Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“Cake”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new drama “Cake”, starring Jennifer Aniston.


When a woman tries to physically recover from an accident, she becomes addicted to painkillers – but will she be able to emotionally recover as well or succumb to suicide?


Claire (Aniston) is appropriately enrolled in a Chronic Pain therapy group – she has both physical and psychological pain that she’s encountering difficulty healing.  Using Percoset to handle her physical pain, her addiction to it causes her to use the dangerous prescription drug to treat her psychological pain as well.  The automobile accident that left Claire extensively scarred on her body and in her mind also took the life of her young son; the after-effects of this also left her marriage in a shambles and she now finds herself living alone with just her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) to occasionally look in on her. 

Embittered, Claire succeeds in mistreating nearly everyone around – her husband, Silvana and her fellow patients in the Chronic Pain group.  In the therapy, the group discusses the recent loss of one of their members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who committed suicide in a rather grisly fashion.  While other members of the group speak of their hurt over Nina’s death, a hardened Claire merely wishes to recount the gruesome details of Nina’s demise, which only causes everyone else to be upset.  As a result of her inappropriate outburst, the therapist informs Claire that she has been expelled from the group.  

Although she was not particularly close to Nina, Claire seems strongly effected by her death – so much so that Nina’s ghost appears to be haunting her.  Initially, Nina comes to Claire in nightmares, but the apparitions become so intense and so realistic that Claire begins to have visions during her waking hours.  The more Nina’s spirit visits her, the more Claire grows convinced that Nina is trying to talk her into committing suicide as well.  But without any form of a support system around her, will Claire decide to kill herself or can she summon the will to overcome her pain and survive? 


While there may be some reviews that will give in to the temptation to say things like, “Cake is stale” or “Cake is a half-baked idea”, a less facile response to the movie might well point to its real culprit, the screenplay.  Although Aniston, who is also credited as being Executive Producer on the film, puts in about as good a performance as possible with the material at hand, she’s not able to elevate the quality.  “Cake” has a script which seems either one draft away or missing some key scenes (it’s unclear which – quite possibly both). 

There are ideas that go undeveloped or under-developed and leave you wondering exactly what the purpose was here.  So many things are touched on that the story can only treat any of them in the most superficial manner possible.  The main one being what causes Claire to eventually make the decision she does in the film’s resolution.  We are told that Claire is (was?) a lawyer, but we don’t know what her situation is at work; presumably, her injuries have resulted in her taking long-term disability, but no mention is made of where she stands with that or if it’s even an issue.  Apparently, Claire was a reasonably successful lawyer because she has a lovely home with an in-ground swimming pool, a housekeeper and gardener (with whom she has the occasional awkward tryst).   

As much as Claire seems to be beaten up and tormented, however, it remains difficult for the audience to truly root for her to succeed because the journey on which she’s been for the past hour and a half of screen time isn’t particularly cathartic or transforming.  The gruff but loveable victim, we are to believe, somehow has an epiphany that thrusts her in a certain direction.  Although “Cake” certainly has a clear and unambiguous ending, it is nevertheless unsatisfying on some level because we don’t feel a truly organic metamorphosis has occurred in the lead character. 

Cake (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Red Army”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “Red Army”. 


Once the Russian hockey team lost the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, did its players go on to have successful careers or were they banished to Siberia?


In 1980, the Russians had just advanced into the Arab nation of Afghanistan in Southwestern Asia; the purpose of this land-grab appeared to be so that The Soviet Union could make a move to monopolize as much of the continent’s oil as possible.  Other nations opposed this, but it was The United States that was the U.S.S.R.’s greatest opponent in this by aiding the Afghanis in fighting Russian forces.  It was in this same year that the Winter Olympics took place in the small town of Lake Placid, New York where the American hockey team would face The Red Army (as the Russian team was known) to play for the Gold Medal. 

The Red Army’s reputation preceded it; during pre-Olympic games, the Russians had soundly beaten various North American teams, making their Gold Medal playoffs during the Olympics seem merely a formality.  As things turned out, it wound up being Team U.S.A. that would face The Russians to play for the medal; while many Americans would have settled for the moral victory of merely making the championship round, the so-called “Miracle On Ice” occurred when the American hockey team, coached by Herb Brooks, defeated the Russian team and came home as heroes with not only a Gold Medal but a grateful and patriotic nation hailing them as heroes. 

But what of The Red Army?  Under a harsh coach and a government that threatened them to win a one-way ticket to Siberia in the event of a loss, their tough regimen became even worse; some team veterans were let go and the strict Russian coach recruited and trained players new to the system.  Returning to the Gold Medal round in the 1984 Winter Olympics, they beat the Czechoslovakian team and finally won the medal for which their government longed in order to validate the Communist system.  But would the new national heroes profit from this or would the regime manage to squash all hopes of ambition? 


