Thursday, December 24, 2015

Poll: The Golden Globe Awards 2016


Recently, the Golden Globe nominations were announced.  What do you think of the choices?  Do you have any favorites?  Are you rooting for someone?  Which picture do you think was best?  Submit your picks here; results will be posted after the holidays. If you like, feel free to add a comment below.  Note that choices for “Other” have been added in the event you feel someone/something got overlooked.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

“Concussion”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Concussion”, starring Will Smith. 


When a physician’s autopsies uncover mysterious deaths that may have been the fault of The National Football League, will he be able to inform the public before the league has him silenced?


As a pathologist in America’s Steel City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Nigerian-born physician Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) routinely performs autopsies in the office of The Medical Examiner.  His career starts to take an unusual turn when a disturbing pattern develops:  former players for the town’s local professional football team are suddenly turning up dead at a relatively young age and at an alarming frequency.  As Dr. Omalu performs each autopsy, he gradually uncovers a distressing pattern:  each cadaver is suffering from some form of brain damage. 

Facing mounting opposition from people who are of the opinion that this foreigner is trying to destroy the great American game of football, Omalu finds support from his boss,  Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who encourages him to to continue his investigations.  Despite other physicians questioning his findings, he is contacted by Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team physician for The National Football League. Dr.  Bailes tells Omalu that he feels somewhat invested in Omalu’s findings because he has personally known a number of NFL players, many of whom led difficult lives after retirement; he offers to help Omalu any way he can.

With the news of Omalu’s discoveries gaining greater media attention, the NFL is beginning to get nervous that their rather lucrative business is at risk.  As a result, the league chooses to fight back by discrediting Omalu’s findings by having their own experts speak out on the topic, effectively disproving his theories.  Ultimately, they threaten Omalu with legal action that may result in him not only losing his job, but also being imprisoned.  Finding both his livelihood and freedom at risk, will Omalu continue his research or can he be convinced to remain silent?   


Given that “Concussion” is a major Hollywood release, it’s truly remarkable how poorly written its screenplay is.  While it may forever remain a well-kept secret exactly how many drafts the script underwent, it’s hard to believe that the final draft was the version the producers found acceptable to commit to film.  Particularly noteworthy (for all of the wrong reasons) is the dialog, which is trite, obvious and predictable.  If you want a lesson on how to take a perfectly good story and ruin it in a big fashion, “Concussion” is a great example of doing precisely that. 

While this may have been Will Smith’s attempt at garnering acting awards (or at least nominations), there’s very little to recommend this movie.  Not that there’s much wrong with his performance, it’s just that the otherwise poor quality of the film proves to be a sufficient distraction to the point that all you can remember is its less-than-subtle attempts at laying out its case (especially embarassing is Smith watching the head-to-head collisions between high school football players in the final scene of the motion picture).  The inartfulness of the script hits you over the head so hard, you’ll feel as though you’re a victim of blunt force trauma – appropriately so, given the title “Concusion”. 

The subject of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy has been much in the news the past few years.  Omalu, the real-life physician whose remarkable story is partly chronicled in “Concussion”, is an incredible man with impeccable credentials.  It is truly a pity that neither subject got a better movie.  For those who really want to learn more about CTE, people might be better served by the PBS television series “Frontline”; they have an episode called “League Of Denial” which can be viewed online; it’s definitely worth checking out. 

Concussion (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The Hateful Eight" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City Premiere of “The Hateful Eight”, the new Western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
When a group of treacherous roughnecks from either side of the law are forced to share a cabin while waiting out a blizzard, will tempers flare or can they get along until the storm subsides?
A few years after America’s Civil War, noted bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) has captured his latest prisoner:  Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a murderess whom he must return to Red Rock, where she’ll be hung by the neck until dead.  While taking a stagecoach during a raging snow, they are confronted by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), an African-American Army Officer famed for leading Northern troops during the war.  Warren, also having taken the bounty hunting route, has killed his prisoners and must bring them to Red Rock to collect his money.  Reluctantly, Ruth allows a forcibly-unarmed Warren to join him, loading his prisoners atop the coach.
As the snow intensifies, they cross paths with Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff at Red Rock; he also requests permission to board the already-crowded coach, but Ruth again demurs.  Once Mannix explains that neither men will be paid until and unless he reaches Red Rock to get his badge, they allow him to join them.  By now, the storm has become an outright blizzard and it is no longer safe -- or possible -- for them to continue.  The group is forced to delay their excursion by taking refuge at Mimi’s Haberdashery, a cabin where they can rest, eat and wait for the storm to pass.  
Arriving at the stagecoach house, things immediately get a little claustrophobic when they discover that there are others already present, apparently waiting out the storm also:  Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican Mimi left in charge to run the place while she was out of town; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who turns out to be The Executioner being sent to Red Rock to hang Daisy; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowhand en route to visit family just a few miles outside of Red Rock; and the elderly General Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate soldier there to bury his recently-deceased son.  
Before long, these men get on each other’s nerves and things begin to take a turn for the insanely violent.  With memories of the war still fresh, Warren and Smithers continue the feud, further exacerbated by their different races.  Ruth, continually arguing with a belligerent Daisy, grows increasingly paranoid that someone is going to deny him the bounty he’s due; afraid that one of these strangers may run off to Red Rock with Daisy in order to collect the bounty himself, he argues with just about every man in the cabin.  Since no one seems capable of calming any of these hotheads, will cooler heads prevail or will things become irrevocably deadly?
If a Grand Guignol ballet featuring a collection of borderline psychotic killers set out to maim, torture and/or murder  each other is something that will put you in the holiday spirit, then “The Hateful Eight” is your Feel-Good Movie Of The Year.  In many respects, “The Hateful Eight” is vintage Tarantino, with the proper recipe of savage bloodlust mixed with black humor that has deservedly provided the filmmaker an extraordinarily successful career.  The entire cast embraces their cartoonish characterizations; Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves an award of some kind for blowing a massive snot-rocket from her right nostril.  
The problem with “The Hateful Eight” is the same that vexed Tarantino in certain of his other works:  it’s too damned long.  In some regards, it feels like Tarantino has crafted a stage play rather than a screenplay.  For one thing, the story mostly takes place within a single set -- the cabin where these people are trapped by the inclement weather.  Another reason is due to the script being dialog-laden.  This may sound peculiar given that there’s so much action, but consider this:  it’s what contributes to “The Hateful Eight” getting to a length of three hours.    A number of long sequences of dialog reveal both exposition and character background. Normally, not necessarily a bad thing, but one must question whether it justifies the film’s length.
There are many clever moments in “The Hateful Eight”.  These are not just the jokes (both visual and verbal) but also the plot twists that are intricately and logically weaved into the main story.  The characters never see them coming and neither will you.  In some ways, “The Hateful Eight” feels less like a Western and more like a Hitchcockian suspense movie; in his own way, Tarantino has invented a means to pay a homage to both genres in one film.  Nicely played.  “The Hateful Eight” is incredible fun albeit oppressive in its length; it’s a movie worth seeing in theaters, provided you both take your bathroom break and buy your snacks before it begins.
A discussion of the screening itself may be in order.  At the outset, Harvey Weinstein introduced Tarantino, who in turn introduced most of the major players in the cast (Jackson was MIA).  The version of the film we saw was the 70mm print Tarantino has been touting; the filmmaker asked the audience who had seen a film in 70mm and who had not -- not too many hands went up in response to either question.  This so-called “Roadshow” screening was done in grand style:  it began with an Overture of the movie’s sensational Ennio Morricone score and also contained an intermission (despite the opportunity to bail out at that point, most stayed).  If you do decide to see this motion picture, definitely make the effort to find a theater featuring it with 70mm projection -- it’s more worth it than most 3D films that have recently been released.  

