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.     


Monday, December 01, 2014

“Wild”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club held a screening of “Wild”, a drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.


When a young woman suffers various personal losses, she proceeds on an ambitious hike north near the west coast of the continental United States – but when she finally reaches her destination, will she find what she sought?


In June of 1995, Cheryl (Witherspoon) set out on the adventure of her life when she decided to hike the thousand-mile distance of The Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border in the southwestern United States to the Canadian border at its northernmost end.  Equal parts courageous, dangerous and foolhardy, she assembles a monster-sized backpack that proves to be just as unwieldy and over-ambitious as the journey itself.  Estimating her travel will take approximately three months, this relatively inexperienced hiker soon realized that she didn’t take into consideration a wide variety of potential obstacles, despite believing she was well-prepared. 

Alone during her long trek, she considers quitting many times, but never succumbs to the overwhelming desire to do so, despite challenging weather, inadequate food supplies and unbearable physical discomfort (her brand new hiking boots prove so tight that she’s losing some of her toenails).  Cheryl’s extensive solitude also provides considerable time for her to reflect on her past, which is what brought her here in the first place; she meditates on the pain, tragedies and various other tribulations she’s survived. 

Cheryl and her brother were raised by their mother Bobbi (Dern), who escaped an abusive alcoholic husband to be a single parent.  Among other things, Bobbi instilled in her daughter an appreciation of life, nature and education.  When things finally appeared to be coming together for Bobbi, she was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter.  Later marrying Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Cheryl’s marriage ended in divorce some years later after her life began a long downward spiral of drug addiction and extramarital affairs.  As Cheryl gradually nears the completion of her travels, will she find the re-invented life she wanted or is she doomed to continue making the same mistakes?



The motion picture “Wild” is based on the book “Wild:  From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed, which serves as a record of the author’s real life undertaking as depicted in the movie.  While the details of this story may make a compelling book, it does not necessarily translate into an equally gripping film.  Being a work of non-fiction, the tale is lacking the dramatic narrative necessary for a movie; as a result, the adaptation falls somewhat flat as there is never really much to make a viewer wonder whether or not Cheryl ever successfully completes her trip (she did write a volume about her escapade, after all). 

Strayed’s story was best told in the form of a book and probably should have remained as such rather than being adapted into a motion picture.  Since much of the main character’s transformational arc occurs internally rather than through external events, it does not lend itself well to the form of a movie; in this way, it may suffer from the same problems as did “Eat, Pray, Love”.  Although “Wild” offers scenic shots of the western portion of this country that are at times breathtaking, they sometimes force us to realize we’re focusing on that instead of a cohesive story with a three-act structure of beginning, middle and end. 

Another worthy film comparison would be “127 Hours”; also a human versus nature story based on true events, it was better suited to a motion picture than “Wild” because its protagonist gets himself into a predicament and must figure out how he can save his own life.  While Cheryl encountered various obstacles along her route, there was nothing in the way of a life-endangering event that she is forced to overcome.  With so much screen time in the movie, it seems Witherspoon decided to cast herself in this role (she also has a screen credit of producer) to boost her career, perhaps with the hope of getting consideration for an acting nomination come awards time. 


Wild (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“Monk With A Camera”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new documentary “Monk With A Camera”. 


When a man from a privileged background turns his back on his family’s wealth in order to become a monk, can he find a rewarding life in work that is foreign to most in the western world?


Nicky Vreeland seemed to have the perfect life.  As the grandson of Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue Magazine, he developed an acute awareness of fashion; growing up, he turned into something of a fop.  Nicky’s father, Frederick, was a diplomat; as a result, he had a childhood that provided the rare opportunity for him to live in a number of different countries around the world.  Eventually, his family settled down; when they returned to America, they lived in New York and Nicky was sent to a boarding school.  Even though Nicky was around boys his own age, he was still something of an outsider, being unfamiliar with the culture and lacking the frame of reference within which they were raised in this society.

In his adolescence, Nicky was also fortunate in the regard that he had a great many female friends who enjoyed his company.  As far as his career, however, he developed an interest in photography and, thanks in no small part to his grandmother, was able to secure work as a photographer through a connection to Richard Avedon, the renowned fashion photographer whose work frequently appeared in Vogue Magazine.  It would seem that Nicky’s life was all set, except for one thing:  he was restless.  Nicky believed that there was something more to be experienced in life and that’s what set him out to seek a life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. 

