Woman in Gold


The principals of the tale.

The principals of the tale.

(2015) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Antje Traue, Nene Gachev, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, Tom Schilling, Moritz Bleibtreu, Anthony Howell, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Asli Bayram, Jasmine Golden. Directed by Simon Curtis

When the Nazis swept through Europe, they would quickly evict wealthy Jews from their homes, taking their possessions before sending the residents to concentration camps for the eventual Final Solution. After the war was over, many works of art and personal possessions were not returned to their original owners or their descendants.

One such work was Gustav Klimt’s (Bleibtreu) masterwork Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I which was eventually retitled Woman in Gold. The portrait hung proudly in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum and was considered “Austria’s Mona Lisa” for its station as the pre-eminent artwork in Austria. But at one time, it hung in the apartment of the Bloch-Bauer family.

For Maria Altmann (Mirren) however, the portrait meant something different; it was not merely an important work of art, it was a memory of her aunt (Traue) who passed away too young of meningitis in 1925, a refined and beautiful woman who was an important influence on her life. Some 15 years later, the Nazis took control of Austria and seized their home and nearly all of their things including a priceless Stradivarius (which at one time resided in Hitler’s Alpine retreat) and five Klimt paintings including the one of her aunt. While her Uncle Ferdinand (Goodman), Adele’s husband, had presence enough to relocate to Switzerland before the Nazis arrived, young Maria (Maslany), her husband Fritz (Irons) and Maria’s parents were trapped. A harrowing escape got Fritz and Maria out of Vienna but her parents were left behind where they would die.

Years later, when her sister had passed away, Maria found some letters among her effects in reference to the painting. With Austria undertaking a highly-publicized restoration of Nazi plunder back to their original owner, she was curious about what could be done to restore that which had been stolen from her family and returned to her, so she calls on Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), son of an old friend (Fisher) of Maria’s and grandson of the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg. At first, having just taken a job at a large firm and inexperienced in this kind of law, he is reluctant to take the case but when he discovered that the painting was valued at over $100 million, his interest was piqued.

However, getting the painting back would entail going to Vienna, something Maria swore she would never do, but it was necessary to find Adele’s will which the Austrian government claimed had given the painting to them. There, aided by a sympathetic journalist (Bruhl) Randy discovers that Adele never owned the painting to begin with – her husband Ferdinand did and HE had bequeathed the works of art to Maria.

The Austrian government was reluctant to part with the painting and through every roadblock possible in Maria’s way, but Randy – who was greatly affected by a visit to the Holocaust memorial in Vienna which reminded him that members of his family were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and taken to places where they would die horribly – was resolved to see justice done. With Maria’s resolve flagging, could he convince the frail old woman to see the fight through to the end, though it take them to the American Supreme Court?

Mirren is one of the most delightful and versatile actresses, able to do a regal Queen, a working class dress shop owner or a droll assassin with equal aplomb. Her performance here as Maria is scintillating and certainly the focal point of the movie, but more of a surprise is Reynolds, who is generally charming beefcake but has rarely performed to this level in a dramatic role; it’s in fact his best acting performance yet in my opinion. Maslany, who has been so good in Orphan Black, also is superior as a young Adele who leaves her country and manages to get to America with nearly nothing to her name but the love of her husband to sustain her.

There are some powerful scenes here; when Adele says goodbye to her parents, I could only imagine how many similar conversations were taking place at that time in that situation where children would say goodbye to parents who knew that they would never see their offspring again.

I have to admit that when the actual case took place midway through the last decade I initially sided with the Austrian government; I thought that a work of art isn’t truly owned by an individual but by humanity. My mind has been changed on that accord.

You see, art is not just an ephemeral theoretical thing; it is real, tangible, powerful and personal. A painting of your favorite aunt isn’t just a picture; it is a representation of the soul of someone you love. That’s a powerful thing; when that representation is ripped from the family who it belongs to rightfully, it is doubly powerful. Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg weren’t just fighting for Maria’s rights; they were fighting for all those who had been left behind to die, a reality the film makes very clear in yet another powerful scene near the end of the movie.

While some critics have characterized the movie as boring, I didn’t find it so. Even though I knew how the case turned out I was mesmerized, mainly because the acting here is so top of the line. Yeah, this isn’t for everyone; some people point out that this is yet another Holocaust movie and there are those who are tired of hearing about the Holocaust. Has there been oversaturation of the Holocaust in movies?