The Hateful Eight (2015) on IMDb

Friday, December 11, 2015

"Sisters" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, "Sisters", starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  


When two embattled adult sisters learn their parents have sold their childhood home, they throw a party -- but will this resolve their issues or only serve to create new ones?


Having immersed herself in her nursing career following her divorce, Maura (Poehler) hears from her parents that they are selling their house as they've moved into to a retirement community for senior citizens.  Maura is devastated because this was the childhood home she shared with her older sister Kate (Fey) and the place holds many memories.  Nevertheless, she is instructed by her parents that she and Kate must clean out the belongings from their rooms.  Knowing how emotionally immature Kate can be at times, Maura informs her parents that she will assume the responsibility of breaking the news to her big sister and that they should not say a word to her.

Once the two arrive back home, Maura tells Kate the news, but both are shocked to learn that the house has already been sold to a young couple who wish to perform extensive renovations on the old place.  Totally distraught by the sudden realization that they will lose their childhood memory to strangers, Maura and Kate decide to throw the party to end all parties in order to bid farewell to the house and symbolically, their childhood.  They quickly get in touch with former neighborhood friends and some of their ex-schoolmates; the reception is overwhelming and before long, the house is filled to the rafters with people -- many of whom they know and others who've somehow managed to crash the party.

Eventually, the truth comes out about Kate's situation:  Kate was hoping that both she and her estranged daughter could move into the house because she was recently thrown out of the apartment she shared with a roommate.  It turns out that Kate has never developed a stable, responsible lifestyle as she can't hold down a job, which is what caused the distance from her daughter.  Meanwhile, Maura has developed something of a crush on a new neighbor, James (Ike Barinholtz), who is among the many partiers.  The only problem is that she's still feeling a bit stung by her divorce and is unable to get on with her life.  The guests get crazy, causing the party to spin quickly out of control, essentially ruining the house.  With the closing of the house imminent, can the sisters repair it in time or will their parents' sale fall through?


Just about the only thing wrong with “Sisters” is the fact that it eventually ends -- that’s how much fun this movie is. The party these two women throw is so out of control wild, you’ll wind up wishing you would have been invited. For those of us who believe Tina & Amy can do no wrong, “Sisters” is two hours of unbridled pleasure. While they are not credited with writing the screenplay, you definitely get the sense that there may have been a good deal of improvisation during the shoot because so much of the humor has the feel of the Fey-Poehler touch (they are, however, credited as being co-Executive Producers, so that may be the answer right there). In any event, whatever they did here worked out wonderfully and shame on you if you don’t see this one right away.

A successful film director once said that casting is 90% of the job -- if you get the casting right, you greatly enhance the chances that you’ll make a good movie. “Sisters” really does get the casting right; there are plenty of familiar faces both from current and past “Saturday Night Live” casts. Thanks to that and some really top-notch jokes, “Sisters” provides plentiful opportunities to laugh yourself silly. If there is anything negative about “Sisters” -- and this is splitting hairs, somewhat -- it’s the outtakes that they include during the end credits. First of all, this practice has become stunningly trite to the point that it’s either boring or annoying. Secondly, the outtakes themselves are extremely hit-or-miss (to put it mildly), so they’re not exactly worth sitting through the credits.