From the late 1970’s, Nicky served as a monk at a monastery located in India; exhibiting an earnest discipline rare among westerners, he soon gained respect by both his peers and superiors alike.  Many years later, when his monastery needed to expand, he sought out his family’s friends to make generous contributions – but when The Great Recession hit in late 2008, they found they were no longer able to honor their pledges.  Needing money with the monastery partially built, he returned to his love of photography; Nicky took pictures of various locations and put them in an exhibit to raise money to complete construction.  Having raised $400,000 to complete the job, The Dalai Lama named him Abbot of the monastery. 


No doubt about it, the story of Nicky Vreeland forsaking his family’s wealth in favor of a substantially more modest and spiritual lifestyle is certainly compelling.  This, of course, begs the quite reasonable question of what in the world Richard Gere has to do with any of this?  Gere, allegedly a devout Buddhist, appears in the film and granted an interview about Vreeland.  Originally, he agreed to appear at one of the screenings to help promote the movie, but subsequently (and mysteriously) withdrew.  Whether that’s because he saw a final cut of the documentary and didn’t care to lend his support to it or because he had a better offer, we’ll never know. 

As a documentary, it is a story well told, with a beginning, middle and end.  How much footage was shot in order to tell this story (and how much was discarded in the editing process), would be interesting to know.  Nevertheless, it is well-structured; we are given a clear understanding of Vreeland’s not-so-humble beginnings as well as his introduction to Buddhism; as he displays a deep commitment to this lifestyle and beliefs, he acquires greater “street-cred” in this community.  Upon showing how he could muster the finances required to complete the monastery and temple, The Dalai Lama meets him at a swank hotel room in Long Beach, California (crashed by Gere) and bestows upon him the title of Abbot in a fitting conclusion to the story. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session between the audience and the film’s co-directors, Tina Mascara, Guido Santi and Vreeland himself.  When asked about Gere’s appearance in the documentary, Mascara said that he was attending a class instructed by The Dalai Lama, who invited him to attend the ceremony where Vreeland was made an Abbot.  She claimed that originally, they did not set out to make a movie about Vreeland himself; rather, their intention was to shoot a documentary about Westerners who became monks – when they kept coming upon Vreeland’s name, they knew that was where there story had to be. 


Monk With a Camera (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“Take Care”– Movie Review


take care

This week in my movie class, we saw the romantic comedy “Take Care” starring Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski.


Following an accident, a woman is forced to ask her ex-boyfriend to look after her until she recovers – but will their renewed friendship threaten his new relationship?


Incurring injuries after being hit by a car, Frannie (Bibb) returns home only to find that with a broken arm and leg she’s unable to care for herself.  Although she has friends and family not far away, Frannie quickly comes to the bitter realization that she cannot rely on them to help her.  Running out of options, Frannie reluctantly calls on Devon (Sadoski), her ex-boyfriend who now lives with his new girlfriend, Jodi (Betty Gilpin).  Although Devon is hesitant to agree, Frannie finally convinces him to do so when she reminds Devon that when they were together,she dutifully cared for him when he was ill. 

Every day for weeks, Devon checks in on Frannie, feeding her, taking her to doctor appointments, shampooing her hair and performing various other tasks.  During this time, Jodi grows increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of her boyfriend spending so much of his spare time with his ex-girlfriend; becoming understandably insecure, she expresses great concern that they are drifting apart the more Devon is with Frannie, depriving Jodi of his companionship.  Eventually, the inevitable occurs; with Devon and Frannie being around each other so much, they start to rekindle romantic feelings once again. 

Ultimately, Jodi finds out that this whole thing is rapidly spinning out of control and she is genuinely in danger of losing her man.  Finally, Jodi confronts Frannie about this and accuses her of delaying her recovery in order to steal Devon away from her.  Although Devon strenuously denies that Frannie is doing any such thing, Jodi doesn’t believe him; seeing how this arrangement is apparently driving a wedge in between Devon and Jodi, Frannie tells Devon that it is probably in everyone’s best interest if he were to stop immediately.  But as Frannie gradually recuperates, will Devon and Jodi be able to resume their relationship or have things gone too far by now?


While there may be women who cringe at the term “Check Flick”, would it be any better to refer to a movie like this as “Girl Porn”?  Either way is an accurate description of “Take Care”.  Although a film that would obviously have great appeal for a female audience, you might not want to force your man to sit through this because there’s very little there that would appeal to him.   For something that is categorizing itself in the genre of Romantic Comedy, there’s a surfeit of “romantic” and a dearth of “comedy”; “Take Care” is either not very funny or not funny frequently enough, depending on your perspective. 