“Red Army” is neither a dull geo-political history lesson nor a jock-happy celebration of sports (hockey, in particular); instead, it is an entertaining and beguiling documentary that humanizes all of the Russian stars involved.  The secrets of the unusual Russian training methods are revealed through extraordinary old newsreel footage from nearly a half-century ago, showing how The Red Army learned to turn their skill into an art of a tapestry of puck-passing that confused other teams confronted by this unorthodox style of play. 

As in any good drama, there are heroes and villains; in this case, however, they are both The Russians.  If you are expecting to find a jingoistic film that celebrates Capitalism and decries Socialism, then please do yourself a favor and look elsewhere.  While the Russian players are shown to have their own sense of patriotism, they are not so blind as to see that they are being used as pawns by their government.  Once they have had a sense of Western life – as was the case when the Russian team visited Canada to play the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers – the players finally got a sense of just how badly they were being used by their government. 

At the risk of carping, there is a technical fault to be found with this documentary – specifically, the way the subtitles were implemented.  Many of the interviewees either spoke Russian only or spoke English with a very heavy Russian accent, which reasonably justifies the use of the subtitles.  Unfortunately, they can be something of a challenge to read at times.  Specifically, this can occur during the use of the newsreel footage (which is in black and white) and the more recent video (against the white background of the ice in the skating rink). 

Red Army (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: “Across The River And Into The Trees”


Across The River

During this year’s vacation, I read Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Across The River And Into The Trees”.


Colonel Richard Cantwell, age 50, is spending these days after World War II doing the things he enjoys:  duck hunting, visiting the city of Venice and making love to his girlfriend Renata, a young countess some 30 years his junior.  Constantly taking mannitol hexanitrate in order to treat his angina, he has finally admitted to himself that his time on this earth is rather limited indeed.  As curt as he is with with his driver Sgt. Jackson, that’s just how tender he is with Renata.  While the inevitable draws near, he turns reflective. 

Upon finally reuniting with Renata, their time is spent alternating between making love in his hotel room and enjoying drinks or a meal at the famed Harry’s.  Although Cantwell can’t help but occasionally being on the rough side, Renata overlooks it and implores him to show his tenderness.  During their time together, Cantwell can’t help but to reminisce about his years in the war, sharing with Renata stories about the battles he’s fought and the men he’s lost. 

After an early morning of somewhat satisfying duck hunting with some acquaintances, Cantwell has his driver take him back into town.  But by now, all is not well with the colonel; he is starting to feel ill and fears his end may be near.  It is with this in mind, that he scribbles a note on a pad, then hands it over to Sergeant Jackson before crawling into the backseat of his Army-issued vehicle; mysteriously, he instructs Jackson to carry out the orders he set forth in the note in the event of his demise.  After a while, Jackson pulls the car over and reads the note, then dutifully proceeds back to town.    


The problem with reading some of Hemingway’s works – if indeed it can truly be characterized as a problem – is that very often, you won’t quite get it on a first reading.  Instead, it will require at least two readings before certain things start to sink in a bit.  During the initial reading, you are simply trying to absorb the events and allow the story to wash over you.  Because of the fact that very little is revealed to the reader – at least upon the first pass – this has come to be known as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing. 

Part of my problem with the book is how excruciatingly slowly it starts; it is not at all hard to wind up losing patience with the book or its author or both.  The ambiguity can also drive you into something of an apoplectic fit; you begin to wonder exactly what it is that you’re missing about the story you’re reading.  Why did Cantwell get demoted from General to Colonel?  Was it because he lost men in battle?  Why is Renata so patient when it comes to listening to her lover’s old war stories?  Is she really interested or is she merely a figment of Cantwell’s imagination? 

The character of Renata is another problem in the book; Renata is not one of Hemingway’s best female characters.  It is difficult to see a fully-formed human being there; while some may attribute this to the fact that she is a teenager, it would seem that the author was so consumed with his protagonist that he lacked the interest, ability or passion to make Cantwell’s love interest a well-drawn character.  Renata is more two-dimensional than three-dimensional; she’s like a cardboard cut-out, which is somewhat fitting, since Cantwell is given a portrait of her that he winds up trying to have a conversation with late one night in his hotel room.   




Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Hedonism II: New Year’s Eve 2014



Veterans of Hedonism II have spent the past couple of years sitting back waiting and watching as the resort’s new owners have tried to revive a once-successful franchise whose previous management appeared to have forsaken.  While many and varied changes have occurred during this time period, guests have not always unflaggingly embraced them, or at least have done so with reservations.  But what of these alterations?  Have they improved the customer experience or are they merely serving as “putting lipstick on a pig”? 

As a long-time guest of the resort, I recently returned from yet another visit precisely for the New Year’s Eve celebration both for a vacation and to see if it’s now truly  …

Hedonism Version # 2.0:  The Next Generation



What was better than last year?

