not in Brooklyn anymore. And as the mob closes in on them, they realize they have no other place to go.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Action Comedy

Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality) 

The Investigator

(Gabriel’s Messenger) Wade Williams, David Sanborn, Kevin White, Mollyanna Ward. A veteran police detective, weary of the worst side of humanity he confronts every day, is forced to retire after a drug bust goes horribly wrong.  He becomes a criminal justice teacher and baseball coach at a local Christian high school, but after his wife’s miscarriage he questions his once-strong faith. However, one of his students urges him to put his police skills to the test – to investigate the murder of one Jesus of Nazareth. Based on a true story.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for some drug material and a scene of violence)

Winnie Mandela

(RLJ Entertainment) Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Wendy Crewson, Elias Koteas. While many are aware of the accomplishments of the South African activist and politician Nelson Mandela, his wife Winnie was no less a formidable advocate for freedom and a major figure in bringing down the system of apartheid in that country. This is that story from her point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some violence and language)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend

The Company You Keep


Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho, Matthew Kimbrough, Andrew Airlie, Lochlyn Munro, Hiro Kanagawa, Lane Edwards, Kenneth Miller, Susan Hogan. Directed by Robert Redford.  

The 60s live with us in a number of ways – some beneficial, some not. Those who felt the need to rise up and protest the unjustness of the Vietnam war, the social inequities between poor and rich, black and white, women and men – most moved on to lives of numbing normality. Others however were forced by circumstances to disappear into the bowels of a country that despised them.

A Vermont housewife (Sarandon), typical in every way, says goodbye to her husband and grown children, gets in her car and drives South. Once in New York state, she stops to put gas in her car and is surrounded by federal agents. It turns out that she was once Sharon Solarz, a member of the radical group the Weather Underground and that she took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a bank guard.

In the coming days it turned out that FBI Agent Cornelius (Howard) had lucked out – a wire tap on Billy Cusimano (Root), a pot farmer, had caught Solarz making plans to turn herself in, but the Agency – unable to locate her for almost 40 years, instead grabbed her so that they would seem to have caught her through their investigative prowess.

Realizing that Solarz needed a lawyer in the worst way, Cusimano reached out to his friend Jim Grant (Redford), an aging public interest lawyer who was getting over the death of his much younger wife the previous year, and trying to raise her daughter Isabel (Evancho) as best he can. Grant has way too much on his plate and politely refers Cusimano (and Solarz) elsewhere.

Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), a reporter for the local newspaper, is a little stung that he missed the story of the high-profile arrest that happened in his own backyard. Well, actually it’s his editor Ray Fuller (Tucci) who’s stung but the stinging is trickling down somewhat. He wants Ben to follow it up and Ben, one of those old-style reporters with an instinct for a story, starts following the Solarz arrest, utilizing a contact (Kendrick) in the FBI  This leads him to Jim, who politely brushes him off. That’s when things go sideways.

Jim takes his daughter out of school and takes a trip down to New York City. You see, it turns out that Jim used to go by the name of Nick Sloan and was one of the three outstanding fugitives from the bank robbery. He rightly presumes that his identity won’t hold up long to scrutiny and his real name will be discovered. Once that happens, he knows it’s a matter of time before overzealous FBI agents swoop in and traumatize his child.

He leaves Isabel with his real brother, Daniel (Cooper) and heads on out – but not to run. It doesn’t take long for Ben to figure out that Jim/Nick’s behavior doesn’t jive with someone trying to get away. He seems to be seeking out people involved with the case – like the investigating officer Henry Osborne (Gleeson) whose daughter Rebecca (Marling) Ben finds unusually fascinating. He’s also visiting former “fellow travelers” Donal Fitzgerald (Nolte) and Jed Lewis (Jenkins).

You see, there’s a fourth fugitive out there – Mimi Lurie (Christie) who seems to want to remain hidden. And Ben begins to suspect that Jim/Nick is seeking her out, not to warn her of events that she’s already fully aware of – but to clear his name.