Is this movie opening at the right time? An argument could be made either way. In one sense, it’s coming out at the perfect time; given the stress people tend to experience during the holidays, this is tailor-made to allow you to laugh and let off steam. On the other hand, its release could not come at the worst possible time because it opens on the exact same day as the new “Star Wars” film; “Sisters” will likely do little business that weekend, if any at all -- which is a genuine shame because it’s so wonderful. Folks connected with “Sisters” are promoting their movie by saying, “See our movie on opening weekend -- you can always see ‘Star Wars’ the following weekend when the theaters are less crowded”. They’re absolutely right. The new “Star Wars” is certain to be in theaters for a while; check out “Sisters” before you start counting the wrinkles on Han Solo’s neck.

Sisters (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

“In The Heart Of The Sea”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new adventure drama “In The Heart Of The Sea”, directed by Ron Howard.


When sailors head on a whaling expedition, will they be able to survive after their ship is sunk by an immense whale?


In 1850, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) was well into writing his epic novel “Moby Dick” when he researched his story by interviewing a man who worked on a whaling ship as a teenager.  He tells the author about the Essex, a whaling vessel that set sea in the winter of 1820 in search of whales they could kill and process for their oil, which was used for lighting street lamps and heating homes, among other things.  The Essex was led by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced Captain, but the real brains on board was First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who resentfully took the job only because he was promised a Captain’s assignment subsequently.

The Essex was out for many months before they finally captured a whale, which they gutted and stored on board.  As they sail further south near Argentina, no whales are sighted and by now, the frustrated, homesick crew merely wants to go home.  Not wanting to disappoint his employers, the Captain decided to take a tip obtained while ashore and changed direction of the Essex to far off its original course in the hope that more whales would be found.  Although the tip proved correct, Pollard and his crew got more than they bargained for; while on their mission, the Essex is attacked by a massive sperm whale.  The ship sinks and the crew is forced to take to lifeboats and hope they can find land before long. 

As it turns out, the sperm whale trails their boats all the way as they head to a small unpopulated island; it attacks their boats, damaging them to the point that they are no longer seaworthy.  Upon reaching the island, they do their best to repair the boats so they can set out to find either a rescue ship or civilization.  Once in the sea again, their supplies run out after several months; starving and dehydrated, the men get desperate and must resort to cannibalism in order to survive.  After three months stranded, with things not looking terribly promising and another attack by the sperm whale looming on the horizon, will they die at sea or can they live long enough to survive this disaster?


Is this supposed to be Director Ron Howard’s period-piece version of “Jaws” or simply his “Moby Dick”?  Regardless of whatever it may be, its impressive special effects will still leave you feeling a bit empty; at times, it’s a bit unclear exactly what story it is that Howard wants to tell.  “In The Heart Of The Sea” starts off being a story about the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s legendary novel “Moby Dick”, then becomes a survivalist tale before morphing into a fable about morality and ethics.  Therein lies the problem – it tries to be all things to all people and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them. 

One of the reasons why an audience may find it difficult to get drawn into the movie is because there’s not always a clear protagonist for whom they can root.  Initially, it seems like it’s going to be Melville’s tale, then the story behind the man who survived the Essex as a teenager, and finally looks like it’s about Chase’s heroics.  Because your attention is shifting from one protagonist to another at various points throughout the film, there is no single individual the audience can easily follow.  On the other hand, maybe it’s just the whale’s story, in which case Howard completely missed the bullseye on that one. 

This is a Ron Howard movie being released around the holiday season, so it must be family-friendly, right?  Well, maybe not.  There are some scenes that you might not want small children to see, or at least they wouldn’t understand them even if they did see them.  Mainly, there’s the whole cannibalism subplot that comes into play once the crew is stranded.  Also, there’s attacking and gutting the whales as well as watching one distraught crew member commit suicide by blowing his brains out after too many days at sea – which, all things considered, is one perfectly valid way to escape this film. 

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, December 03, 2015

“Macbeth”– Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the latest adaptation of the Shakespearean drama, “Macbeth”, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. 


When a member of Scottish nobility murders the king to take the throne himself, will he be able to hold on to his new-found power once his life and monarchy are threatened?


After defeating a horde of troops sent to overthrow the besieged King Duncan of Scotland, it is a general by the name of Macbeth (Fassbender) who is rewarded for his victory by being promoted to thane, a rank of Scottish nobility.  While he should be exhilarated by this, he is instead haunted by the memory of a trio of witches who confronted him after the battle, predicting that he will eventually become King Of Scotland.  Upon returning home, his wife, Lady Macbeth (Cotillard), goads him into murdering the king so he can rise to power. 

She concocts an elaborate plan where the king’s guards are made so drunk that they pass out, allowing Macbeth to sneak past them and stab Duncan to death.  The next morning, when Duncan is found dead, the guards are suspected of the crime and murdered forthwith.  Now being a member of nobility and the memory of his heroics still fresh, Macbeth is made king.  However, the premonitions by the witches stalk him to the point that his behavior turns most erratic and before long, Lady Macbeth is convinced that her husband has indeed Lost The Royal Marbles. 

Things go south rather quickly thereafter.  Lady Macbeth, perhaps laden by guilt from what they’ve both done, decides it’s time to make a hasty retreat so she commits suicide.  When her husband learns of this, he spirals even more out of control (if it’s possible to imagine such a thing by this point).  When English forces led by Duncan’s son try to overtake Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth must do battle with Macduff, his former compatriot who previously helped him defend Duncan.  With his world in disarray and even his own people questioning his wisdom, can Macbeth defeat his old friend to retain the throne?  


Shakespeare’s works have long been considered timeless and rightly so.  One reason why “Macbeth” falls into the timeless category is because of its theme.  Whether you’re attending a production of “Macbeth” or viewing an episode of the Netflix series “House Of Cards”, everyone likes a good, juicy story about blind ambition for absolute power and its accompanying greed.  When we see how evil these people are, it makes us feel as though we are above that sort of behavior, even though deep down we like to think we are capable of doing whatever it takes to achieve such rarefied levels of success.

