The Railway Man


Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bryan Probets, Michael MacKenzie, Jeffrey Daunton, Tom Stokes, Tom Hobbs, Akos Armont, Keith Fleming, Ben Aldridge, Yukata Izumihara, Masa Yamaguchi, Michael Doonan, Keiichi Enomoto. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The number of veterans that come home from war with PTSD is staggering. Nobody comes back from war unscarred, even if they didn’t get a scratch on them in battle. These days, our combat vets have programs through the VA that can help them through it, although getting into those programs these days can be frustrating and time-consuming. Back in the days of the Second World War, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized condition.

Eric Lomax (Irvine) certainly has scars, some which aren’t visible at all. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Singapore, he and his fellow soldiers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway which was also called the Death Railway for the number of prisoners of war and Asian civilians who died in its construction. Lomax, a railway enthusiast and an engineer, was spared the forced labor because engineers were needed for other tasks. In secret, he also built a radio receiver which would have devastating consequences for Eric when it was discovered.

Years later, Eric (Firth) has met a nurse named Patti (Kidman) whom he has fallen deeply in love with. The two get married but Patti is troubled by her husband’s frequent night terrors, his violent mood swings and panic attacks. Whatever shell he has built around himself to cope with what he has been through is crumbling. Desperate, she talks to Finlay (Skarsgard), his best friend who at first is reluctant to talk to her about what Eric went through but at last gives in. Eric was brutally tortured, facilitated by a translator named Takeshi Nagase (Ishida).

Not long after, Finlay brings news to that Nagase is still alive. The former translator is now a museum tour guide (Sanada) in the very building the atrocities were committed in. Finlay urges Eric to go to Thailand and confront Nagase. Eric is reluctant to but a dramatic act by Finlay convinces him to go.

This is a true story, based on Lomax’ own autobiography. While a few facts were fudged – the meeting between Nagase and Lomax was portrayed as a complete surprise to Nagase when in fact the former translator had been prepared for his arrival through correspondence, and while Lomax’ motives to go to Thailand were portrayed here as initially a need to take vengeance, his book states clearly that he went to seek closure and confront his former tormentor face to face. It also doesn’t mention that Eric had been previously married and had three children by that marriage who figured in the actual story as well. Other than that (which are major issues it must be admitted) and the time compression of some events, the movie pretty much follows the book closely.

Firth has a difficult role to play. Not only is he a man in deep mental anguish, he also has to play a shy, retiring sort more interested in railroads than people, yet with a good heart. We get every side of Eric Lomax here, from the man in pain to the man bestowing the most divine of human gifts that one can give another, and I’m not talking American Express gift cards here.

Kidman’s role is less complex but she performs it no less satisfactorily. This isn’t a real glamour role for the star but she is still as lustrous as ever. She’s not a background performer here, although her character does take a backseat to Firth’s but then again, it’s not called The Railway Woman.

The message is a powerful one. Lomax not only forgives Nagase, but recognizes that his pain runs deep as well. When Nagase reads those words and collapses in tears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Sometimes all we need is acknowledgement that we are hurting to make us feel better.

The depictions of torture are pretty graphic. Those who are wondering what waterboarding is will get a good idea of it when watching this movie. It serves as a reminder that our leaders who authorized using it as a means of extracting information failed to learn from history when it comes for the effectiveness of this method in getting reliable intelligence. It had the extra added side effect that it made me even more angry at the CIA, the Bush Administration and our military for allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be better than that and I expect our political and military leaders to be better than that.

To forgive is divine and never is it as divine as when a wrong as heinous as this is committed on a person. Hollywood is quick to make movies about revenge but movies about forgiveness are few and far between. While the filmmakers belabor their point a bit, I still think that if we made more movies emphasizing forgiveness that we as a culture would benefit greatly.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific job by Firth. The theme of forgiveness is powerful and unusual for a Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Overplays its point.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence against prisoners of war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Patti Lomax attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Transcendence

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

Welcome to sunny Robben Island.

(2013) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Fana Mokoena, Simo Mogwaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Gys de Villiers, Robert Hobbs, Carl Beukes, A.J. van der Merwe, Andre Jacobs, Nomfusi Gotyana, Michelle Scott. Directed by Justin Chadwick

One of the most influential and beloved figures of the 20th century would have to be Nelson Mandela. The South African leader was imprisoned for 27 years and became the poster boy for South African oppression under the government of apartheid but also a symbol of hope for the South African people. His recent passing set off a wave of mourning and celebrations of his life not only throughout South Africa but around the world. However despite his notoriety many Americans aren’t all that familiar with the details of his story.