Why “Girl Porn”?  Thematically, “Take Care” focuses on an idea that captivates a number of women:  payback for a perceived injustice by a former lover.  Here, not only does Frannie get Devon to admit that he did her a disservice, she tries to win him back, effectively attempting to take him from another woman to whom he has been rather loyal thus far.  These are not exactly the most admirable characteristics of your protagonist.  Add to this the fact that Frannie is made out to be a needy, vulnerable and burdensome heroine and one must reasonably ask why the audience should be rooting for someone so weak and lacking in character. 

Following the screening, the instructor interviewed the writer-director of “Take Care”, Liz Tuccillo.  After directing her first feature, Tuccillo said that before she directs another, she would first like to take a course to learn technical information about cameras work.  She added that one of the most frustrating aspects of shooting had to do with filming in the streets of New York City – there were so many outdoor shots that got interrupted because of noises beyond her control (e.g., airplanes, ambulances, etc.) that they wound up having to do many takes.  A small budget independent film, they were scheduled to shoot for only 18 days, but wound up spending 19 because of rain on one day. 


Take Care (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

“Horrible Bosses 2”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the comedy “Horrible Bosses 2”, starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. 


When three friends start their own business, they are swindled out of their company by a dishonest investor – but after an attempted kidnapping, will their poorly-planned scheme earn them the revenge they seek?


Nick, Kurt and Dale (Bateman, Sudeikis and Day) have finally had it with working for other people:  they’ve finally quit their jobs in order to start their own business manufacturing Dale’s invention, The Shower Buddy – a device that gives the user a thorough and expedient washing.  Not the most business-savvy types – and seemingly lacking an entrepreneurial bone in their body – the three men promote their new idea in order to get venture capitalists interested in their endeavor.  The men think they’ve found the angel they’ve been looking for when they are contacted by a top executive at a major company (Christoph Waltz). 

Meeting with the executive, they are given what initially appears to be a generous offer of a large order in their device in addition to assistance in securing a business loan that will help them grow their company.  At the last minute, however, the executive pulls the plug on the deal, which results in the men losing ownership of the company they started.  Humiliated and furious, the group come up with an idea to try to reclaim at least some of their money:  they will kidnap Rex (Chris Pine), the executive’s son, and collect a tidy ransom in exchange for his safe return. 

Unfortunately for them, the kidnapping plot goes hopelessly awry; when Rex learns of the scheme, it gives him an idea for how to get back at the father with whom he’s long had a difficult relationship.  Rex offers to collaborate with the trio on the plan and split the ransom with them; desperate and still with nothing to show for their efforts, they reluctantly agree to allow Rex to join them.  But as they proceed, the men begin to suspect that Rex’s erratic behavior will cause their new plan to fail just as badly.  Finally, when it seems that Rex has double-crossed them, will these three wind up doing time or will they be able to avoid arrest and have the truth about Rex revealed to the police?   


Nick, Kurt and Dale from “Horrible Bosses 2” may be the most imbecilic three men to star in the same film since The Three Stooges; depending on your opinion of The Three Stooges, that may or may not be a good thing. What’s promising about “Horrible Bosses 2” is the fact that there are a few good laughs and some of the best characters from the original movie – namely M-F Jones (Jamie Foxx), Dave (Kevin Spacey) and Julia (Jennifer Aniston) – all reappear in the sequel, to varying degrees.  Arguably the funniest character from the first film, Aniston’s Julia supplies some of the biggest and most raucous laughs from her bawdy antics. 

For those that never saw the first “Horrible Bosses”, this may very well be a pleasant find – however, there were quite a few members of the class that walked out on this movie long before it was over (the outrageous humor certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea).  On the other hand, if you were a fan of the previous installment, this sequel may prove something of a disappointment; the favorite characters – especially Aniston as the horny dentist – aren’t in this as much as the first film, and as a consequence, it isn’t quite as funny.  Also, the plot in this one isn’t quite as clever as in the first and sometimes feels a bit convoluted; in some ways, it feels as though the filmmakers wanted to make a carbon copy of the first “Horrible Bosses”, especially when it came to the resolution of the story.