Whether or not the performances by Fassbender and Cotillard are up to snuff may be best left for Shakespearean scholars to debate.  For the rest of us, however, they seemed flawless.  As far as the movie itself, it will be less appealing to people who enjoy costume dramas than it will be to those who like bloody, gory violence.  The fight scenes should be enough to satisfy almost anyone’s bloodlust for the sanguine grume.  There is, however, some discretion used when a woman and her children are tied to pillars and set on fire – apparently done to avoid a more extreme rating. 

When remaking a classic, you’re putting yourself in an extraordinarily vulnerable position because others before you have had various interpretations of the same work; yours will inevitably be compared to theirs, either favorably or unfavorably.  In that regard, it’s either unbelievably daring or unforgivably narcissistic to take a whack at “Macbeth” once again.  For both directors and actors, ego demands that you try your hand at it with the hope that yours will be the definitive interpretation.  For some of us, however, the definitive “Macbeth” won’t occur until Andrew “Dice” Clay is cast in the title role. 


Macbeth (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

“45 Years”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new drama, “45 Years”, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.


As a couple prepares to celebrate their wedding anniversary, will their marriage be able to survive after shocking news about his past surfaces?


In the expansive countryside of Norfolk, England, the childless couple Geoff and Kate (Courtenay and Rampling) are enjoying their retirement.  While Kate busily plans the big party that will be a celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff gets a letter from Switzerland which contains some rather disturbing news:  the body of his ex-girlfriend, who was reported dead during their vacation there in 1962, has been discovered.  Thought to have perished as the result of an accidental drowning, her body was found fully preserved, encased within a glacier. 

Geoff is overwhelmed by this news, forcing him to dredge up old memories he had long ago buried.  Kate is also devastated because she’s only learning of this woman now; in the decades they’ve been married, he’s never once brought her up in conversation.  Suddenly, with their wedding anniversary on the horizon, they must deal with this incident from before they met each other.  As Geoff continues to reveal details about his relationship with this other woman, Kate soon believes he is now concerned more with reviving her memory than their present life together. 

Understandably, Kate loses enthusiasm for planning their anniversary party.  Geoff’s becoming increasingly distant emotionally and Kate learns he’s secretly planning a trip to Switzerland to identify the body.  Kate is left to wonder if she’s losing her husband or if she never really had him in the first place.  She suspects Geoff has been living in this woman’s memory all along and that she’s unknowingly been living with her ghost for the past several decades.  Now, with everything out in the open, will their marriage survive this new information?


“45 Years” is one of those movies that has an ambiguous ending.  You may either see that as good news or bad news.  Director Andrew Haigh (who also wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine) apparently felt that the end should be left open to interpretation by the audience.  Here’s the problem with that:  it’s lazy storytelling.  Whether you attend a play, read a book or see a movie, you are investing your time and money in the people telling you this story.  When they provide an ambiguous ending, they are abdicating their responsibility as the storyteller, willfully deciding to violate the social contract in which they chose to engage. 

Some may maintain it’s all about the journey, not about the destination.  Arguably, if the destination is unknown, then you can’t appreciate the journey;  it’s called being lost.  The movie doesn’t so much end as much as it comes to an abrupt (some might say arbitrary) halt.  If you’re looking for a resolution, you’ll be waiting a long time.  Having said all of that, however, Rampling and Courtney are solid professionals with a seeming chemistry that makes the idea of them being a long-time married couple totally believable.   

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Haigh and Rampling.  Haigh said that when he was in post-production for his previous movie, someone had given him this short story to read; once he was finished, he knew that an adaptation of that piece of fiction would be his next project.  Rampling experienced very much of a personal investment in this story; when she read Haigh’s script, she felt as though he had written the screenplay just for her.  Haigh admitted that his film is very much in the style of Ingmar Bergman (particularly, “Scenes From A Marriage”) and he had the privilege of screening it at a film festival held in Bergman’s hometown. 

45 Years (2015) on IMDb

Sunday, November 29, 2015

“Janis: Little Girl Blue”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the opening night screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new documentary, “Janis:  Little Girl Blue”, about the life of singer Janis Joplin.


When Janis Joplin comes on the scene as a popular new singer in the 1960’s, can she overcome her own personal insecurities after finding success?


Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943.  She was too big a personality for a town as small as this, so when she grew up, she moved to the bigger city of Austin, where she was introduced to its explosive music scene.  Exhilarated by what she found and having tried her hand at music herself a few years earlier, she decided to become one of the musicians in town.  A local band, Big Brother, was looking for a singer; once Janis was introduced to the band and they heard her sing, Big Brother immediately realized that they had finally found their lead singer. 

With a booming music business in California, Janis and the band moved to the northern part of the state; once club owners heard Janis during the auditions, they quickly started getting gigs.  Gaining a reputation around the area, they were invited to play at a big concert in Monterey; a documentary filmmaker was recording the various artists who performed (“Monterey Pop”) and they asked Janis and the band if they would appear in the film.  Since they weren’t getting paid for the appearance, they declined; however, because they’d been so well-received when they originally played, they were asked to play a second set.  It was at that time they reconsidered the filmmaker’s offer; when the movie was released, everyone knew about Janis and what had now become Big Brother And The Holding Company (BBHC) and their career took off.