No. Not even close. Some people may be uncomfortable with the discussion of the subject; perhaps then you should talk with someone who lost someone in the Holocaust. Even though generations have come and gone, there are those who can only view it through the prism of family members murdered and lives destroyed. Judging from the way we treat gay people, how religious zealots murder at will and how we continue to hate blindly because people are different than us, it is clear that we haven’t learned a goddamned thing. So I say to Hollywood, please do continue to make movies about the Holocaust. Please continue to remind us what the devastating consequences are when we say nothing when the rights and lives of others are jeopardized. We clearly need to be reminded of what silence buys us.

REASONS TO GO: Mirren is terrific as always and Reynolds delivers his best performance ever. Some very moving moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a few scattered bad words and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran actress McGovern is married in real life to the director, Simon Curtis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adele’s Wish
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Florida Film Festival coverage begins with Wildlike

Paddington


Please look after this bear. Thank you.

Please look after this bear. Thank you.

(2015) Family (Weinstein) Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw (voice), Imelda Staunton (voice), Michael Gambon (voice), Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Tim Downie, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters, Matt King, Alice Lowe, Dominic Coleman, Matt Lucas, Jude Wright, Geoffrey Palmer, Kayvan Novak, Simon Farnaby, Julie Vollono. Directed by Paul King

The value of family can’t be overstated. Sometimes they drive us crazy but our families are in most cases our soft place to land, our bridge over troubled water. In our families we find support, often unconditional and comfort, usually without asking. Not every family is wonderful – there are some that savage each other and go out of their way to hurt one another but those sorts are rare. Most of us would rather have a family than not.

A young bear (Whishaw) lives with his Aunt Lucy (Staunton) and his Uncle Pastuzo (Gambon) in Darkest Peru. It is a good life, full of marmalade – a delicacy that these particular bears learned to appreciate after being visited by an explorer (Downie) who not only turned them on to the wonders of a good marmalade but upon discovering that the bears were capable of speech taught them to speak the King’s English. Filling their heads full of tales of wonder about a glittering city called London, he invited them to come visit him there one day.

However, an earthquake destroys the home of the young bear and wearing the lucky hat of Uncle Pastuzo – who had in turn received it from the explorer – proceeds to stow away aboard a steamer bound for London, where he smuggles himself in a mail bag to Paddington Station. There, wearing a tag reading “Please look after this bear. Thank you,” the extremely polite young bear waited in Lost and Found for someone to give him a home, which the explorer had assured his Aunt and Uncle would be bound to happen, given the English generosity of spirit.

Evening falls and busy commuters ignore the sad bear until the Brown family happen along. Mary Brown (Hawkins), the mum of the family as well as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, is taken with the bear’s sad situation and decides to take the bear to their home overnight until a more suitable situation might be found. Her two children – the easily embarrassed teenager Judy (Harris) and the whip-smart Jonathan (Joslin) are not thrilled with this turn of events and even less thrilled is father Henry (Bonneville), a risk analyst for a big London insurance firm.  Pronouncing that this will be for “just one night,” he urges his children to lock their doors in case the talking bear comes into their rooms and tears them to pieces. That’s what non-talking bears do, after all.

Mary christens their new friend Paddington, after the railway station where he was discovered and finds she can’t quite bring herself to just turn him over to authorities who will no doubt put the poor bear in an orphanage or a jail or a workhouse. Something Dickensian without a doubt. She visits the local antique dealer Herr Gruber (Broadbent) to see if the antiquated hat might be a clue as to who the explorer was so that Paddington could go to him and have a proper home. The explorer proves to be more elusive than you might think.

Also chasing Paddington is an evil taxidermist (Kidman) for the British Museum who sees Paddington as a rare specimen whose stuffed body needs to be mounted in the Museum. She’ll stop at nothing to obtain him. She’s assisted by the Browns’ neighbor Mr. Curry (Capaldi) who has taken quite a fancy to the taxidermist and in fact Doesn’t Like Bears in the neighborhood. A nuisance, that’s what those filthy creatures are.

Based on the beloved children’s books by Michael Bond, Paddington is surprisingly charming. In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from this project upon first hearing about it. Quite frankly, family movies have been just dreadful the past few years, particularly those not produced by Disney. I’m happy to report that this one is actually better than most of the family films that came out last year with maybe the exception of The LEGO Movie.