While “Horrible Bosses 2” certainly isn’t terrible, it doesn’t quite stand up to the original; you may want to hold off on seeing this in the theaters unless you’re looking to escape the family during the holiday (it opens around Thanksgiving); renting it might be a better option – it’s definitely got some entertainment value, but nothing worth rushing out at your earliest opportunity.  The possibility of another sequel may depend on the success of this movie; although that may not be in the cards, if it does happen, hopefully the next one will focus on Aniston’s hilarious character. 


Saturday, November 08, 2014

“Actress”– Movie Review



This week at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, I attended the opening night screening of the new documentary “Actress” starring Brandy Burre.


Following a hiatus to start a family, an actress attempts to resume her career – but when personal problems arise, will they hamper her efforts?


Arguably, Brandy Burre’s big break as an actress came when she appeared on the noted HBO television series “The Wire”; prior to that, most of her résumé included theater work.  Once that ended, she decided to take time off from her career in order to start a family with her partner, Tim.  Together, they wound up moving to the New York City suburban community of Beacon, New York where they purchased a house and had a son and daughter; additionally, they also co-own a pair of restaurants in the area.  All seems well for the first few years until Brandy begins to get the itch to act once again. 

As Brandy seeks auditions and sings at New York City cabarets, she senses Tim’s lack of support in this endeavor and feels he may be withdrawing; she then becomes romantically involved with Chris while she continues to live with Tim and raise their children as Tim focuses on running his businesses – all the while, completely oblivious to the fact that Brandy has a little something on the side.  Brandy admits that she and Tim did not know each other for a very long time before they decided to settle down; she became pregnant after they were seeing each other for about three months, confessing that she wasn’t terribly well thought out when it came to the matter of family planning. 

Eventually, Tim discovers Brandy’s secret and is understandably furious; he moves out of their house and rents a small apartment in town.  Although he occasionally comes by their house to perform routine maintenance and keep an eye on the kids while Brandy is otherwise occupied, the couple have worked out at least a temporary joint custody agreement, where she drops off their children at Tim’s place for overnight stays.  While all of this turmoil plays itself out, Brandy remains committed to finding acting work of almost any kind.  But will she be able to step back into her career after such a long time away from acting and all of the distractions in her family life?     


Are we being hoodwinked here?  Is “Actress” truly a documentary?  Or is this just the next manipulative and opportunistic step by Brandy Burre in some kind of pathetic attempt to jump-start a stalled career?  It would seem that the events of this documentary may be true, but given the degree of attention this film has been receiving, Burre’s scheme – if indeed it is that – seems to be working.  Ultimately, an actress (or actor) is always performing – and that is especially true when there is a camera being pointed at him or her. 

While much of the documentary covers some of the more mundane aspects of Burre’s life – cleaning and traveling to auditions – there is also a great deal of footage captured of her talking directly to the camera; in these monologues (soliloquies?), she is provided an opportunity to give her side of the story.  On the other hand, Tim, her former partner, has no such scenes, despite the fact that he obviously consented to appear in this film.  Why is he not interviewed?  Well, perhaps because he’s not an actor and as a result, is less dramatically compelling on camera and has less of a presence.  Or perhaps it is because the filmmaker only wanted to present one side of the story. 

Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with Burre and the documentary’s director  Robert Greene.  Greene said that he shot for a period of about three to four months and ultimately acquired somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 hours of footage which he eventually edited down to this hour-and-a-half documentary.  He added that none of those who appeared in his documentary signed a release form; Greene claims he chose to go that route because since he was friends with Brandy and Tim, he always wanted to give them the chance to back-out of the situation at any time. 


Actress (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

“The Theory Of Everything”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new biographical drama, “The Theory Of Everything”, the story of Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane; it stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. 


After Stephen Hawking is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he gets married and starts a family while continuing his work as a physicist – but when he outlives predictions of his death, will his debilitating disease also debilitate his marriage?


In 1963, Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is studying at England’s Cambridge University to earn a PhD in physics when he meets Jane (Jones), a student focusing on poetry.  Impressed with Stephen’s intelligence, Jane finds herself drawn to him and they wind up spending an increasing amount of time together.  One day, Stephen suffers a fall and is hospitalized; after physicians run a battery of tests on him, Stephen is told that he has an incurable progressive neurological disorder and the grim prognosis is that he will succumb to it in approximately two years.