Soon, they were appearing on television shows, playing bigger concerts and enjoying extraordinary record sales.  While Janis got a kick out of the success, she was still unhappy.  Over time, she had casual affairs with various people (The Grateful Dead’s Pig Pen being one of the more notable), but was never able to find her one true love – although she did expand her search by hooking up with women occasionally.  Having abused alcohol for quite some time, Janis eventually got turned on to heroin and began doing them in tandem.  Her drug abuse increased and she eventually died of an overdose at the age of 27 in October of 1970. 


Bluntly, while Janis Joplin may have been a dream to listen to, she was a nightmare to look at.  To say that the legendary singer had unconventional looks might not only be a diplomatic statement, but also, one which you might be hard-pressed to say with a straight face.  It is no wonder, then, that she was once cruelly voted The Ugliest Man In Austin, Texas.  With her singing talent, she overcame the detractors who made her life miserable and wound up with her fair share of male (and female) admirers.  In the end, however, Janis Joplin’s tragedy was not merely that she died of a drug overdose at such a young age, but also the fact that she could never be loved enough to compensate for those who shunned her in high school.

The amount of research director Amy Berg conducted in order to assemble this work is nothing short of stunning.  Her documentary not only includes film clips of old interviews (which you’d pretty much expect) but also, interviews with people who knew Joplin back in the day – namely, The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, television personality Dick Cavett and Janis’ younger siblings.  Additionally, Berg uncovered not only a collection of Joplin’s personal photographs but also quite a few rather eloquently written letters to her family and friends.  If there is one criticism of the film it is the ending; over the credits, there are some quick interviews with people who were Joplin fans (such as the singer Pink and actress Juliette Lewis), which are rather hit-or-miss and add little to the overall movie – especially when you consider they appear to have been tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Berg and Cavett, who basically seemed to hijack the thing, apparently appreciative for the attention.  Cavett played it cagey when it came to whether or not he actually had an affair with Joplin; she was on his television talk show a number of times in the late 1960’s and they had quite a rapport.  Berg said that there was a considerable amount of footage which she wanted to use in the documentary, but it was eventually cut because given her budget, it would’ve been too cost prohibitive to obtain clearance rights.  In addition to the usual trailer, a portion of one of Joplin’s appearances on Cavett’s show is below. 

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) on IMDb

Monday, November 23, 2015

“The Danish Girl”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “The Danish Girl” starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. 


When an acclaimed artist suddenly realizes he must live his life as a woman, what impact will this have on his marriage?


In Copenhagen’s society of 1926, artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) was considered a renowned painter of landscapes.  Unfortunately, his wife Gerda (Vikander), also a painter, has gone virtually unrecognized for her portraits.  One day, when she’s trying to finish a painting of a woman, the model fails to show up.  As a result, she asks her husband if he would stand-in so she can complete her painting.  He consents, but when she asks him to wear some of the clothes her model wore when she originally posed, this awakens something in him and he starts dressing as a woman with increasing frequency. 

At first, Gerda is amused by this and together, they engage in a playful game; having shopped for clothes that would fit her husband, she dresses him and they go in public to see how many people they can fool.  Gerda introduces her companion as Lily, Einar’s cousin, who is visiting.  Their plan works a little too well as some men start flirting with “Lily”, who’s so flattered by the attention “she” encourages the romantic interests, disturbing Gerda immensely.  Nevertheless, Gerda is suddenly inspired and starts to paint portraits of “Lily” which are held in such high regard that galleries compete to show her work, which is soon on display in Paris. 

But as Gerda has found her muse, she’s lost her husband.  Einar comes to the conclusion that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and seeks assistance from physicians; unfortunately, they all come to the same conclusion:  he’s insane and should be institutionalized.  Ultimately, they find a surgeon from Dresden who believes he can assist:  he offers to perform an as-yet untested sex-change operation on Einar.  Because there is little medical experience with this, it’s risky and must be done in stages:  first, removal of Einar’s male genitalia – later, he’ll construct female genitalia so Einar can complete the physical transformation to Lily.  Considering the danger, will Einar undergo the surgery and if he does, will he survive? 


“The Danish Girl” is a true story based in part on Lily’s memoirs as well as the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff.  Despite Redmayne’s convincing portrayal of a woman (uncomfortably so, at times), this feels like something of a creepshow.  There is a redeeming quality about the movie with respect to the close relationship Einar maintained with Gerda as the transition to Lily progressed.  However, this is not enough to emotionally draw in viewers to the story; while Einar/Lily and Gerda have a fascinating tale, it’s a bit slow-moving at times, causing “The Danish Girl” to give the impression it’s much longer than its two hours.

Where “The Danish Girl” gets more absorbing is when it touches on Gerda’s reaction to her husband’s metamorphosis.  It briefly alludes to her sense of loneliness and how physical intimacy has become absent in her life by suggesting a possible romantic entanglement with an old friend of Einar’s.  The movie would have been substantially more intriguing if it had told the story through Gerda’s eyes, especially since she was the artist whose work flourished to the detriment of her marriage.  “The Danish Girl” seems to start out being their story, then his story, then her story.  Ultimately, it feels like the story of no one in particular. 

Undeniably, there is a great degree of timeliness in this movie, given that transgender members of our society have recently gained increasing visibility and awareness.  The qualities that go into the making of a good film are often mysterious at best; why certain things that should theoretically work don’t work in practice is nothing short of confounding.  Therein lie the problems with “The Danish Girl”; on the surface, it appears to be doing everything right but the puzzle that is constructed at the end is nowhere near as compelling as each of its individual pieces.   