  • The telephone in the room worked (on my last visit, they were upgrading the phone system, which meant that all of the phones in the guest rooms were out of commission)
  • The food in the main dining room's buffet had improved selection/quality
  • New and better treadmills in the gym
  • Security (more below)
  • The bathrooms behind the pools (nude side) were renovated (they just reopened after my arrival; details below)
  • The ostentatious jewelry store is replaced by a very classy wine bar (details later)
  • The piano bar has been opened up (additional outside seating and walls have been taken down inside – photo below)
  • The espresso bar is now open (although I didn’t actually see anyone working there until the end of my stay – photos below)

 Pig CU

Piano Bar Landscape Espresso Bar Landscape

Espresso Prices Portrait 

What still needs improvement?

  • Water temperature in the shower (too hot)
  • Entertainment Coordinators (too intrusive; perhaps they should consider abandoning this concept altogether)
  • Martinis (the bartenders still don’t know how to make them; explanation below)

The Good News

The food at the buffet in the main dining room during dinner had a wide variety and was generally very flavorful, although some meat was a little dry and chewy and their attempt at risotto was anything but the soupy quality those familiar with the dish might expect. 

The treadmills in the gym have been replaced with newer models that are easier to use (feel free to attach your iPod/iPhone to listen to music).  While I don’t know how new they are, the one other positive thing about them was that all appeared to be working; although I was the only one in the gym using the treadmills at the time, none of them had an “Out Of Order” sign posted on them – something which at least one machine used to have in my past visits. 

If you read my trip report from last year about Hedo at New Year’s, you’ll recall The Big Break-In Of 2014, which had all the earmarks of an inside job.  Thankfully, no such incident occurred this year, which can likely be attributed to the new security company the resort has hired (a Canadian-based organization that hires Jamaican guards).  It was clear from casual observation that these guards were a huge improvement over what was previously there:  they were very professional in their approach, took their job seriously and didn’t miss a trick.  Late one afternoon, there was an incident at the hot tub and security took care of it efficiently and with aplomb. 

It appears I arrived at a good time – the day I checked-in at Hedo, the freshly-renovated restrooms by the nude pool had just re-opened.  As far as the men’s room is concerned, it looks beautiful and for the most part is smartly redesigned; there are two toilets (each with a door that closes) and two urinals – the sinks were moved outside, but at the time, it appeared that only one was working.  Unfortunately, the entrance appears to be something of a design issue in that it is very wide and there is no door; as a result, anyone passing by can easily see someone standing there using the urinal. 

While I did not really avail myself of the wine bar during this stay, it certainly does seem very nice.  On New Year’s Eves past, the resort typically sells bottles of high-end champagne; this year, it seems that the wine bar was selling bottles of both sparkling wine and champagne.  After checking the wine list, I saw that prices ranged from $35 for Prosecco ($30 for a Rosé version) to $300 for Dom Perignon. 

The Not-So-Good News

As stated above, the shower in the rooms continue to have issues with respect to water temperature; it was only on my final day (when I took a shower in the late morning) that I had a reasonable temperature for the water – the rest of the time, it was way too hot and on my last night, it was absolutely scalding. 

What are we to do with these Entertainment Coordinators?  While I’m given to understand that a good many guests truly enjoy their presence at the resort, I personally have always found them to be superfluous.  Seriously, do we all need coaxing to play bocce ball, trivia games or scavenger hunts?  My personal opinion is that their time for usefulness has long since passed and while I don’t wish for anyone to lose their job, it would seem that the money used for their salaries could be best spent elsewhere (perhaps on the other planned renovations ongoing at the resort). 

The set-up of the Martini bar is something that I always welcomed but they keep changing the location so it can be hard to find; sometimes it’s near the bar, other times on the main pool deck.  This year, on New Year’s Eve, it was moved to just outside the piano bar (around the corner from the wine bar), which I very nearly missed.  The other problem here is with the martinis themselves; they are inconsistently made and generally incorrectly made.  When ordering an extra dry martini, I have seen bartenders range from drizzling vermouth into the glass then dumping it into the sink (which is correct) to pouring an overly-generous amount into the shaker containing the gin (wrong); either way, the martini should never be shaken – it should be stirred.  Stirring a martini chills the base spirit (gin, in my case) without diluting it with melted ice; it also results in the cocktail itself being clear (you can see through the glass).  When a martini is shaken, however, straining it into the glass results in a cloudy mixture; in addition, shaking causes the spirit to be diluted by the melting ice, negatively impacting the flavor (also, it causes shards of ice to float atop the glass, which should never be the case). 

The Repeater Party


Normally, The Repeater Party is held on Wednesday evenings; this week, it was moved to Tuesday because New Year’s Eve fell on a Wednesday this year.  Harry, who was at the resort just about the entire time I was there, was in attendance at the party; he mentioned that further renovations would be ongoing during the off-season.  Included among them would be the lobby, the stage (including the lighting), the electrical system, the dining room and the buffet area.  He mentioned that whenever he sees the current layout, it looks a bit too much like the 1970’s; that he’s interested in updating and modernizing things a bit was somewhat encouraging. 