Jane remains undaunted by the tragic news and convinces him that they should marry; shortly thereafter, they begin a family and Stephen lives long enough to see his children reach school age – proving the doctors’ estimates of his life expectancy wrong.  Over time, however, Stephen’s health deteriorates; between caring for him and their children, Jane is understandably worn down.  They agree to take in Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a local music teacher, to help Jane take care of Stephen while she tends to the children.  Eventually, the arrangement is forced to end when suspicions arise that Jane and Jonathan are having an affair. 

When Stephen is hospitalized with pneumonia, he must undergo a tracheotomy, which results in the loss of his ability to speak.  Needing professional help with her husband’s worsening condition, Jane hires Elaine (Maxine Peake), a nurse who teaches Stephen how to communicate despite his lack of speech.  Inspired to write the book that will eventually become “A Brief History Of Time”, Stephen ultimately finds that he is falling in love with Elaine.  But will Stephen’s new-found feelings for Elaine cause the end of his marriage to Jane or will their love overcome Stephen’s temptation?



The performances of Redmayne and Jones make “The Theory Of Everything” worth seeing, but it is Redmayne, contorting his face and body as he portrays an ever-diminished Hawking, that really stands out.  Part of the problem, however, is that as Hawking’s motor skills deteriorated, so did his ability to speak; as a result, Redmayne is periodically difficult to understand when he articulates his lines.  Jones’ version of Jane doesn’t appear as a saint so much as a strong-willed woman who knew early on what she wanted then went out to get it and remained dedicated even in life’s bleakest moments.  

That said, it is worth questioning how true the movie is to The Hawkings’ real life, especially when considering that it is based on a book written by the former Mrs. Hawking.  Neither Stephen nor Jane come across as flawless, but they do seem almost blameless even in their personal shortcomings.  While both are presented as heroic, it is Jane who is conveyed even more so because it was her choice to remain with her husband; her self-sacrificing nature makes her loyal to a fault.  Again, based on her book, how could Jane be otherwise?

“The Theory Of Everything” is both a biography and a romance – albeit one that may challenge the traditional notion of what a happy ending might be.  What makes the story so unbelievable is the fact that it is true; if this had been based on a novel, an audience’s suspension of disbelief would likely be tested, to say the least.  While no one could question Hawking’s brilliance, it would not be out of order to question his ethics, especially when his notoriety grew.  The fact that the movie relentlessly holds this extraordinary scientist in the highest esteem may be its greatest failing – that he is never colored as a villain at any point doesn’t necessarily ring true. 

The Theory of Everything (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, November 02, 2014

“Goodbye To Language”– Movie Review



This weekend, I saw the new 3-D movie by Jean-Luc Godard, “Goodbye To Language” starring Roxy, the director’s dog (yes, you read that right).


The legendary director’s experiment with 3-D filmmaking, implementing some rather unorthodox techniques.


The film is told in two parts:  “Nature” and “Metaphor”.  In each part, the director ventures into various uses of visual and audible trickery to fool both the eye and ear of the viewer.  The visual images include the use of 3-D, but also use brilliant colors that almost seem to explode on the screen in each shot; scenes vary from feelings of hallucination to dreams – and sometimes even nightmares.  The audio is used to vary in volume during different points in the movie and at times, even varying within a single scene; the use of distortion is also occasionally applied to alarming effect.

The story – to the extent that there is one – appears to be about the struggling relationship of an incessantly bickering couple who are prone to inscrutable dialog ranging from philosophical, to political to religious in nature.  In addition to the new footage shot for the film are stock footage and scenes from documentaries as well as scenes from old movies interspersed all throughout.  While there is occasional full-frontal nudity, it seems to mostly concentrate on the female, who proudly sports full bush; the male, on the other hand, is often seen (and, to be sure, heard) on the toilet – even his evacuations have political overtones, or so Godard would have us believe.  

Roxy the dog plays a part in the couple’s life as not only their pet, but their surrogate offspring.  Ambivalent about bringing a new life into the world, they instead decide to adopt a dog, which they bring on their outings and vacations.  The ever-obedient pet is playful, loyal and loving but is never actually seen with its owners; instead, we only ever see Roxy joyously running about the countryside, rolling around in the snow and in a rare moment of repose, gazing pier-side upon a lake.  In a movie of many unsettling moments, this is one of the more tranquil scenes. 


Normally, I don’t write movie reviews about films after they’ve already opened, but I decided to make an exception with “Goodbye To Language” for reasons I’ll get into later.  In fact, there’s a good chance that by the time you read this, it may no longer be available (it ends its run at New York City’s Lincoln Center on Thursday, November 6th). However, despite the fact that it’s by the frequently divisive Jean-Luc Godard, it’s interesting to see how new technology can be used in an old medium by a veteran filmmaker. 