Whishaw actually has the perfect voice for Paddington; youthful, polite and warm. The animators (Paddington is a CGI creation) do a good job of matching the bear up with the illustrations from the books, yet giving him a realism that makes you think you’re looking at an actual bear.

The mayhem that ensues in the movie often takes Rube Goldberg proportions as Paddington unwittingly gets himself into trouble. There are a lot of fun bits here, although many of them appear in the trailer. Still, seeing the full sequence adds to the enjoyment.

Kidman is the villain here and her part seems tonally different than the rest of the movie. She’s bitter, angry and lethal which seems at odds with the gentle nature of the rest of the film. I think her part should have been softened a bit and less completely evil, although she does get a just comeuppance in the end.

This is perfect family entertainment; smaller children should be at an age where the Paddington books will appeal to them and their parents may well have grown up on the series as well. It was around when I was a kid, but for whatever reason my parents chose to go the Dr. Seuss route with their kids back then; I kind of wish I’d gotten to read them back then but they are still adorable now. Maybe I’ll get to read them to grandchildren one day.

In any case, after a dearth of quality entertainment in the theaters Paddington is like a ray of sunshine on a stormy afternoon. With Pixar back and several intriguing family films in the pipeline, hopefully this year will be a much better year for families in the movie theaters than last year was. This is certainly a promising start.

REASONS TO GO: Relentlessly heart-warming. Exceedingly well-cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays it safe throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of mayhem and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Michael Bond who created the character originally cameos during the scene at Paddington Station as an elderly gentleman who raises a glass of wine to the bear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuart Little
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

The Imitation Game


Beauty and the Beastly

Beauty and the Beastly

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Ilan Goodman, Jack Tarlton, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, Tuppence Middleton, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Morten Tyldum

During World War II, one of the crucial technological breakthroughs made by Nazi Germany was the development of Enigma, a virtually unbreakable code using an ingenious machine whose code key changed daily. The Germans did virtually all their communicating with it and were able for that day to relay orders from command to the fronts quickly and efficiently. The Allies found that breaking that code would be the key to winning the war – and the code was considered unbreakable.

British Intelligence, in the person of Commander Denniston (Dance) and the mysterious Stuart Menzies (Strong) of the nascent MI-6 are looking for the best and the brightest cryptographers to break the code. Currently their team based in Bletchley Park is led by Hugh Alexander (Goode) has had no success and at midnight each day all their work comes to naught as the Germans change the code key.

Into this mix they bring Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) , a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer. He is also arrogant and a social misfit, unable to communicate with even the barest cordiality with his team. He dreams up a machine that can calculate combinations of letters and numbers faster than even the human brain, one that can go through an infinite number of calculations without stopping in the course of a day. Unfortunately, it proves expensive and cumbersome and is yielding no results. Denniston is eager to shut the project down but Alexander surprisingly stands up for Turing with whom he has butted heads endlessly.

Turing needs more help and he gets it in a comely young woman named Joan Clarke (Knightley). Brilliant in her own right and intellectually Turing’s equal in many ways, she is held back because she’s got breasts and apparently those cumbersome things prevent her from thinking clearly and concisely because….well, I don’t get it but it has to do with hormones and…I don’t know, because men have been idiots for a very long time?

In any case the team has to weather the frustration of knowing that every day they don’t solve the code that thousands of Allied soldiers die. Denniston is completely out of patience and has given the team a hard deadline to get results. Menzies also lets Turing know that someone on his team is funneling information to the Soviets. Finally there’s the awful realization that even if they do solve the code, they have to make sure the Germans don’t guess that they’ve broken it – otherwise they’ll just improve their machine and then the Allies will be back to square one, which means they’ll have to decide which information to act on – which also means letting people die when they might possibly have saved them, which leads to tragic consequences for one member of the team.

Beyond that Alan has a secret of his own – he likes boys and not just in a fraternal way. Homosexuality is illegal in Britain and if word got out that Turing is one it will be all the ammunition Denniston needs to get rid of Turing. Actually, there is one thing Turing likes more than boys – that’s Christopher, the creation he has built to crack the code and Christopher is, in a very large part, the forerunner of modern computers.