New Year’s Eve

The food quality and selection on New Year’s Eve has consistently been the best during every vacation and that continued to be the case this year.  As far as the entertainment was concerned, they had a total of five acts appearing onstage.  After midnight, there was a band playing in the newly-renovated courtyard; their stage was set up right by the building that houses the restrooms by the tennis court.  Unfortunately, their set kept getting interrupted due to the fact that the electricity kept going out.  The following night, on New Year’s Day, that same area was used as a screen on which to project the live broadcast of the annual Sugar Bowl college football game.  

New Year’s Eve 2014 at Hedonism II (Negril, Jamaica)


So, is Hedonism II still worth the time, expense and effort?  Ultimately, I suppose it depends on what you’re after.  During this trip, I met a couple from Alberta, Canada who were celebrating their wedding anniversary; they told me that they used to vacation at Hedonism III, then switched to Hedonism II after their original resort closed.  They spent a few vacations at Hedonism II, then stopped coming a couple of years ago because they felt that the resort was going downhill.  Then they heard that the ownership had changed hands, so they figured they would give it another shot.  She told me they were emboldened by the changes that were made here and might return next year.   

As for me, there are too many memories here to stop coming altogether; vacationing here since 1988 and spending every New Year’s Eve since 1997, it would be hard to give up.  I’ve resolved myself to the fact that it is not now and never will be a five-star hotel and that it will only go into the 21st century if it’s dragged kicking and screaming.  The one turn-off that I did have came at the end of my trip as I was checking out; the person at the front desk asked me to be sure to post a review on Trip Advisor if I enjoyed my stay.  This seemed odd and it was the first time it had ever happened to me.  Upon returning home, I checked the current ratings of Hedonism II on Trip Advisor; at the time of this writing, they have nearly 1600 reviews, over 1200 of which are rated either Excellent or Very Good.  Why would a resort that has a 78% favorable rating be begging outgoing guests for even more reviews?

Another observation:  it’s now been close to two years since the new owners of Hedonism II took over.  These new owners are successful businessmen who also truly believe in the place and have their own history with the resort.  However, as businessmen, they are also obligated to look at the bottom line.  Although they presently seem committed and sincere about aggressively improving the resort, one must realistically ask how long this will continue?  If the resort appears to be making money, then it’s quite possible that these upgrades will continue indefinitely.  However, if it merely turns into a money pit after about five years or so, will they simply decide to cut their losses and sell the resort to an organization that will bulldoze it and replace it with a more family-friendly hotel?  Perhaps that’s why their staff is imploring the guests to post positive reviews on Trip Advisor. 

Regarding the entertainment staff:  despite what I said above, I do realize that Winston is an extraordinarily talented singer – I just wish he would stick to regular singing than to perform his transvestite schtick.   During my stay, there was an employee who was leaving; on his last night, he worked in the piano bar and Winston bid him farewell by singing “Con Te Partirò” in the style of Andrea Bocelli; Winston was, quite simply, excellent.  It was an appropriate way to say goodbye to him and seems a fitting way to conclude this year’s trip report.


Time To Say Goodbye

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“Two Days, One Night”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the Belgian drama “Two Days, One Night”, starring Marion Cotillard and written/directed by The Dardennes Brothers.


When a woman’s co-workers vote in favor of getting a bonus that will result in the loss of her job, will she be able to convince the majority of people to change their vote so she will not be unemployed?


Sandra (Cotillard) and her husband Manu are a blue-collar double-income couple with children; as such, they struggle to make ends meet. When Sandra is diagnosed with depression, she is forced to miss work for an extended period of time. As a result, her boss has to proceed with a smaller staff; in order to keep their output from declining during this time, they are all required to put in overtime. Just as Sandra is starting to recover and prepares her return to work, she is hit with some bad news: she may now be finding herself out of work because her co-workers voted to accept a bonus – and since the small company cannot afford to both pay the bonuses and maintain her salary, Sandra will be laid off.

Desperate, Sandra implores her boss to let them take a second vote; initially, he declines, but she is eventually able to convince him once it is explained that one of the workers was able to sway the vote by hinting that if Sandra wasn’t laid off, one of them would be certain to lose their job instead. Agreeing to another vote, he decides that it will take place on the following Monday morning – and since this is taking place on a Friday afternoon, that means Sandra has only the weekend to try to talk her co-workers into voting in her favor. Discouraged, Sandra is resigned that she will lose her job until Manu buttresses her with a pep talk.