Redford has always positioned himself out of the mainstream politically while remaining firmly within it, without being part of it. He excels at playing outsiders and has throughout his career. I’ve always admired his moral center, which shows clearly in his films which are generally about individuals who fall victim to pressures that range from societal (Ordinary People) to governmental (The Conspirator).

He’s a little long in the tooth for a role like this one, particularly where he is the stepfather of a tween-age girl and nothing against Evancho but while I understand the intent of the writers to show the effects of Nick Sloan’s decisions on those who love and count on him, they might have been better served to have an adult child affected instead. We never get a sense of how the absence of his daughter affects Jim/Nick, which also renders the role superfluous. If you’re gonna bring a kid into the equation, it would be nice to see the parent actually missing them.

This is in all likelihood the best cast you’re going to see, top to bottom, this year. These are some of the finest actors in Hollywood, both established (Sarandon, Christie) and up-and-coming (LaBeouf, Marling), not to mention outstanding character actors (Jenkins, Gleeson). There isn’t a false note in any performances here and they all realize they have the kind of taut story that will keep audiences on the edge of their collective seats.

The movie does take awhile to get to its destination, which plants it firmly in the “not for young people” category who prefer movies that require less of an attention span. In any case, the real target audience for this movie is pretty much aging, people who are hitting their 60s and 70s and have the patience to sit through a certain amount of exposition and remember the turbulent 60s vividly.

Redford, who has been relatively inactive as a director for decades, has now done two movies in three years. I hope that signals further activity in the director’s chair for him – I find his work to be high quality in every instance that he’s gone behind the camera and this isn’t an exception. Like Redford himself, the movie is going outside the mainstream with a limited release via Sony Classics rather than a mass release on Columbia. Oddly enough, that appeals to me somehow – although I am concerned that it won’t reach as many viewers as it might which would be a crying shame. I hope those that read this will get the message that they should mark seeing this movie down on their to-do list.

REASONS TO GO: Taut story told well. Really great cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places. Definitely a movie for people who are getting on a bit in years.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least nine of the actors in the cast have been nominated for or won Academy Awards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100; the reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running on Empty

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Gut

On the Road


Bella Swan, you're all grown up!

Bella Swan, you’re all grown up!

(2012) Drama (Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Marie-Ginette Guay, Steve Buscemi, Joe Chrest, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi, Michael Sarrazin, Ximena Adriana, Tetchena Bellange, Kim Bubbs, Tiio Horn, Giselle Itie, Giovanna Zacarias. Directed by Walter Salles  

The classic Jack Kerouac Beat Generation novel On the Road has literally been in development for decades. Nobody really knew quite what to do with the book. It finally got made and was released in late 2012; was it worth the wait?

Young Sal Paradiso (Riley), a stand-in for the author, meets Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) – who stands in for Neal Cassady – through mutual friends. Sal, grieving for his father and a writer stuck in a horrible case of writer’s block, is instantly taken by this young man who is full of life and not especially concerned with convention, rules or…well, anything that gets in the way of him having a good time. Charming and literate, Dean and his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Stewart) serve up alcohol, sex and marijuana with equal enthusiasms. When it’s time for Dean and Marylou to head back to Denver, Sal is invited to come visit.

It takes some time for Sal to get together the gumption and funds to go – even in postwar New York there aren’t a ton of jobs – but he finally does. He rides busses and hitchhikes across the pre-Interstate America and eventually gets there, only to find that Dean is cheating on Marylou with Camille (Dunst). Sal heads back, stopping briefly to pick cotton and have an affair with Terri (Braga).

Later, after Sal has returned to New York, Sal and his mother (Guay) are visiting Sal’s sister and her husband for the holidays in North Carolina when Dean turns up with Marylou and friend Ed Dunkle (Morgan) and offer to drive Sal and his mom back up to New York in exchange for a place to stay for the night and a meal. Sal’s staid sister and family aren’t quite sure what to make of the intruders.