The real Turing would be credited by no less than Winston Churchill for winning the war, but nobody knew the extent of his involvement until just 20 years ago when some wartime secrets were declassified. In fact that Enigma had been broken at all was a very closely guarded secret that Turing himself didn’t even take credit for and when asked, he would say he worked in a radio factory during the war. But far from being grateful for his service in saving millions of British lives, he was convicted of being a homosexual and disgraced, forced to take chemical castration treatments. A year after his treatments were completed, he died of cyanide poisoning, ruled a suicide although there are those who think that the poisoning may have been accidental.

This is the first English-language film for Norwegian director Tyldum (Headhunters) and it’s already netted him praise and award nominations including the DGA award. He shows a very good eye, juxtaposing scenes in the bucolic Bletchley Park campus with the spartan lab facilities filled with all sorts of electrical gear.

Tyldum is fortunate in his casting as well, with Cumberbatch turning in a performance that has already garnered major award recognition and is likely to be bringing in an Oscar nomination later this week. It is certainly one of the most outstanding performances of the year. Turing portrayed here is awkward and unlikable, honest and blunt to the point of rudeness. He is supreme in his knowledge that he is right and doesn’t like to waste time arguing the point. He knows he has a momentous task ahead of him and while outwardly at times he may seem to look at it as a game, a kind of brain teaser, there are moments when he lets slip that he is fully aware it is anything but. He is tormented and dreadfully unhappy, brilliant but alone in his brilliance. He also has a tender heart which breaks easily. The only person he can truly confide in is Joan and even in her case he can’t tell her everything.

Cumberbatch isn’t alone. Knightley turns in another sterling performance as the brilliant but repressed Joan, whose parents discourage even the hint of impropriety but she yearns to do something that makes a difference and has the intellect to do it, but is unable to exercise it because of attitudes towards women at the time. Only Turing gives her the opportunity to flower and she is extremely grateful – to the point when he asks her to marry him she says yes even though he only does it to keep her at Bletchley. Joan in Knightley’s capable hands is a thoroughly modern woman in a very snazzy wartime suit.

In fact the film manages to capture the period nicely, although this is definitely a movie with modern sensibilities. Tyldum parallels the attitude towards women hampering Joan’s career with the attitude towards homosexuality being a constant fear for Turing although one gets the sense that he felt that due to the indispensable nature of his war contributions that the government would turn a blind eye and maybe they did but that attitude certainly caught up to him.

What happened to Alan Turing was disgraceful and a waste of human potential. However, the movie made about his work does honor him and that’s very important to remember – not all film biographies are this respectful. Many who knew Turing have commented that the movie was fair in its depiction of Turing who was at turns arrogant, brilliant and sweet. One of the great performances of the year is reason enough to go see this, but there are many others as well.

REASONS TO GO:
Cumberbatch gives an award-worthy performance, and receives ample support from the rest of the cast. Does honor the memory of Turing well.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have cut down on the repetitious scenes of the cryptographers failing to solve Enigma.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cumberbatch, who is distantly related to Turing, wore dentures based on Turing’s actual dental imprints as did Lawther who played Turing as a young boy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Gambler

Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

Begin Again


Can a song save your life?

Can a song save your life?

(2013) Romance (Weinstein) Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green, Mos Def, James Corden, Marco Assante, Rob Morrow, Jennifer Li, Ian Brodsky, Shannon Maree Walsh, Mary Catherine Garrison, David Abeles, Jimmy Palumbo, Colin Love, Ron Voz, David Pendleton, Jasmine Hope Bloch, Sheena Colette. Directed by John Carney

Music has great restorative properties; studies have concluded that certain tones can stimulate the brain to produce endorphins. There are some therapists who use music to help those with depression and other emotional and mental challenges. Music can heal people, even people in the music business.

In a Greenwich Village bar on an open mike night, Steve (Corden), an ex-pat Brit is playing guitar and singing his song. He invites a friend onstage, but Greta (Knightley) isn’t very willing to go. In fact, she’s downright reluctant but with the patrons urging her on she finally goes up onstage. Thirty seconds into her song, they lose interest and resume their conversations and ordering drinks.

That is, except for one guy – Danny (Ruffalo), a middle aged former record executive who that afternoon had been fired from the record label he had started with his partner Saul (Def). Danny had been sinking into an alcoholic morass ever since his wife Miriam (Keener), a music journalist, had an affair with a colleague which provoked Danny into leaving him and his daughter Violet (Steinfeld). Violet has entered the sexual phase of teen angst and dresses provocatively to get attention, much to the horror of her dad and the indifference of her mom.