One by one, Sandra tries to meet with every person who voted for the bonus. What she finds is that not every one of her colleagues is willing to even listen to her; furthermore, some refusing to meet with her are angry, almost violently so. Others, however, may be more sympathetic to her situation, but have compelling family-oriented reasons why they must vote in favor of their bonus. As Monday morning arrives, Sandra shows up at work so she can learn the outcome of the vote immediately. But when her employer makes Sandra an offer to keep her job even if the vote goes against her, will she accept it despite the fact that it would negatively impact one of her co-workers?


Well, so much for the French being Socialists! When the NIMBY effect takes over, apparently all of that economic philosophy goes right out the window. Despite all the plaudits from many of the critics (not to mention the fact that this motion picture may wind up representing Belgium as a Best Foreign Language Film nominee in the Academy Awards), “Two Days, One Night” seems to have one of the flimsiest plots and most contrived premises imaginable. Having been made by The Dardennes Brothers – twice winners of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for previous efforts – probably has a considerable amount to do with this enthusiasm from the critics; the brothers have a reputation for making movies with a strong political message, so most critics will be more inclined to give it a positive review over, say, the next vampire flick.

When making decisions about giving employees a bonus or downsizing, what company leaves this up to its workers? What is the management responsible for if not for making tough choices such as these? That’s precisely where “Two Days, One Night” requires its audience to suspend disbelief beyond any reasonable limits; this movie is more of a fairy tale than something can be taken seriously, especially if it’s trying to make a political point. It’s difficult to comprehend how its filmmakers would actually expect viewers to buy into this illogical set-up. Also, why is this entire situation established as a Zero-Sum Game? Is management so incompetent that they couldn’t restructure the bonuses so that the employees would get slightly less so Sandra could keep her job?

Another problem with “Two Days, One Night” is that although it is thankfully short at an hour and a half, its second act seems to drag on interminably; scene after scene is stunningly redundant.  To an extent, the movie is similar to “Groundhog Day” in the sense that the audience is forced to see the same scenes over and over again.  There’s very little inherently fascinating about seeing Sandra beseech each of her co-workers in such a pathetic manner; despite that she should be a very sympathetic character, Sandra seems more desperate than someone who’s fighting for her job and her family should be. 


Two Days, One Night (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, December 18, 2014

“Unbroken”– Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we screened “Unbroken”, a World War II drama directed by Angelina Jolie.


When an Olympic Athlete joins the military during World War II, he’s captured by the Japanese – but will he be able to survive the torture imposed by his captors?


Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) learned how to survive while growing up in California. As a child, he was regularly taunted by schoolmates because his parents were from Italy and he had to defend himself when challenged to fight. His immigrant father was very strict and it was not uncommon for him to severely beat his son whenever he misbehaved. All of this suffering would suit Louie well later in life, although he couldn’t know it at the time. In his adolescence, he discovered that he was the fastest runner in his high school; joining the track team, he perfected his skills and wound up competing in the Olympics held in Germany during the Nazi rule of the 1930’s.

Later on, Louie joins the military during World War II. During a mission where he and some other soldiers were flying to rescue some members of the American military who were stranded, his airplane suffers a breakdown and crashes in the middle of the ocean. He and a couple of fellow passengers from the aircraft escape the wreckage and wind up in a lifeboat. After being adrift for over a month and a half, they are finally rescued – unfortunately, it’s by a bunch of Japanese soldiers who capture and interrogate them.

Subsequently, Louie is transferred to a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp run by a man the prisoners have nicknamed The Bird. Louie finds that The Bird is obsessed with him for some reason and singles him out by brutally torturing him both psychologically and physically. Regardless of what is done to torment him, Louie is somehow able to stand up to The Bird and survives whatever is thrown at him. Eventually, The Bird is promoted and moves on; relieved, Louie believes he’s finally safe until he is also transferred to another POW camp only to find The Bird is running that one as well. When The Bird finds Louie is one of his new prisoners there, he immediately resumes the abuse – but this time, it only gets worse as he is determined to finally break Louie both physically and spiritually. But as the war drags on, will Louie somehow be able to survive or will The Bird finally destroy him once and for all?


The motion picture “Unbroken” is based on a book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand; it is a biography of Zamperini – a true life war hero and Olympic athlete. For those familiar with Hillenbrand’s chronicle, notable differences may be found. One of the most significant, for example, is the fact that after the war, Zamperini suffered post-traumatic stress and didn’t recover until he was “saved” by becoming a born-again Christian as a result of hearing a Billy Graham sermon. In the movie version of Zamperini’s story, his religious resurgence isn’t covered – however, an allusion to it is made in the epilog of the film.

In only her second feature film as director, Jolie does a commendable job in what amounts to be quite an ambitious project. While much has been made of the fact that she directed the movie, what has somewhat gotten lost in all of this is the fact that The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) wrote the screenplay. This is significant because while the source material may be somewhat sprawling, the motion picture adaptation is very focused on a specific point in its subject’s life; the mistake that is too often made in biographical films based on a memoir is the fact that way too much tends to be covered, perhaps in an attempt to remain true to the original work (a recent example might be “American Sniper”).