Mandela (Elba) started out as a lawyer who merely wanted to practice law in his native land. He was showing some success at it, unafraid to stand up to white accusers of black innocents. This didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of the fledgling African National Congress, an organization that looked to lobby for the rights of the black majority in the white-dominated South African government. Mandela wasn’t especially interested in politics, to be honest.

However soon it became clear that the laws of South Africa were becoming more and more repressive as apartheid began to be codified as a way of life. Mandela felt he had no choice but to become involved politically and it turned out that he was a natural leader and orator. This definitely didn’t endear him to the white establishment but it did catch the attention of Winnie Madikizela (Harris) whom he would later marry.

However their time together was short. Not long after they got married, a peaceful protest at the Sharpsville police barracks turned into a massacre as panicked police officers opened fire on a crowd of protesters who wished to turn themselves in for arrest for not carrying the mandatory paperwork all black South Africans were required to carry at all times. Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC, including Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge) and Ahmed Kathrada (Moosa) realized that non-violent tactics weren’t working; they only brought on further repression and worse still, deadly violence.

The ANC went on a relentless bombing campaign, destroying edifices that symbolized the oppression of the white South African government. Their members went underground, chased by the police until at last they were eventually caught and sentenced to hard labor on Robben Island, the most notorious of South African prison complexes. The court could have sentenced them to death but knew that would lead to outright rioting and rebellion, so they were sentenced to life in prison.

From inside prison, the group and particularly Mandela became symbols even as Winnie continued to lead the fight from outside until she herself was arrested and subjected to brutality and torture. After being released, the embittered Winnie became much more radicalized and her vision of the future of South African began to drift away from that of her husband.

International and internal pressure eventually forced Mandela’s release and this forced the South African government in turn to relax apartheid and hold free elections which the ANC participated in as a political party and Mandela himself as a presidential candidate. He would defeat the incumbent President De Klerk (de Villiers) who ironically had negotiated to free Mandela and the rest of the ANC. Mandela was faced by anger and outrage directed at the white South Africans by the blacks – much of it led by his own wife, who came out against his call for reconciliation and forgiveness. Uniting the two races as one strong country might have been the toughest battle Mandela would face.

There’s no doubt that Mandela is a role model and a hero of mine. There is no doubting his courage or his convictions; I can’t imagine most politicians these days willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs can you? Nevertheless, I’m not sure if this film, based on the South African leader’s own autobiography does his legacy justice.

This is essentially a two-person movie; Elba and Harris. Harris has a difficult role to perform; Winnie here is portrayed as an initially supportive and idealistic woman who turns bitter and cynical as the movie progresses; it’s not the kind of change that makes audiences love you. Still, she does a fine job at showing Winnie’s inner strength and fire. However, her performance is sadly being largely overlooked.

That’s not the case for Elba who has been garnering some Oscar buzz for his although given the strong competition this year for Best Actor I’m thinking he has an outside chance at best for a nomination. Still, it’s a pretty incredible performance considering that Elba looks absolutely nothing like Mandela who was always fairly thin and scrawny whereas Elba is a burly, muscular man. They also don’t resemble each other facially. Elba however captures the great man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. When you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to Mandela himself.

Considering the events of his life and that for 27 years of it he spent in prison, there is a sense of compression with the movie as if we’re just settling lately on momentous events and giving them short shrift. In truth, Mandela merits a mini-series at the very least to cover all the things that happened both to him and South Africa in general. Still, you get a good sense of the events that surrounded him and shaped his point of view.

I would have hoped that a movie about Mandela would have been more inspiring than this one does. I get the sense that Chadwick was at a loss as to how to handle the Robben Island sequences. He does show some of the things the guards did but for the most part you don’t get a sense of how hard the imprisonment was on Mandela other than a single sequence in which Mandela gets a telegram that his son was killed in a car crash. He wasn’t given permission to leave the island to attend the funeral and you can feel his despair. Certainly Mandela must have had sleepless nights, self-doubt, despair. We don’t get a sense of that other than that one scene.

