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French writer/director Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is a WTF film.  It’s also one of those films that you will probably love or hate.  I loved it.  My friend who went with me hated it.   I mean, haaaaaated it.
Though the way many people talk about the film might lead you to believe there isn’t a story here, there actually is, and one that I ultimately found deeply moving.  Denis Levant (who has been with Carax since Carax’s first feature, Boy Meets Girl—a film, if truth be told, turned me off completely to Carax at the time) plays a man who has, what some might call, a very odd job.  He is picked up by a limo every day, a limo filled with costumes and make up and props; he is given a certain number of files with various scenarios; and at each stop, he assumes a fictional identity and plays out a role from the files, all for the delight of a strangely unseen audience who pays his salary. 
These scenarios include an old beggar woman; an alien created by donning a special effects suit and performing before a green screen for a sci-fi extravaganza; a boulevard drama about the strained relationship between a father and his daughter; a Tarantino like crime drama; and perhaps most memorably an odd, leprechaun like creature that crawls through the sewer, comes out at a cemetery at a photo shoot with Eva Mendez as the model, whereupon he abducts her, takes her below the earth and what he does to her I won’t say except there is an erect penis involved, but don’t worry, it’s not remotely what you think; and finally, a Christophe Honore type encounter between Levant and a fellow  limo actress (played by Kylie Minogue) who sings a haunting song in a deserted building that ends with a tragic finale.   
Oh, and there’s an awesome, non sequitorial enter’acte, in which Levant plays an accordion in a church while marching around joined by more and more musicians.  I mean it.  It was aaaaaaaawesome.
It does take awhile for the story to get going.  The beggar woman is the weakest section, partly because Carax cheats a little here by having some bodyguards, who were part of Levant’s previous scenario, tailing the old woman, which contradicts the old woman’s story—this makes the whole thing a bit confusing to follow for awhile.   But once the movie gets going and it becomes clear what is happening, it’s a trip.  I mean a real trip.  I mean a realllllllllllllllllll trip.
But it is also a rather disturbing one because Levant’s character is beginning to crack.  This is how he makes his living, this is what he does.  But it’s taking his toll because he takes the roles so personally, he out methods James Dean and Marlon Brando, until he can’t leave the emotions behind.  They begin to take over his life and the more tragic and disturbing the stories become, the more delicate his psyche becomes.  And his job never ends.  When the day is done (around midnight), he is taken for his final acting job for the day, a home where he becomes the man of the house for the night.  At the same time, he can’t bring himself to quit.  He’s stuck and my heart bled for him.
Levant is amazing here.  He enters each character seamlessly.  There have been many actors who have played multiple rolls in movies before (Alec Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove), and Levant is up there with them.  He also puts Tom Hanks and others who tried the same thing in Cloud Atlas to shame (Holy Motors actually puts the whole of Cloud Atlas to shame—and on a much smaller budget).    Levant’s performance is perhaps the best of the year so far (sorry, Daniel Day, but it happens).
The ending, like the beginning, is a bit of a letdown.  It begins well as the limo returns to a garage called Holy Motors (hence, the title) where a huge number of limos are already pulling in.  You realize then that Levant is only one of a huge number of people who do this exact same thing and the impact and sadness is palpable.  But when the limos are left alone, they talk.  Fine, an intriguing idea.  The problem is they don’t really have anything much to say.   The impulse was good, but I don’t think it really achieved anything of significance (how I wanted them to complain about how boring their day was and how nothing ever happened).
Can I recommend you see Holy Motors?  It is a movie I think should be seen, especially if you are interested in movies as movies.  At the same time, it’s not for everybody.  It’s a weird, odd film that is a bit difficult to get into.  I think the payoff is huge, but I also like Godard and Bresson.   So let your conscious be your guide.