While “Unbroken” is a decent enough movie, some may find it difficult to watch due to the relentless and graphic violence during its two and a quarter hours; at this screening, a number of people walked out, most likely because of this reason. So, although recommended, it is with reservations; people especially sensitive to visual depictions of violence (albeit unreal) might wish to avoid “Unbroken” as it does not shy away from the details of Zamperini’s experiences of torture. Sometimes, the timing of a motion picture’s release can impact whether or not it will succeed at the box office; given the fact that there have been recent news stories about the use of torture of prisoners by the CIA, “Unbroken” is timely indeed.


Unbroken (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“Leviathan”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club held a screening of the new Russian drama “Leviathan”. 


After a man fights his town’s mayor in order to keep his property, will he and his family suffer the consequences by paying with their life? 


Kolya lives in a small fishing community in northern Russia with his young wife Lilya and his teenage son Roma.  Scraping by with Kolya working as a mechanic and Lilya employed at a neighboring factory, they live in a ramshackle cabin coveted by the town’s corrupt mayor – although the house itself is worthless, the land on which it sits is quite valuable and the mayor wishes to possess it so that he can rebuild.  However, Kolya has other plans and wishes to keep the property for himself and his family; taking the mayor to court over the matter, he winds up losing and he and his family are forced to relocate. 

It is at this point that Dmitriy, Kolya’s old friend, comes to the rescue; now working as a high-powered lawyer in Moscow, Dmitriy takes up Kolya’s case and uncovers some startling information about the mayor.  Meeting with the mayor, Dmitriy tells him everything he knows and sets out on a course of blackmail:  if the mayor stops his efforts to take over Kolya’s land and in addition gives him 3.5 million rubles to purchase the parcel for himself, Dmitriy will promise not to reveal to the media what he knows about the mayor.  Fearing scandal and loss of an upcoming election should the information be released, the mayor acquiesces to Dmitriy’s demands. 

Just as Kolya thinks his life is finally turning around, more misery comes his way when he learns that Lilya has been cheating on him with Dmitriy; when Kolya confronts Dmitriy about this, they fight and their friendship is effectively ended.  Soon after, Dmitriy meets with the mayor to discuss the settlement, but the mayor deceives him; Dmitriy is kidnapped by some thugs who severely beat him and threaten his life.  Between this and the rift with Kolya, Dmitriy wisely decides that now would be a good time to hightail it out of town, so he heads back to Moscow – the upshot being that now Kolya and his family must vacate the premises.  But with an unfaithful Lilya forced to remain with her husband, neither are terribly crazy about the idea of staying together.  One day, Lilya turns up missing and several days later, is found dead.  With Kolya being the prime suspect, will he be able to prove his innocence in her death or will he be found guilty and be subjected to a long prison sentence?


This past spring, “Leviathan” won for Best Screenplay at The Cannes Film Festival and now finds itself poised to be among the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming Academy Awards; for what it’s worth, it also has the rare 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  That said, this overly long movie (two and a quarter hours) is all over the place in terms of its story; the Sybil of motion pictures, it doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a political thriller, domestic drama or murder mystery.  Perhaps if it picked just one of these and focused on it, the film would’ve been less convoluted.  Instead, “Leviathan” is muddled despite its intentions to indict Communism (and Putin in particular) and that it is beautifully photographed (Russia never looked so appealing). 

“Leviathan” is aptly titled as it’s this immense creature that is rendered unwieldy due to its size.  Although helmed by an acclaimed director (Andrey Zvyagintsev, a one-time Golden Globe nominee), it misfires in many different directions.  A convoluted entanglement of multiple issues – none of which it can appear to firmly grasp – “Leviathan” is something of a grab-bag of different genres, as if the filmmakers wanted to make a bunch of various movies and decided to combine them all into one.  As ill-advised as that may sound, most critics are likely giving this a vote of confidence because it’s a Russian-made film that dares to blatantly condemn its own government.

In retrospect, expanding on any one of the themes touched on in “Leviathan” to make a feature length motion picture would have made for a more interesting and entertaining movie.  As it is, however, the audience is presented with a buffet of stories and pretty pictures and offered to take whichever you like and leave the rest aside.  While such an idea may work in a cafeteria, it hardly makes for a cohesive, satisfying movie.  The seaside landscape in “Leviathan” is littered with the carcasses of dead whales; perhaps this is intended as a metaphor for the ideas in this film that didn’t quite survive.   


Leviathan (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“Into The Woods”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the musical “Into The Woods”, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick.


When a childless couple meets a witch who offers to help them conceive, will they be able to meet her conditions first?


In an enchanted land lives a baker and his wife (James Corden and Blunt) who lament that they have not as yet been blessed with any children.  They are then approached by their neighbor, a witch (Streep), who claims she can assist them by removing the curse that prevents this young couple from having a child.  But she is not being magnanimous – her efforts come at a considerable cost:  before The Witch will even entertain the notion of helping the pair, they must first meet her terms – the two must produce several ingredients that will allow The Witch to cast a spell that will result in removing the curse of ugliness that befell her many years prior. 