This is one of those might-have-been movies. It certainly could have been a triumph but unfortunately it doesn’t really achieve that feeling at any point. You do get a sense of admiration about the man and perhaps it’s unfortunate timing literally opening in limited release a week before the great man passed away and opening wide a few weeks after that has something to do with us not being able to get past that. After all, we’ve been witness to many heartfelt and detailed tributes to the man in recent weeks. This movie doesn’t really measure up to them.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba gives a powerful performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks fire. Loses focus during the Robben Island sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexuality, some foul language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: News of Mandela’s death took place just moments before the film’s London premiere. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani were given the option of having the premiere postponed but chose to go ahead as planned. The news was broken to those in attendance at the conclusion of the screening by producer Anant Singh.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winnie Mandela

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: American Hustle

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

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

My Week With Marilyn


Beauty personified.

Beauty personified.

(2011) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Phillip Jackson, Geraldine Somerville, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Simon Russell Beale, Pip Torrens, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt, Robert Portal. Directed by Simon Curtis

In 1957, American icon Marilyn Monroe flew to London to begin work on a movie directed by the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With husband and playwright Arthur Miller in tow and an entourage that included acting coach Paula Strasberg, she made a sensation in England but her tardiness on-set, difficulty remembering her lines and feuds with Olivier and cameraman Jack Cardiff created a chaotic environment that has become legendary in Hollywood.

Colin Clark (Redmayne) remembers it differently however. Hired out of Eton College by Olivier (Branagh) at the insistence of Vivien Leigh (Ormond), then Olivier’s wife, he was Olivier’s on-set Boy Friday, impressing the great actor by not only procuring a house for the Americans to stay in during shooting but a second back-up house when the British press discovered the location of the first.

His view of Marilyn (Williams) was much kinder. He saw a woman tormented by the demands of fame, insecure about her abilities as an actress and humiliated by Miller’s (Scott) new play which seems to take some very personal jabs at her. With only Clark and actress Dame Sylvia Thorndike (Dench) in her corner, she finds going to work on the set to be nearly intolerable.

Her only solace comes from Colin, who squires her about England and with whom she develops a sort-of romantic relationship with, much to the chagrin of Lucy (Watson), a costume assistant whom he is dating. He is warned that she will break his heart but he is heedless; what man of that era wouldn’t want to be involved with Marilyn Monroe? However, those who surround her and who are vested in protecting her image may not necessarily be sanguine about his relationship with her.

This is what I call a quasi-true story. It is true that Monroe worked in London on The Princess and the Showgirl and had the difficulties spoken of earlier. However, this film is based on the diaries of Clark who did also work on the film but the depth of the relationship with Monroe that he claimed has never been corroborated. That aspect of the drama must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is nothing “quasi” about the performance of Michelle Williams as Monroe. Justifiably lauded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, she captures the late icon’s sexiness, public vivaciousness, vulnerability, insecurities and innate sweetness that made a generation obsessed with her. It is easy to see in fact why we are still obsessed with her today. Williams has developed into one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood and to my mind is the most likely bet to succeed Meryl Streep as the best actress in Hollywood. This performance is a good reason why I think so.

The good performances don’t end there. Branagh, a great actor in his own right, delivers one of his finest performances in a decade. Dench is always solid if not terrific; here she is the latter. Redmayne delivers a warmth in his character which while appealing isn’t enough to be the center of the film; it makes one wish for more concentration on Marilyn which sort of defeats the purpose – it’s not My Week with Colin after all.

Like many British films, this is exceedingly well-acted and well-written. While it doesn’t have the oomph or the fireworks to really attract an American audience, it is still one of those movies that gives a whole lot of enjoyment more than it does insight.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performance by Williams. Supporting cast superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clark, who is the center of the film, is much less interesting than Monroe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of foul language, some sexual situations and some suggested nudity..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The re-enactments of The Princess and the Showgirl were filmed on the very same soundstage where the original was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed. Sadly, Weinstein missed an opportunity to explore that period of Monroe’s life with a featurette – surely there was plenty of archival footage of Monroe in London during that period.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on a $10 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being Sellers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Elysium

Fruitvale Station


A precursor to tragedy.

A precursor to tragedy.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme, Bianca Rodriguez III, Julian Keyes, Kenny Grimm, Thomas Wright, Alejandra Nolasco. Directed by Ryan Coogler

On December 31, 2008 a young man and his girlfriend left their daughter at a relative’s house and took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to celebrate the new year. After a few hours of revelry, they returned home on the same train. A fight was said to have broken out, so the train was stopped at the Fruitvale Station so that the transit police could investigate. Four young African-American men were pulled off the train and detained, including the young father. When he rose up to protest, he was forced to the ground with an officer’s knee in his face. While he was down, another officer shot him in the back. He would die the next morning from his wounds.