The Danish Girl (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, November 21, 2015

New Blog Feature: Blog Talk Radio Player


If you like sitting around talking movies, then you might enjoy, “Sitting Around Talking Movies”, a weekly round-up of newly-released films hosted by New York City critic Neil Rosen.  The podcast “Sitting Around Talking Movies” is hosted by the Web site Blog Talk Radio.  Recently, a player for Blog Talk Radio has been added to The Virtual Nihilist blog which will stream the most recent episodes of “Sitting Around Talking Movies” while you’re visiting my blog. 

Interested in trying it out?  It’s simple!  Just scroll all the way down to the very bottom of any page on The Virtual Nihilist blog and you’ll see the new Blog Talk Radio player in the center of the screen (it’s so big, it’s hard to miss).  Locate a recent episode of “Sitting Around Talking Movies” that you wish to hear and click the Play button.  That’s all there is – of course, you can stop or pause it at any time should you feel the need to do so. 

Please remember to try out this new feature and if the mood strikes you, feel free to enter a comment about the player, the podcast or any of the movies you hear reviewed on the podcast or have read about on this blog.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

“Mustang”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new drama “Mustang” from Turkey.


When a group of sisters are wrongly punished by their family, can they escape this oppressive treatment before their lives are ruined?


At the end of another school semester, Lale (Günes Sensoy) and her four older sisters are anxiously anticipating their summer vacation – but it is a bittersweet time as well.  Lale has formed a special bond with her teacher Dilek (Bahar Kerimoglu), who’s moving to Istanbul once school is finished.  Nevertheless, Lale and her sisters will look forward to spending the summer living with their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) – the only family they know since their parents died a decade ago. 

Before returning to their house, however, the girls decide to celebrate the onset of summer by visiting a nearby beach with from boys from the school.  While there, they engage in some rather carefree frolicking before bidding them good-bye until school resumes in the fall.  Once home, the young women are stunned to learn they are in trouble for the playful time with the boys and are told that with the neighbors gossiping about them, they have thoroughly scandalized the family.  As a result, they’ll be punished; the sisters are essentially imprisoned in their own house and their only education from now on will be Home Economics so they’ll be ready for their career as a housewife. 

And thus it starts.  They try to marry off Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the oldest of the girls, but she demands to be paired with a young man with whom she has already established a relationship.  With that plan foiled, the family then arranges a marriage for the next eldest, Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), who’s so distraught she gets drunk at her wedding.  Next is middle-sister Ece (Elit Iscan), who decides to take matters into her own hands to end her suffering.  Seeing that Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Lale’s only remaining older sister, will be forced to marry soon, Lale realizes they must escape to Istanbul.  But will the two sisters make it out safely or will Uncle Erol thwart their plans?


Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who also co-wrote the screenplay, tells a compelling, spellbinding tale with equal amounts of compassion, dignity and respect; its sophistication belies the fact that this is her first feature film – hopefully, she has many more stories like this to tell throughout the rest of her career.  This is more than merely a feminist film, it is a humanist film – it just so happens that this is an account of girls.  Similar accounts of religious oppression could just as well be told about anyone.  Don’t be mistaken – this in no way trivializes the plight of women in socially repressed cultures, a topic that “Mustang” insists on staring right in the eye. 

It is shrewdly subversive that the filmmakers chose to have Lale, the youngest of the sisters, as their savior and protagonist.  Ultimately, she is the one who conceives, plans and executes their attempted escape.  This all makes so much sense.  As the youngest daughter, she sat by in abject horror watching the unpleasant fate her older sisters met, so this motivated her to get out.  Also, being the youngest of the girls, she had the most to lose and the least to look forward to, so she saw that escape was not an option but a necessity. 

There’s much to admire in “Mustang” – directing choices, writing, cinematography and acting.  The five young women who play the sisters are largely non-professionals.  Yet they were able to successfully convince they possessed that unique bond only sisters could have.  Regarding the cinematography, the fact that this was shot near a beach helps considerably to paint a picture of Turkey that is desirable and exotic, despite whatever problems they may have.  Also, the script smartly has payoffs to things that are setup early on in the film.  To sum it up:  See. This.  Movie.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director and the five young women who played the sisters.  The director said she decided to title the movie “Mustang” because she wanted a simple, one-word title that would express a type of animal which could not be tamed, just as these sisters would fight the subjugation of their family.  Gamze Ergüven claimed that although her film got a wide release in Turkey, the reception was rather mixed:  people either passionately loved it or passionately hated it – there was no middle ground.  Much of the problem came because the topic is controversial; to this day, even the Turkish government wants to micromanage women to the point of telling them how many children they should have and insisting they not laugh in public. 

Mustang (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

“The 33”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “The 33”, starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche.


When Chilean miners are trapped underground, can they be saved before there’s a fatality?


In Chile, men with limited skills have few options when it comes to employment; for many, the only choice is the dangerous job of working in a mine. Nevertheless, to support themselves and their families, men risk their health and life to earn a living. Despite supervisor Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) expressing grave concerns to his management about the safety of the San Jose Mine, he and his crew are being forced to work in this potentially hazardous environment. Needing extra money, Mario Sepúlveda (Banderas) joins Lucho’s team on what was originally scheduled to be his day off.

Once at work, the worst case scenario occurs: seriously destabilized from years of digging, the mine collapses, trapping all 33 members of the crew inside; all means of egress have been blocked. When word gets out about the accident, family and friends of the trapped miners arrive at the site, including one man’s wife and mistress, as well as María Segovia (Binoche), the estranged sister of miner Dario (Juan Pablo Raba). Chile’s president becomes involved when this becomes a nationwide story, so he sends Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) to investigate and oversee the rescue attempts.