Greta isn’t without a backstory of her own. A Brit, she’d come to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Levine) who was also a musician but one that a major label had signed. His career trajectory was promising indeed and of course promptly he falls into an affair with Mim (Li), an assistant with the label. Greta had essentially booked her flight home and was staying the night in Steve’s tiny apartment which was how she wound up in the bar in the first place.

Maybe everyone in the bar hears a lifeless tune that sounds like every other folk-influenced song that seems to hold so much sway in alternative rock and pop these days but Danny hears something different. He hears an arrangement with violin, drums, bass, piano and backing vocals. He hears a song that has meaning and will inspire people. After having been on a cold streak for so long he finally hears something that he can work with.

At first Greta isn’t interested. She understandably just wants to go home. However, something about him is sincere. This is a man who needs fixing – as someone who needs fixing herself she can recognize the trait in others. Maybe they can fix each other. That going out on her own and making it as a musician would be a gigantic middle finger to her ex probably had its appeal as well.

Danny comes up with the idea of recording the album live outside of the studio in various outdoor locations in New York – the roof of a building, a subway station, rowing boats in Central Park – sounds kind of gimmicky but Danny uses Steve as an engineer to set up a mobile recording studio (not as hard as it sounds in this digital era) and assembles a band. For financial help, he uses one-time discovery Troublegum (Green) who realizes he owes his success to Danny and is willing to help him be successful once again.

Danny begins to reconnect with Violet who also bonds somewhat with Greta. Danny and Miriam are beginning to make reconciliation noises while back into Greta’s life comes Dave. Will they be able to go back to their past relationships with this new artistic synergy in place? Or will the past drag them down back to where they were before?

Carney also directed Once which may well be the best movie about songwriting and the redemptive power of music on those who write it and those who hear it ever made. Like in that movie, the actors do their own singing and to a large extent, their own playing. Knightley actually has a pretty pleasant voice although it isn’t remarkable. Levine, a veteran of Maroon 5 and a fixture on The Voice, has a kind of asshole role to play and he does surprisingly well, making the character somewhat sympathetic even though his behavior isn’t always the best. In fact, none of the characters here is perfect and all of them are subject to their own flaws at one point or another in the movie.

In fact, the music is pretty dang good here, surprisingly so. The music is mostly the work of Gregg Alexander, better known as the lead vocalist and songwriter for the New Radicals. While the film name checks (or tune checks) luminaries like Leonard Cohen, Hoagie Carmichael, Stevie Wonder and Sinatra, the bulk of the soundtrack is a folky poppy adult alternative that won’t offend anybody unless of course one is offended by folky poppy adult alternative music.

Ruffalo is always solid and while he hasn’t achieved the kind of status of a Tom Hanks or a Brad Pitt, he is nonetheless dependable for turning out good performances and he does the same here. Yeah, Danny has a few personality tics and he can be overbearing but you get the sense that his heart is in the right place – with his estranged wife and daughter. He knows he has some work to do on himself but given the right inspiration he might actually be able to get it all back. One roots for him to do just that.

While this isn’t to the level of Once, this is a better movie than a lot of the disappointing mid-summer films that are out in theaters currently and will certainly be worth having in your library once it makes it to home video. You might just find it in ours when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo and Knightley had a different kind of chemistry that is strong in its own right. Great music.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too offbeat for some. A little bit fairy tale-esque.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knightley had to learn to play the guitar for her role and her husband, musician James Righton, offered to teach her but his lessons proved to be so atrocious that, in her own words, “they nearly led to divorce and murder,” but the couple remain happily married to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Once

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 22 Jump Street

Miral


When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you're in trouble.

When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you’re in trouble.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Omar Metwally, Vanessa Redgrave, Willem Dafoe, Makram Khoury, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Rana Al Qawasmi, Ruba Blal, Stella Schnabel, Donald Liddawi, Shredi Jabarin, Dov Navon, Liron Levo, Yolanda El Karam, Rozeen Bisharat, Iman Aoun, Lana Zreik. Directed by Julian Schnabel

Woman Power

The West Bank conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on virtually since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. There seems to be no end to that fight and even today no compromise between the two seems within reach.

Shortly after Israel became a nation in 1948, Hind al-Husseini (Abbass) finds a group of 55 children, orphaned by the fighting, sitting in the street with nowhere to go. She takes them in, founding an orphanage and school that came to be called the Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Quickly, 55 refugee children grew to over 2,000.