The young man’s name was Oscar Grant III and his death provoked massive protests and outcry particularly on the West Coast. In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin decision, his story is more relevant than ever.

The movie opens with actual footage of the incident (many passengers on the train captured it on their cell phones, as did surveillance cameras on the station platform) and then flashes back 24 hours as we see Oscar (Jordan) in the last 24 hours of his life. This young man was no saint – he had a temper and had been incarcerated for selling drugs. He’d recently lost his job in a grocery store for being late to work too often and had recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz).

Still, he clearly loved his daughter Tatiana (Neal) and was trying his best to be a good father to her. Despite his indiscretion, he wanted nothing more than a more permanent relationship with Sophina. And he adored his mother Wanda (Spencer) and looked up to her as a role model. He, Sophina and Tatiana spent the evening having dinner with Wanda and celebrating her birthday. Worried that traffic in and out of the city would be bad and that with all the drunk people on the road it might be dangerous, Wanda urges Oscar to take the train which he and his buddies (along with Sophina and another girl) elect to do, a train that will take Oscar to his final moments.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2013 and will certainly merit some awards consideration (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Weinstein do a brief theatrical re-release right around Christmas to remind Academy voters how good this movie is). I won’t lie and say this is a completely objective movie, but neither is it unrealistic – Oscar Grant had some issues in his short life and his family would undoubtedly be the first to say so. He’s not portrayed as some kind of saint here, but as a real guy struggling to better his life and the lives of his family. Most of us are no different in that regard.

Jordan delivers a real star turn here. He has the best onscreen smile since Tom Cruise and shows amazing screen presence and charisma here. He transforms Oscar Grant from a name on newscasts into flesh and blood. I don’t know how close he was to capturing the personality of the real Oscar Grant (although friend of the family Jack Bryson indicated that it was) but Jordan makes the impending tragedy hanging over the bulk of this movie like a Sword of Damocles all the more poignant because while he was far from perfect, Oscar Grant was a good man.

Octavia Spencer has already won an Oscar and she might just get another one as Oscar’s tough loving mom. She demands – and receives – respect from her son, and is the kind of mom that everyone loves and whose respect and approval everyone craves. Spencer gives Wanda inner strength (which the real Wanda possesses in abundance) and her grief for her son in the movie’s closing scenes is hard to watch.

The movie is highly fictionalized, portraying an incident in which Oscar watches a dog get hit by a car after which it dies in his arm (portending his own fate) and a shopper at the grocery store (O’Reilly) trying to get a recipe for a fish fry whom he connects with his grandma (Shears). In fact, Oscar is constantly on his phone, a conceit that is used throughout the movie by projecting the phone screen onscreen to show us the texts he’s receiving. It’s very effective.

There are those who will grouse that the movie is manipulative, but that’s bull. It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events that transpire onscreen. It’s hard not to like Oscar Grant and wish he was still around to take care of his family. But it’s harder still to avoid the conversation that should and does ensue – that even now, 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we as a nation still treat our African-American citizens with suspicion and prejudice. While I can’t say it’s entirely unjustified to be wary of young African-American, they still deserve better than to be profiled and shot like animals. That we’re still having this conversation in 2013 is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and moving. Career-defining work by Jordan. Possible Oscar consideration for Spencer and Diaz.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of foul language, a bit of drug use and some violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance, and Best First Film at Cannes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100; the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boyz ‘N the Hood

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Red 2

Unfinished Song


Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

(2012) Dramedy (Weinstein) Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Eccleston, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Orla Hill, Bill Thomas, Willie Jonah, Calita Reinford, Federay Holmes, Alan Ruscoe, Sally Ann Matthews. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Florida Film Festival 2013

We call ’em tearjerkers. They are movies that (sometimes shamelessly) manipulate us emotionally, bringing us to a nice cathartic cry. There are critics who can’t stand those sorts of movies and excoriate them up one side and down the other. Personally I think these scribes have a real hard time getting in touch with their feelings but that’s just a generalization on my part. However, it is also true that sometimes a good cry is what we need to clean out the old emotional tank and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are manipulated into doing so – if it’s done artfully.