Discovering the mining company remains less than incented to rescue their trapped men, Golborne has the government call on all available resources; they bring in Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), the best mining engineer in the nation, to excavate in the hope of reaching the miners’ refuge. Overcoming various obstacles, he finally reaches them after they’ve run out of food. By now, the story of the trapped miners has gone global and various countries worldwide contribute resources to assist in the rescue. But after the miners have been trapped for two months, can any rescue attempt be successful?


So many Chileans and all of them speak perfect English! Perhaps these are some Hispanics that Donald Trump might not object to having in our country. Seriously, “The 33” has the feel of a made-for-television movie, so it’s a wonder it’s getting a theatrical release; part of that made-for-TV feel is the corny screenplay which contains some of the most witless dialog imaginable. Equally unhelpful is some rather blatant scenery chewing by Banderas (a difficult accomplishment from inside a mine, one might imagine), who acts as de facto leader, coordinating distribution of their severely rationed food supply.

“The 33” tries to juggle multiple stories so it doesn’t become static by focusing solely on the miners themselves. There are scenes with the families, the politicians and the rescue crew, among others. Where the problem is encountered is when Golborne appears to be developing something of a romantic relationship with María; presumably, the filmmakers developed this contrivance because they felt they needed a romance injected somewhere in the story to keep certain segments of the audience interested. Unfortunately, it comes across as being so hopelessly artificial that it calls the credibility of the film into question.

Regarding the opening statement about everyone in “The 33” speaking English, it is something of a curiosity and can take you out of the movie rather early on. Perhaps the decision was made to do this because the primary market for this film is supposed to be America; possibly, the thought of requiring people to read subtitles would alienate a mainstream audience. Too bad. The problem with doing this is that it certainly creates a substantial absence of authenticity to the motion picture, especially when you have cast members who clearly speak the native language. The addition of known actors (i.e.., Byrne and Binoche) for whom Spanish is obviously not their native language may have played a significant role in this decision as well.

The 33 (2015) on IMDb

Monday, November 09, 2015

“Entertainment”– Movie Review



On the closing night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series this past Spring, I saw the drama “Entertainment”, directed by Rick Alverson.


While a stand-up comedian tours the southwest, he desperately tries to restore the relationship with his daughter – but will his life fall apart before he has the opportunity to do so?


Whether bars, nightclubs or prisons, Neil (Gregg Turkington) plays them all as he tours extensively throughout the Mojave Desert. Leading a lonely life on the road, he desperately tries to connect with the one person that still matters to him: his estranged daughter. Calling her each night after his set, Neil only gets her voicemail because of the time difference; despite leaving detailed messages, however, she never calls back. Disengaged from most everyone else in the world, Neil chooses to meet with a cousin, John (John C. Reilly), who lives in the area. Being a businessman, John doesn’t quite get Neil’s routine, which is really not intended for mainstream audiences in the first place.

Accompanying Neil on the tour is a teenager (Tye Sheridan) trying to break into show business as a pantomime. As his opening act, the young man tries to engage with the comedian, who remains distant; their relationship stays professional, never personal, but always cordial. One of their few times of extended interaction is when a heckler attacks the comedian after his show; the teen helps Neil locate his now-broken eyeglasses and takes him back to the motel room which they’ll share. Now playing the worst dumps which pay little (if at all), it seems Neil’s career as a comedian is just about over.

Finally, some small ray of hope comes when the comedian is offered a job in Hollywood; he accepts a gig playing a party at a Hollywood mansion to be attended by many influential show business people. Neil leaves telephone messages to his daughter that he’ll impress some of the big shot guests and wind up getting bigger and better bookings. But when the big day finally arrives, all is not well; seeing those in attendance, the comedian suddenly has a panic attack and experiences a bit of a meltdown. But will he be able to recover in time to make his performance the success he originally envisioned?


Although many of the comedy bits by Gregg Turkington (AKA Neil Hamburger) are hilariously funny (albeit in the sickest and most disturbing way imaginable), it’s not enough to save “Entertainment” from being a creepfest. An exploration into the surreal with an obnoxious protagonist for whom it is difficult (if not impossible) to root, the audience is left on a wild ride of visual non-sequiturs that seem to have no purpose other than to confound the audience, rather than to lay out an intelligible story. Clearly, it is irony for this motion picture to be titled, “Entertainment”; a more accurate title might be “Torture”.

While scenes shot in the Mojave Desert are visually arresting, they certainly don’t make “Entertainment” worth seeing. Turkington portrays his character in an almost catatonic state, suggesting he’s either permanently medicated or recently lobotomized (maybe both). Given the episodic nature of the movie, he interacts with many characters who may or may not be more interesting than he is, but they are almost certainly more animated – arguably, there may be still photographs that are more lively. His constant state of stupefaction gets on your nerves in short order.

Following the screening was an interview with director Rick Alverson.  During Alverson’s question and answer session, he took a hard-to-explain movie and somehow made it even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). Mumbling, using incomplete sentences that trailed off with endless ellipses, he came off about as inarticulate as his film; he did appear to like inserting the word “trope” occasionally, perhaps in an effort to present the illusion that he knew what he was doing. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent members of the audience from at least trying to inquire about the film in the plaintive hope of getting some semblance of an answer that made sense.

Entertainment (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, November 05, 2015

“Spotlight”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Spotlight”, starring Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo. 


When a team of Boston Globe investigative reporters research a scandalous story about the Catholic church, will the church find a way to have them silenced before the story can be published? 


When Marty Baron (Schreiber) takes over as the new Editor of the venerable Boston Globe newspaper in 2001, he casts a careful eye at the paper’s resources with thoughts of cutbacks.  Researching the publication once he steps into his new role, Baron comes across an old story that looks as though it got unnecessarily buried years ago:  Boston priests were believed to have molested local children and the Catholic church seemed to be doing everything it could to cover it up.  Learning that The Globe has a small group of investigative reporters known as The Spotlight Team, he assigns them the task of following up on those allegations. 