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With cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek, costumes by Manon Rasmussen and production design by Neils Sejer, the new Danish film A Royal Affair is a sensual series of scenes that makes you feel as if you’re turning the pages of a coffee table book or strolling through an art museum featuring an exhibition of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner.     From a technical standpoint, the movie is a feast for the senses.  The story itself, though never boring and even fun in a Masterpiece Theater soap opera type of way at times, is a bit more wibbly wobbly.
It takes place during the Enlightenment in Denmark, apparently the only European country at the time not to have had its cherry popped by that intellectual movement (and just to get it out of the way, yes, there’s something rotten here, okay?).   The Danish king, Christian VII, is not quite all there in the head  and is merely a puppet of an aristocracy that treats the rabble as, well, rabble, if not worse (though the movie plays a little fast and lose with exactly how crazy he is).  He takes as his wife Caroline Matilda, an English princess with Enlightenment tendencies (who tells the story in flashback form through a series of somewhat clunky voice overs—she’s this witness person to the events, see, even events she never ever witnessed).  Her Enlightenment tendencies even extend to the boudoir, when, after a truly awful wedding night (to put it politely), Caroline refuses to have sex with Christian again.  And all that’s just the background. 
The real story begins when Rantzau, a member of the aristocracy who has been exiled from the King’s inner circle, tries to get back into Christian’s good graces by suggesting a common doctor, Johan Struensee, become the King’s private physician, which Struensee does by playing a round of Shakespearian trivial pursuit with Christian (it makes sense if you see it).  Struensee is a secret member of the Enlightenment (his alter ego is “anonymous”) and with the help of Rantzau and Caroline, plans to bring Denmark kicking and screaming into the 18th century (there are also plenty of parallels to issues facing America today if that’s your thing).  Problems arise when Struensee starts sleeping with Caroline (don’t you hate when that happens?).
As was said, the story is always interesting.  But at the same time, I don’t think it quite works on its own terms.  The screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, who also directed (and a far cry from his international hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, one might safely say) try to sell Struensee’s story as a tragedy on the level of Shakespeare and Sophocles, if not Sir Thomas Mallory (who is referenced with a not so subtle lack of subtlety).  According to Heisterberg and Arcel, Struensee’s downfall, his fatal flaw, was his passion and true love for Caroline (with the irony being that a man of Enlightenment ultimately couldn’t control his…reason).
Sorry, but I’m not convinced.  Part of my credulity arises from a feeling that it wasn’t always passion that was driving Struensee, but an inability to control his own cock (yeah, I said it, what are you going to do about it), a situation men often like to think is the same thing, when it’s more often than not, not.  And more to the point, there is plenty to suggest here that Struensee’s real flaw was not the tragic one of forbidden love, but the more down to earth failings of just not being smart enough to run the country; that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; and that there are limits as to how far Enlightenment ideas could actually solve the problems of the 18thcentury.  In actuality, I suggest it was a far more complex situation than simply who was fucking who.  Because of this, a strong beginning tends to lose some of its emotional tension in the second half as it becomes a somewhat routine doomed love story.
But A Royal Affair does have one thing going for it and that is its lead Mikkelson in the role of Struensee.  I have to be honest; I can’t get enough of my Mads.  An improbable leading man with a face of impossibly high cheek bones and a visage that looks like he was the loser in a boxing match, he commands the screen, and there is little point in fighting it.   And there is heat between his doctor and Queen Caroline.    So A Royal Affair may not be perfect, but it has its moments, especially when its leading man is on the screen.