Arthur (Stamp) is an elderly retired Brit who seems to be in a perpetual state of grouchiness. He hangs out playing dominos at the pub with his friends and lives with his frail wife Marion (Redgrave) who must be some kind of saint to put up with Arthur’s behavior. She’s a dedicated member of a senior choir who calls themselves the OAPz (for Old Age Pensioners, adding the “z” to show they aren’t out of touch – although that sort of thing is about five to ten years out of date). The choir mistress is the plucky, terminally cheerful Elizabeth (Arterton) whose song choices include the B-52s “Love Shack” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Marion has cancer and so it falls on Arthur to take her to and from choir practice. A regional competition is approaching, but Marion’s days are numbered and everyone knows it, including (and especially) Arthur who becomes more and more fiercely protective of her as time goes on. However, as it often does, time runs out before Marion gets to sing at the competition.

Arthur is devastated and his strained relationship with his son James (Eccleston) grows even more so. In fact, Arthur wants nothing to do with his boy and says as much. James is crushed, essentially losing both parents in a fell swoop but  gamely continues to try reaching out until it becomes obvious that nothing will ever come of it.

Elizabeth forms an unlikely friendship with Arthur; both are wounded souls who need someone to lean on and to both of their surprise, it turns out to be each other. Arthur is at last convinced to join the chorus but whether they can defy the odds and beat much more classically-oriented choirs in the competition remains to be seen.

Of late there have been a number of fine movies regarding aging and the elderly coming out of Britain, including (but not limited to) Quartet, How About You? and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is indeed a worthy addition to that list and is so because of the moving performances of the leads, particularly Stamp and Redgrave. Stamp, best known for his villainous portrayals over the years, channels his inner curmudgeon and gives us a character whose inner bitterness is mitigated by the influence of his wife. When she passes, he is utterly lost and we see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

Two of the most affecting scenes in the film take place when Marion and Arthur sing to each other about their feelings, Marion singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while Arthur sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” after Marion is gone. Definitely not a dry eye in the house for that one. Between them, Stamp and Redgrave have 106 years of experience on the silver screen and it shows here.

Eccleston, better known as the ninth Doctor in the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who shows his dramatic side as Arthur’s somewhat life-wearied son. A single parent, James has a difficult time of things that Arthur doesn’t help much with; he seems to be a decent sort but is clearly frustrated at the gulf between him and his Dad and isn’t sure how to bridge it. Arterton is also building quite the satisfying resume in her career and this might well be her best performance yet which is saying something.

The one gripe I have with the movie – and to be truthful not just with this movie but in general – is its portrayal of the elderly. Yes, I know it’s cute to have them singing rap songs and pop songs from the rock era but I get the sense that the writers of these screenplays have little if any contact with actual elderly people. You know they do sing rock songs, they do dance and they’re more active than ever. Portraying them as cute but befuddled idiots, hopelessly anachronistic, does a disservice to those old people who are a part of our community and should be more valued than they are, but in all fairness Hollywood’s bias is just symptomatic of an overall disrespecting of the elderly going on in society.

That aside, the movie is definitely maudlin in places but is rescued by the dignified and assured performances by the leads. I knew that I was being manipulated but when it is done by master thespians, it’s hard to mind because the performances are so worthwhile. This is playing in limited release but is absolutely worth seeking out if it’s anywhere near you, or catching it on VOD if not.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting performances by the leads. Heart-warming.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit patronizing to the elderly.
FAMILY VALUES:  Arthur delivers a few choice rude gestures and there’s some intimations of sensuality in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Song for Marion under which name it was released in the UK.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; the reviews aren’t scintillating but are trending towards the positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young@Heart
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Purge

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

Silver Linings Playbook


Bradley Cooper's fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

Bradley Cooper’s fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

(2012) Romance (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, John Ortiz, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Brea Bee, Regency Boles. Directed by David O. Russell

What normal is for the most part is highly subject to debate. We look at people who have mental issues with wary eyes as if their condition is not only contagious but also subject to a sudden outbreak of violence without any warning whatsoever. And yes, there are some people who are just like that.

Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper) has been institutionalized for eight months. There’s been some sort of “incident” and here he is. However, his mom Dolores (Weaver) is checking him out, apparently against medical advice but with the blessing of the courts since he’d done his time. While his cheerful friend Danny (Tucker) tries to tag along (unsuccessfully), Dolores takes Pat home to his dad Pat Sr. (De Niro) who has some issues of his own.