For people far more knowledgeable about art than I am, they may detect a sense of Impressionism in Godard’s “Goodbye To Language”.  Whether you see Godard as a genius or a buffoon, he has made it clear that storytelling is subordinate to the creativity of filmmaking.  Rather than lay out a clear-cut narrative, the director instead chooses to toy with the audience via both sights and sounds that may disturb, amuse or confuse – sometimes, a combination of all three.  Should you choose to see “Goodbye To Language”, don’t bother trying to figure it out or find a story; instead, treat it as though you are viewing a type of performance art or are at a museum of surrealist paintings. 

So why did I bother writing a review of this movie?  The press that covers motion pictures have created a considerable amount of buzz around “Goodbye To Language” and it got me curious, which is why I decided to see it in the first place.  For another thing, since I’m fortunate enough to live in New York City, one of the few places showing the film, I felt as though I owed it to myself to see the picture.  But therein lies another reason:  “Goodbye To Language” may be the most fascinating movie you’ll never see simply because it’s so unusual.  For a more detailed explanation of why this is so, you might want to read the Indiewire article, “Why Theaters Are Refusing to Book Godard's Moneymaking 3D 'Goodbye to Language'”.

Goodbye to Language 3D (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Magician”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles”, directed by Chuck Workman.


The personal and professional life of filmmaker Orson Welles is explored to see how one influenced the other.


Attending The Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, Orson Welles was one of its most memorable students. As a chubby boy, he was never very athletic, but young Orson did manage to find other ways to excel as a student: cleaving towards more intellectual pursuits, he participated extensively in theater, writing and art. Orson eventually got tagged with the moniker of “prodigy” when his accomplishments gained considerable notoriety in the local newspapers; this would serve to be something of an albatross for the remainder of Welles’ life – his exceptionalism was accompanied by high expectations.

In college, Welles’ involvement in the theater intensified and he found his mission in life was to create and perform; whether acting or directing, he was most passionate about participating in Shakespearean plays and eventually created his own theatrical troupe where he could also write his own plays. Finding increasing success, the studios noticed Welles’ various talents and brought him to Hollywood.  There, he was introduced to filmmaking . Upon being offered work, he would turn down jobs in order to negotiate a better deal – not for more money, but more control over the work. If they wanted him to act, studios would have to let him direct and sometimes even write the screenplay as well.

Although Welles’ filmmaking efforts within the Hollywood studio system brought him even greater fame, it also proved to be his downfall as well. Insisting on greater power and gaining a reputation as a prima donna, opportunities became fewer and further between. As a result, Welles decided to continue making films, but would work outside of the traditional Hollywood system. Partnering with various production companies both in the United States and abroad, he wound up with the freedom and control he sought, but often realizing that he would have to sacrifice funding as a part of the trade-off. Needing money in order to make the type of films he wanted, he would wind up taking jobs which he felt were beneath him so he could continue with more artistic pursuits.


With the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth coming next year, this timely documentary reminds film devotees how driven and dedicated the filmmaker was to his craft; arguably, Welles may have been this country’s first and most notable independent filmmaker, even though both the concept and popularity of independent filmmaking was decades away. To say Welles may have been before his time in such progressive thinking only serves to buttress his stature as a creative genius and someone who took great pride in making motion pictures. Due to his intellectual interests, however, reaching a mass audience eluded him; this is something that Welles himself admitted vexed him throughout his life.

This documentary is clearly made with great love and admiration for its subject, but it is not lacking in objectivity. As its director, Workman does not sidestep the controversies in Welles’ life, many of which were often caused by Welles himself.  These controversies occurred in both his personal and professional life and to some extent, even continue to this day, nearly 30 years after Welles’ death at the age of 70.  Among them are the resulting chaos from the famed “Martian invasion” radio broadcast as well as Welles’ paternity issue regarding director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s director, Chuck Workman. Workman was fascinated by the fact that Welles often had trouble completing much of the work he started, especially given that he was adamant about maintaining control all throughout the production. The director believes that this was part of Welles’ creative genius being a disadvantage; he maintains that once Welles got involved in a project, he would be initially fascinated by its various challenges.  However, once Welles felt he had conquered the obstacles, he would move on to the next mountain to climb and essentially lose interest in the task at hand – whether completing a shoot or post-production on his footage.