Desperate, The Baker and his wife agree to the deal and set out into the woods to try to locate the required items.  In the course of their scavenger hunt, they encounter characters familiar in many legendary fairy tales who – intentionally or not – somehow manage to aid the couple in their quest for The Witch’s requested components.  From Little Red Riding Hood, they get the red cape; Jack (of Beanstalk fame) sells them his white cow in exchange for some magic beans; the blonde hair they seek comes from Rapunzel; and it is Cinderella, of course, who provides the slipper. 

Once all items are gathered, The Witch is finally able to produce a potion that returns her beauty; she immediately reciprocates by causing The Baker’s Wife to become pregnant.  Indirectly, this causes the lives of the others to be impacted as well:  Jack gets enough money to bring himself and his mother out of poverty; Rapunzel meets the man who rescues her from imprisonment in the tower; Red Riding Hood, saved from the wolf, is allowed to live with her grandmother; and most importantly, Cinderella weds her Prince Charming.  But when the wife of the giant Jack slayed invades the kingdom seeking revenge, will everyone’s happy ending ultimately be ruined?


“Into The Woods” is based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name; the play’s book was written by James Lapine, who adapted it into the screenplay for this film and the music for both the play and motion picture is by the legendary Stephen Sondheim.  For those familiar with the stage version, be advised that there are a number of songs that were excised for this version.  A Disney production filled with many stars, “Into The Woods” is a family-oriented movie that has all the earmarks of being a huge success when it opens Christmas Day. 

The music, however, may be one of its downfalls – unless you are, of course, a die hard Sondheim fan.  Generally speaking, the songs in musicals are supposed to provide sufficient momentum to drive the story forward; in the movie version, it actually had the opposite effect, at times making it feel as though the story was being stopped dead cold for no better reason than to feature another tune.  Admittedly, Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist, but the melodies for many of these songs could hardly be described as catchy; unless you’re intimately familiar with the soundtrack, you will likely not be humming any of these in the shower. 

In a recent movie review, it was noted that one of the flaws was a false ending – the situation where the film seems to end, but surprisingly continues for a while longer.  Sadly, “Into The Woods” suffers from the same unfortunate malady.  The wedding of Cinderella feels like the conclusion, but the audience is (unpleasantly) astounded to learn that the movie continues for at least another 20 minutes (possibly as long as a half hour).  Those who know the play well may recognize the fact that the scene that concludes the first act turns out to ostensibly be the end of the second act in the motion picture, which causes confusion by the audience and imbalance in the story.   

If you’re interested in comparing the stage version to the movie, please find below a link to purchase a DVD of the stage play (Amazon); the disc can also be rented on Netflix, but is currently unavailable for streaming. 

Into the Woods (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

“American Sniper”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new war drama, “American Sniper”, starring Bradley Cooper and directed by Clint Eastwood.


When a Navy SEAL becomes the most prolific sniper in U.S. military history, will he be able to adjust to life at home despite surviving the war in Iraq?


The life of Chris Kyle (Cooper) was pretty much mapped out for him since his childhood in Texas.  He never started fights, only ended them; he was quick to defend those too weak to defend themselves; and most of all, learning hunting from his father, he became a skilled marksman.  It would be these skills – but especially those with the rifle – that would result in Kyle becoming famous for the 160 kills he accumulated by the time his career as a Navy SEAL concluded.  In fact, so notorious was he for his reputation as a sharpshooter, he earned the nickname The Legend. 

But the Iraqi insurgents he fought had their own version of Kyle – a man who worked under an al-Qaeda operative known as The Butcher, this sniper had successfully gunned-down many American soldiers during the war in that country.  With Kyle’s take-downs vastly outnumbering those of his counterpart, it is then determined that Kyle must be the sniper’s next target.  Despite various attempts to gun him down, Kyle manages to evade being shot – but men on his team are not quite so lucky, so Kyle now takes it upon himself to find and kill this Iraqi sniper. 

During Kyle’s fourth and final tour of Iraq, he is finally able to kill the sniper – but it comes at quite a cost as doing so reveals his team’s position and they are quickly surrounded by Iraqi militants seeking to take out all the soldiers.  When troops arrive to rapidly exfiltrate Kyle and his men, he finally leaves Iraq one last time and returns home.  However, it is not long thereafter that Kyle realizes he is having immense difficulty adapting to a normal life with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children.  But with the emotional problems Kyle is suffering through as a result of the trauma of war, will he ever be able to live a satisfying life with his family?