After getting back to New York and spending some time partying, Sal decides to accompany the three back to Denver. On the way they stop in New Orleans to pick up Ed’s wife Galatea (Moss) and to visit Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams). They continue crisscrossing the country and as they do Sal noticed that women are getting left behind quite regularly both figuratively and literally not only by Dean but by all of them (the lone exception is Carlo (Sturridge) who is gay and is one of those left behind by the bisexual Dean). After a disastrous trip to Mexico in which Sal contracts dysentery, at last he will see Dean for who he truly is – and find inspiration in the process.

In all honesty I’ve been less a fan of the writing of the Beat Generation and more of…well, admirer isn’t quite the right term. The Beat writers were full of bullshit, but it’s an honest bullshit, a young man’s bullshit. This is a movie about self-fulfillment in all its forms. I have to admit I haven’t read the book; okay, I might have but it was so long ago that I don’t remember it and so it adds up to the same thing.  Therefore, I’m not really the one to evaluate whether the spirit of the book was captured so we’ll leave that as a N/A for now.

Salles, who is no stranger to road movies having directed the Che Guevara quasi-biopic The Motorcycle Diaries has a firm hand here and allows the allure of the road to shine through; the endless stripes passing by through landscapes mostly desolate but wonderful in their emptiness. However, keeping in mind that the movie runs about two hours give or take, that can only sustain a film so much.

The characters here are so incredibly self-involved that it’s difficult to find a lot of sympathy for the lot of them. Mostly they’re about indulging whatever hedonistic pleasure grabs them at the moment, and Dean is the mainstay in that regard. For Dean, friends and lovers are to be exploited, discarded when the need for them diminishes or when boredom sets in. He wants to meet people who have something to say that isn’t the usual postwar pabulum of pandering prattling polemic, empty of soul and emptier of head. That’s all well and good but what does interesting companions really do for you if you make no connection to them?

Admittedly the relationship between Dean and Sal is the centerpiece here in that there is more or less a relationship of mutual respect and debauchery but in the end Dean uses Sal just as thoroughly and just as despicably, maybe even more so than the others. Hedlund gives the performance of his career thus far in capturing Dean’s natural charisma and sensual charm that attracted both women and men to him like moths to a flame. Riley, a British actor who’s turned in some really incredible performances in his young career, is solid here as the yin to Hedlund’s yang, and to my mind it’s a generous move because by not shining quite so bright he allows Hedlund’s glow to be more noticeable and the movie benefits from it.

You can only take so much self-indulgent behavior and there’s really a whole lot of it here. There’s an amazing amount of smoking and drinking, not to mention a ton of sex and drug use. I don’t begrudge anyone who partakes in any of those things but it’s a bit more boring to watch than you’d expect.

This is a generation that is not unlike the 20-somethings that are out there right now; people trying to find their own way in a world that doesn’t really get them much, so they are forced to reinvent the world to fit their view. I can commend the ballsyness of the strategy but it doesn’t always make for good cinema unless of course these are your people too.

They aren’t really mine. There just isn’t any appeal in watching people indulge their most hedonistic and basic whims while forgetting to make any connection to other people. It’s an ultimately empty and meaningless pursuit. Life is about connections, not so much about carnality. It’s a lesson that the young learn as they get older, although some never learn it at all.

Some will look at these characters and see heroes bucking the system and living life on their own terms. I see people who screw their friends over and whose only concern is having a good time. One must grow up sooner or later (you would hope) and to be honest, watching this is like watching children acting out. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – sorry if that means I fail the coolness test.

REASONS TO GO: Some good performances, particularly from Hedlund. Captures the allure of the road and the essence of the era.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters far too self-indulgent to connect to.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sex, swearin’ and smokin’ of weed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally bought the rights to the novel in 1979 and has been attempting to get the film made since then.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100; the reviews are lukewarm at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Neal Cassady

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Admission