Nadia (Al Massri) is a woman who has suffered brutal sexual abuse, eventually running away from home. She is eventually sent to prison for slapping an Israeli woman who called her a harlot and shares a cell with Fatima (Blal), a former nurse who set a pipe bomb in a crowded theater. The two women grow close and Fatima sets Nadia up with her brother Jamal (Siddig), a kind man who doesn’t hold with his sister’s terrorist beliefs. Nadia eventually gives birth to a daughter named Miral, named for a desert flower common in Palestine.

As a young girl (El Karam), Miral is sent to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to study under Hind who sees something special in Miral. Hind preaches that education is the way to eventual peace and at first, Miral is inclined to agree with a woman she has grown to admire very much. However, as Miral (Pinto) grows into a young woman and sees that outside the walls of the Institute the Israelis are treating her people so poorly, she begins to have doubts. And when she is sent to teach children in a refugee camp, she falls in with Hani (Metwally), a young man part of a terrorist organization, her point of view begins to radicalize.

Schnabel who is an American of Jewish descent has received a good deal of critical adoration for his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, he continues to apply his artistic sensibilities (Schnabel is also a noted painter) to the silver screen although here with mixed degrees of success. He and his cinematographer Eric Gautier pull forth some really beautiful images, but in order to make some of them more compelling there are a lot of over-exposed shots as well as extreme close-ups or oblique camera angles that make the image unidentifiable until the camera pulls back or changes angle. That’s okay as an occasional trick but it happens a bit too often for my taste.

He also employs the hand-held camera a bit too much. Shaky-cam as it’s popularly known can lend a sense of immediacy to a movie, giving the viewer the perspective of being amidst the action but too much of it can be vertigo-inducing. It’s like driving a dirt road for too long in a car with bad suspension.

Pinto, best known for her work in Slumdog Millionaire captures the essence of the Miral of the novel that the movie is based on. While some have criticized her casting (she is from India rather than Palestine and speaks with a pronounced accent), I find that kind of criticism invalid. Either she’s right for the part or she isn’t, and she clearly is.

Most of the first third of the film belongs to Abbass who is simply put one of the greatest actresses on the planet, although she is largely unknown in the United States because she works mostly in the Middle East. She plays Hind with compassion and gravitas, but always with a life that shines through. She swamps most of the actors here and there are some pretty darn good ones, like Siddig who in his post Deep Space Nine career has turned into a fine actor and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.

The middle third is Nadia’s and Al Massri captures her fragile nature nicely. She’s a woman whose life is pervaded by the terrible things that have happened to her and she can’t escape her demons, ultimately succumbing to them. She is a tragic figure who is a sympathetic one in the pages of the book but here we have a harder time sympathizing with her.

The story is told with lots of flashbacks and with seemingly random events that are without initial context until something in the film gives them that. It can be very confusing to the casual viewer and requires a great deal of focus to really follow it – reading the book beforehand was helpful to me, I have to say. I do like that Schnabel takes the Palestinian view which is so rarely seen in the United States, although that is changing as there have been more films shown from the Palestinian viewpoint as of late although mostly from independent distributors. I also found it unnecessary to make all the Israeli characters but one essentially monsters. You can show the Palestinian point of view without reducing it to a cartoon of good guys versus bad guys.

This is a movie about women coping with an impossible situation; two are strong, one damaged and all of them come out changed. While this received little critical love when it came out and was essentially given little support by the studio when it came out in limited release, it’s still a compelling film to watch if you have the patience to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed.  Abbass is a force of nature. Unusual for Hollywood, presents Palestinian viewpoint.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit chaotic and occasionally confusing. Too much shaky-cam and image modification.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a sexual assault as well as some other violence and adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Journalist Rula Jebreal who wrote the screenplay based on her semi-autobiographical novel was dating Schnabel at the time (the director, not the actress).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a post-screening Q&A with Julian Schnabel as well as a tour of his production office.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900,647 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

The Immigrant


This isn't the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

This isn’t the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Illia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Antoni Corone, Patrick Husted, Patrick O’Neill, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, Matthew Humphreys, James Colby, Peter McRobbie, Susan Gardner. Directed by James Gray

It takes a certain amount of courage to make a new start in a new place. If that new place is in a new country, amplify that by hundreds and thousands, more if it’s an entirely different language spoken there. Something like 40% of all Americans had someone pass through Ellis Island at one time or another; not all of them made it through unscarred.

Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Sarafyan) have come from Poland to New York City in 1922. They can see Lady Liberty rising in the distance; beyond her, the skyline of a new world. Their new life is so close they can reach out and touch it.

But it is not to be. Magda’s cough turns out to be tuberculosis and she will need to be quarantined and likely deported afterwards. The aunt and uncle who were supposed to greet the sisters when they arrived never showed and the address that was given them doesn’t exist according to the immigration officer (Clohessy). Ewa is all alone in a strange land; she speaks English pretty well fortunately but she has nowhere to go and no money.

Fortunately there’s an advocate there for a traveler’s society to help her out. His name is Bruno Weiss (Phoenix) and he has a small apartment where she can stay. He gives her food and shelter, offering her a job at the Bandit’s Roost Theater as a seamstress. Ewa is grateful but sleeps with a weapon under her pillow just in case.

Getting Magda out of Ellis Island before being deported will be a lengthy and expensive process. Bruno knows people who can speed the process along but the money is going to be an issue. It will take far too long on what she earns sewing and mending for her to retrieve her sister, and that’s everything to her. She decides that in order to get her sister out, she’ll do anything – including dance with Bruno’s troupe who do a lot more than dance, if you get my drift.

Into this mix comes stage magician Orlando the Magnificent – who happens to be Bruno’s cousin Emil (Renner). The two are on not-so-good terms but they become worse when Emil falls for the lovely Ewa – and Bruno has done the same (which doesn’t prevent him from continuing to pimp her out). Emil urges her to leave with him for California, a more pleasant and gentle land. Bruno wants her to stay away from Emil who has a gambling problem. Ewa isn’t going anywhere without Magda. Something has to give.

James Gray has amassed a reputation for doing quality work. He isn’t the most prolific director in the business, but he prefers to work on movies he believes in and generally with Phoenix when possible (four of his five films feature the actor). In some ways he’s much more of a European director in terms of style; his films aren’t flashy nor are they fast-paced. They take their time, unfold organically like a blossom in spring and then let you immerse yourself in the depths of their beauty – or ugliness as the case may be. The films may be set here in America but they definitely have a European soul.

He wrote the movie specifically for Cotillard, an actress he admires, and she doesn’t let him down. She is mesmerizing, whether as a deer in the headlights or when she is strong as iron. Sometimes both expressions occur at once and let me tell you, that’s nothing to sneeze at. This is a character who is obstinate and strong, but tender and vulnerable at once. She’s an unusually strong female character which is less refreshing than it used to be – a good sign – but nonetheless a welcome appearance. I’m not sure that Cotillard will get any Oscar attention given that the film was released so early in the year, but this is a performance worthy of recognition none the less.

Both Phoenix and Renner are terrific actors and they do a good job. Phoenix’ role is a little bit more meaty than Renner’s who is essentially more of a dramatic element than Phoenix whose character is more central to the story, but Renner is so interesting an actor that even in a part that is very subordinate he makes it compelling even so. Phoenix takes his role and runs with it nicely. I don’t think you’ll find any movie this year with three finer actors in the lead roles and three more complex characters for them to play.

The cinematography is lush and very evocative of its era which is a good thing. We get a sense of the squalor and the desperation in the City as well as the corruption in the police and immigration departments. A beautiful soundtrack enhances the images on the screen.

This is a sumptuous movie that has not only an epic quality to it but also an intimacy that keeps it from being too cold and distant. While the story takes it’s time to unfold, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing although those of the ADHD generation might have issues with it. The pacing allows you to become fully a part of the world that Gray creates. It is a rich and compelling world, one which isn’t always pretty but one which allows you to take a moment to wonder what your own ancestors did to make things work in the new world they travelled to. This is one of those movies that really hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it deserves and while you might not have heard much about it up to now, you really do need to check this out while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and layered. Cotillard is one of the world’s finest actresses. Renner and Phoenix give fine support.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too slow-paced for the attention-challenged.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and sexual content as well as some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neither Cotillard nor Sarafyan spoke Polish. They were given approximately two months to learn the dialogue. They were coached by Wampuszyc, who plays their Aunt and is a native Polish speaker.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ragtime

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Believe in Unicorns

Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’