“American Sniper” is based on a book of the same name; it is about the real-life episodes of Chris Kyle’s life as a sniper for The Navy SEALS during the American occupation of Iraq following the events of September 11, 2001.  The brutal, graphic action scenes in “American Sniper” intensify the more tours of duty Kyle has in Iraq; bearded and buff (he allegedly added 40 pounds of muscle for the part), Bradley Cooper is nearly unrecognizable, especially when heard with a Texas accent.  Unfortunately, what keeps the movie as merely good rather than great is the story – or perhaps stories. 

“American Sniper” tries to say far too much in its two and a quarter hour running time; much of the film has to do with Kyle’s war experiences, giving fleeting glimpses of his personal life in between tours in Iraq.  During the movie’s final quarter hour, it seems to rush to tie up all the loose ends that have to do with his family life post-SEALS.  There are at least two stories here and either one could have made for a film with a deeply satisfying ending but it seems that director Clint Eastwood was overly ambitious, cramming in everything he could possibly think of instead of winnowing the details; instead, you get a motion picture with a false ending – just when you think it’s over, it continues for another 15 minutes. 

Another issue to be taken with “American Sniper” is how the character of Taya (Kyle’s wife, played by Sienna Miller) is handled.  As written, Taya is very one-dimensional – we know little about her background, who she is or what she did for a living.  Taken literally, it would appear as though this woman merely existed so Kyle’s character could have a love interest in the movie; she is more of a cardboard cut-out than a human being and after witnessing so much of Kyle’s heroics in the war, we almost come away feeling she’s something of a selfish shrew by the way she scolds Kyle during his brief stays at home with her in between tours. 

American Sniper (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

“Black Sea”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the adventure “Black Sea” starring Jude law. 


When an unemployed submarine captain is offered a job that may make him wealthy, will he be able to enjoy his riches once he learns the dangers of his mission?


Robinson (Law) has dedicated his life to the sea, working his way up to submarine captain; his family would say he was a little too dedicated as it seemed that he lived on the submarine instead of living with them.  It then came as something of a shock when, after years of devotion to his employer, Robinson lost his job and was provided a meager severance package.  While getting public assistance, a former colleague informs Robinson of a potentially lucrative opportunity:  a rich investor is looking to hire a crew for a submarine to sail through The Black Sea in order to recover hundreds of millions in Russian gold from a Nazi U-boat sunk during World War II. 

Assembling a motley crew consisting of both Russian and Great British sailors with varying levels of experience, Robinson arrives with them in Crimea to board their submarine – an ancient vessel that has been poorly maintained in the years since its apparent retirement.  Following some routine repair work to make the sub sea-worthy once again, Robinson soon sets off on his mission.  After a scuffle between some of the Russian and British crew that results in a death, a fire breaks out that severely disables the submarine and causes the loss of even more crucial crew members.  The scope of their mission is now expanded:  not only must they secure the gold, they must also cannibalize the U-boat for parts so that they can repair their own sub and return home. 

With the shorthanded submarine just barely functional and laden with gold bars, Robinson sets sail to rendezvous with their employer where the crew will take their portion of payment and hand over the rest – or so he was originally led to believe.  Robinson becomes aware of the possibility that he may have been double-crossed by the mysterious man who hired him; the result of his efforts may be that he winds up empty-handed and thrown in prison.  To avoid this fate, Robinson orders his sub to sail off in a completely different direction – but when the crew threatens a mutiny, will Robinson survive an insurrection, or will they all perish before control of the craft can be secured? 


An intense and terrific edge-of-the-seat thriller, “Black Sea” will have you guessing its outcome right until the very end.  This is a violent movie with a pervasive dark mood that maintains a palpable sense of foreboding throughout almost the entire time.  In the world of Robinson’s submarine, avarice meets cowardice at any given moment and venality is always one wrong move away.  Loyalty is temporary and a double-cross may only be overcome by a triple-cross.  No one here can be considered trustworthy – nor should they be.  Ever. 

Jude Law, in his role as Captain Robinson, may be the protagonist, but he’s hardly heroic; the characters in “Black Sea” are merely varying levels of evil – partly due to their desperate circumstances and partly due to the inherent feeling of claustrophobia as a result of being cooped-up in the close quarters of a potentially unsafe submarine.  In seeking personal riches, Robinson inevitably finds he must change course and set sail for personal redemption instead.  Visually and verbally, this is a well-told story that won’t allow the viewer a moment to zone-out for fear of missing something vital to the plot. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed its director, Kevin Macdonald, who said that “Black Sea” took a month and a half to shoot – two weeks of which were spent on an actual submarine to create a feeling of authenticity for the actors as well as the audience.  Macdonald drew the obvious comparison with the classic movie “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre”, except that this was set at sea instead of in the mountains.  In order to prepare for his role, Macdonald informed us that Jude Law spent a week in a submarine belonging to the British Royal Navy; he said that Law felt the only thing worse than the sense of confinement in the small space was the unpleasant stench that emanated from 250 sailors who hadn’t bathed in quite some time.