Pat is determined to get back together with his wife Nikki (Bee) who it turns out was kind of the source of his predicament; Pat, a substitute teacher at the same school Nikki teaches at in Philadelphia, came home early one day to find her naked in the shower with the history teacher. And there was nothing clean going on in the shower either. So Pat snapped and wound up being diagnosed as bi-polar.

Now he’s trying to get his life back together again. He’s running and exercising, losing weight and getting into shape. He refuses to take his meds because they make him feel foggy and bloated. He runs by Nikki’s house and old school, only to find that she’s moved out and started teaching elsewhere. There’s a restraining order against Pat and going by the house is a violation, causing Officer Keogh (Mihok) to drop by and remind him that he has to stop this kind of behavior.

Then his good friend Ronnie (Ortiz) and his bitchy wife Veronica (Stiles) invite him over to dinner along with her sister Tiffany (Lawrence) whose husband had recently passed away. Tiffany also has some issues of her own, not the least of which is that she’s having sex with anyone and anybody regardless of sex or even if she’s attracted to them or not. There’s obviously tension between the sisters and Tiffany, who like Pat lacks an inner filter, finally decides to leave.

When Pat discovers that Tiffany still has contact with Nikki, he knows she could be the means to his salvation. She could get a letter to his wife explaining his situation, where he is and what’s going on with him – start the process of reconciliation. However Tiffany needs a partner for a ballroom dance contest and isn’t above using her position as leverage. Pat is willing to do anything to get his wife back…even humiliate himself. But finding a silver lining isn’t easy, especially when your dad is just as OCD as you are and nobody seems to understand how in love you and your wife truly are. Yeah, you really need a playbook, one better than even the mighty Philadelphia Eagles possess.

This was a bit of a dark horse when awards season commenced last year. Although Russell had Oscar pedigree established, this particular movie wasn’t expected to contend but it wound up with eight nominations and one win. Part of that is due to the outstanding performances Mr. Russell coaxed out of his actors.

Lawrence has blossomed into one of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood. After establishing herself with Winter’s Bone a couple of years ago she has become a lynchpin in a couple of major film franchises and now has won herself a Best Actress Oscar with this performance here, a bit of a surprise considering how worthy Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty was. I will say that this certainly was a wonderful job of acting by Lawrence, one which is hard-edged and vulnerable all at once with an underlying sexuality that isn’t like anything she’s ever done before. You could say that this was her debutante ball, going from girl to woman in one fell swoop. While I still think her Oscar win was an upset, I certainly can’t complain with Oscar’s choice. She was as good as anyone last year.

Cooper was a bit of a surprise as well. He’s shown some signs of having a serious actor in him but he mostly has played comedic leads and has done so with some success. This was a nuanced performance that caught every bit of his characters compulsions and anguish. Pat’s disorder is clearly in charge and finding the way to reality isn’t an easy path when all around is dark and there are no road signs to go by. It’s a marvelous performance and serves notice that Bradley Cooper isn’t just a leading man, he’s a skilled actor who can take on just any role he chooses. This just might be what makes both Cooper and Lawrence Hollywood A-list.

Depression and bipolar disorder are no laughing matters and while the writer and director treat them pretty much with respect (although there are some humorous situations that arise out of Pat and Tiffany’s condition, there are no more so than what arises in real life) there are those who have a difficult time watching the movie because it hits close to home. That’s something to consider before heading out to the multiplex or reasonably soon, rental source.

The first two thirds of the film is as good as anything you’ll see from 2012 although in the final act it breaks down somewhat and the ending is terribly predictable and unfortunate. Clever endings are hard to come by these days however and if Russell goes with tried and true, well I suppose he can be forgiven and the studio I’m sure was pretty happy with that decision.

I will say that this is a movie that you are aware of from the beginning is going to be thoughtful and award-worthy and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Some movies will sneak up on you and build and by the movie’s end you know you watched something special. I think that Russell was all too aware of the movie’s potential and you become aware of it as well. Great performances (including from tried and true veterans De Niro, Weaver and Stiles) elevate this from a solid movie to a very good movie. It missed greatness by about twenty minutes though.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite  a bit of foul language and some scenes involving sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be produced by Anthony Minghella and directed by Sydney Pollack before they both passed away in 2008; as it turned out the movie would be the first to get nominations in all five of the “Big 5” categories of the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) since Million Dollar Baby in 2004.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100; the film received rave reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Quartet