Eager to prove his team’s worth to his new boss, Robby (Keaton), the Spotlight manager, immediately has Spotlight drop everything to focus on what appears to be a potential scandal; one of the reporters leading the way is Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), who doesn’t mind doing whatever’s necessary to nail whoever is guilty.  Along the way, Spotlight naturally runs into various obstacles:  some victims are hesitant to talk, a number of the accused priests refuse to admit guilt and the Archdiocese of Boston tries to shut down the investigation altogether. 

Gradually, and through the persistence of Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), some of the victims see the Globe is sincere about revisiting this crime, so they acquiesce and reveal their tale.  Rezendes is even able to convince a lawyer (Stanley Tucci) who represented past victims to get his former clients to agree to an interview with the reporter.  Soon, the church sees that the Globe’s Spotlight team is relentless in its tenacity.  But when the events of September 11th occur causing Spotlight to be distracted by this major news story, will this prove to be the divine intervention the church needed to prevent the scandal from being reported or will Spotlight return to their investigation once the interest about the terrorist attacks die down? 


The reviewers of Rotten Tomatoes have overwhelmingly endorsed “Spotlight” and it’s understandable:  the movie lionizes the so-called “ink-stained wretches” who work in the newspaper industry and most of those critics also work in that same business.  Since they are indirectly made to appear heroic, why wouldn’t they give the film positive reviews?  But there is one thing that blows that entire reasoning to smithereens:  “Spotlight” is quite worthy of much of the praise.  It’s a fast-paced motion picture that gives the impression that you’re feeling the same sense of urgency the reporters did. 

“Spotlight” features a sensational cast with expert – and often understated – performances.  One exception might be Ruffalo, who’s a bit over the top at times, with some scenes that feel a bit clichéd.  If you’re able to overlook that, “Spotlight” can be quite a treat.  Inevitably, there’ll be comparisons between this and “All The President’s Men”:  both feature protagonists that are newspaper reporters and both focus on researching and reporting a major scandal.  That’s unfortunate because where “Spotlight” differs is the point in time in which it is set:  with the the Internet essentially destroying the newspaper industry, it provides proof that good journalism will always be relevant.   

Like many other movies recently released, “Spotlight” suffers from the unfortunate fact that it is based on true events and – again, like “All The President’s Men” – can face some challenges when it comes to maintaining a degree of suspense when audience members may already know full well the outcome.  Looking past that, “Spotlight” is about much more than that – it is a morality tale:  not just about the morality (or lack thereof) of the Catholic church, but the morality and ethics of the newspaper industry. 

Spotlight (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

“Trumbo”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Trumbo”, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren


When a successful Hollywood screenwriter suffers a professional setback after suspicions of Communism abound, can he recover his career without losing his family?


During The Great Depression of the 1930’s – and as a result of the spread of Fascism that soon followed – many Americans wound up becoming members of The Communist Party.  When The United States partnered with Russia during World War II, this encouraged even more citizens to become Communists during the 1940’s.  However, within just a couple of years after the war’s end,  the U.S. government felt threatened by the spread of Communism, believing that the country would fall to the Communists if more and more people joined the party. 

Congress formed The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which investigated people suspected of being Communist sympathizers.  Among those targeted were members of the motion picture industry as movies were believed to be a tool that could easily influence a vast number of people.  One of those targeted was Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), a noted screenwriter and admitted Communist; upon being subpoenaed to appear before HUAC, he refused to answer questions and was held in contempt, resulting in him being sentenced to prison for a couple of years.   

When Trumbo is finally released, he finds his career in tatters; politically conservative forces in Hollywood led by influential newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) have pressured major movie studios to avoid hiring suspected Communists – known as The Hollywood 10 – which included Trumbo.  In order to support his wife (Diane Lane) and children, Trumbo took low-paying jobs to write scripts for a B-movie production company under an alias.  But when his secret is out, will Trumbo lose his only means of income or can he somehow overcome the fears about his political leanings? 


Fans of actor Bryan Cranston are understandably euphoric about any of his performances, whether it’s as Walter White in television’s “Breaking Bad”, his role as President Johnson on Broadway in “LBJ”, or even in a comic turn with his impersonation of Howard Stern’s media producer JD Harmeyer.  Playing real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, however, will not be remembered as one of his best, as he presents the writer as more of a caricature than a fully-formed human being.  Cranston crosses the line between acting and over-acting with uncomfortable ease.

Neither Cranston nor any of the other members of this stellar cast are particularly helped by the movie’s screenplay, which is so trite it borders on cheesy with some rather cringe-worthy moments, including:  a frustrated writer ripping his paper out of the typewriter carriage and crumpling it before tossing it in the air; a verbal dunning notice from his lawyer on the steps of the courthouse immediately after emerging from the courtroom; Trumbo’s attempt at explaining Communism to his daughter.  Also worthy of a major eye roll or two are the impersonations of John Wayne, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas. 

Trumbo of course was a real person just as The Red Scare that he survived was a regrettable moment in the history of this country.  By contrast, the 1975 movie “The Front”, which starred Woody Allen, was something of a filmic roman à clef about that era’s McCarthyism that would be a considerably better recommendation if you really wanted to watch a movie about that period.  During the end credits of “Trumbo”, we see photographs and video clips of the eponymously-titled film’s protagonist and it suddenly occurs that maybe a documentary about him would’ve served his memory much better. 

Trumbo (2015) on IMDb