Before the start of Silver Linings Playbook (which I and my friends saw at the wonderful Vista Theatre), my friend leaned over to me and said, “I can’t wait.  One more Django Unchained preview and we’ve got the whole set”.
Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell’s new upbeat film about downbeat subject matter (an appropriately bipolar approach to the thematic elements here perhaps), was probably not best served by its previews which advertised a movie that came across as a lighthearted romp of a rom com filled with stock characters and a formulaic plot (I almost became as depressed as some of the characters on screen at the thought of having to watch it).  Even the title conjures up nightmares of Shirley Temple, Pollyanna and Little Orphan Annie.   Though I can’t say the actual movie manages to completely avoid these issues, at the same time, for a rom com, it’s not really that lighthearted or even that funny with scenes that cut a bit too close to reality to entice laughter; the characters are far more complex that you might think; and the formula, well, yes, that’s a harder one to defend, though it must be said that Russell does some clever stuff here to make the medicine go down.   
SLP (as it’s acronymically known) starts out a bit wobbly.   I think for me that was due to Bradley Cooper (in the lead role of bi-polar and deeply, emotionally unstable Pat) being the first actor thrust upon us.  Cooper acquits himself well enough in the role.  He’s definitely not bad and at times rather good.  At the same time, his matinee idol looks and a somewhat bland, slightly monotone reading of his lines was not a good sign.  And when he acts opposite other superior thespians in the film, this flaw got magnified just a tiny bit.  At the same time, as the story goes on, Cooper’s performance does grow on you, as does his character.  He becomes more and more like Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and even Joan Crawford, actors who substituted natural talent with hard work to such a degree that at times one couldn’t really tell the difference.
The real standout here is Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany (as fragile as that glass, perhaps?), a remarkable actress who came to real prominence in her Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone (and then proved not only could she act, she could also make a ton of money in the soon to be franchise The Hunger Games).  She has something that most actors would die for, a pair of the most expressive eyes anyone could ever want, eyes that with a slight (very slight) flickering change of expression can careen from impudence, to pain, to fury, to wonderful comic timing (for some reason, this thought makes me think of the lines from Rebecca: “Most girls would give their eyes to see Monte!” “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”).   And she has palpable chemistry with Cooper, which don’t hurt.
She’s backed by a well cast supporting set of players.  First, what is it about Boardwalk Empire anyway which seems to be the go to place now as the best television series to find the most talented fillers for smaller rolls (this time round Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother).  But more to the point, Robert De Niro as Pat’s father (it’s been awhile since he’s had a role this worthy of his talents) scores as a man with his own pain, as well as OCD and anger management issues, while Jacki Weaver (the monstrous “And you’ve done some bad things sweetie, haven’t you?” matron in Animal Kingdom) uses a kewpie doll voice to match a face constantly filled with worry in the role of Pat’s mother.   In many ways, I think this is Russell’s real triumph here, the very accurate portrayal of people caught in the whirlwind of someone who is bi-polar, people who simply don’t know what to do, especially when the person who desperately needs help won’t help himself and even claims that he is fine and doesn’t need any help (and a sledgehammer wouldn’t convince him), people who can change from despair to euphoria and vice versa on the turn of a single line. 
The script does falter a bit after the half way point as Russell has to set up various plot points to force the ending.   This is where the formula charge has a certain validity.  The way everything works out, as well as how all the various plot points come together, is rather familiar and predictable with few surprises.  At the same time, Russell pulls some cleverness out of his hat here, especially in a scene in which everybody sets up a parlay bet, a scene so hysterically funny, so preposterous and ridiculous, you forget it’s covering up a formulaic turn in the plot and that in certain ways, it’s really not very believable.   
I also have a few other regrets here.  I strongly, and very pompously, suggest it would have been better if one of the best scenes, a montage of Tiffany and Pat dancing while in the background the haunting Girl From North County played in juxtaposition, probably came too early and would have worked a bit better closer to the finale.  And the final dance number is a bit disappointing since it was choreographed more by the editor than by dancer Mandy Moore (this is one of the downsides to the fall of the studio system—up until the 1950’s or ‘60’s, Lawrence and Cooper would have been rehearsing this scene for ages before the actual shooting so that it could done with only a few cuts—the difference in effect is a bit of a letdown). 
But at the same time Russell has created a deeply moving and often powerful movie here (one that, based on YouTube sensations staring the aforesaid director, makes one wonder whether part of the sensitivity here is due to some autobiographical element—but, of course, I really have no idea and would never venture to suggest such a possibility).  One can’t deny the effect the ending has on the audience.  It’s doubtful that few will leave disappointed. 


I am quite convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of the new sorta controversial film The Master (sorta because in the end, the controversy surprisingly didn’t revolve around whether it was or wasn’t a story about Scientology, but whether it was any good or not) fully understands his movie and everything that happens in it.  Unfortunately, if I’m going to be completely honest here, I didn’t understand anything in it.

The basic plot is about the intersection of two men, broken down alcoholic Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix, giving it his all), and the leader of a cult in its infancy Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who isn’t quite as effective).  But it’s this intersection that is the main issue for me and the reason the movie never quite got off the ground: these two men who become absolutely fascinated with each other (to a homoerotic degree), but without any convincing reason for it.   It all begins when Quell makes his drunken stupor way onto Dodd’s boat and instead of being thrown into the brink, Dodd takes Quell under his wing.   Why?  I haven’t the faintest idea.  And why does Quell stay?  Well, other than free room and board and the ability to make his bootleg whiskey with the approval of Dodd, I also haven’t the faintest idea.  And without clear and understandable reasons, or at least convincing ones, I’m not sure that this story can ever really work.

Phoenix plays his role with a stooped and nearly hunchbacked set of shoulders and a distinct (or often, indistinct) mumble.  Like Anderson and the film, I’m not sure what Phoenix is trying to do here, but in many ways, I think Phoenix is at least doing it rather brilliantly.  Quell is sexually obsessed, seeing erotic possibilities in everything (from standard Rorschach tests to a somewhat bizarre scene at a private home where Dodd sings “I Will Go No More a Roving” where, from Quell’s perspective, all the women are naked—well, Amy Adams is sorta naked—she presents herself rather modestly, but that’s what three Oscar nominations and a strong agent can do for you).   What may be hard to believe is that women go ga-ga over him when there are much better looking men around.  If his character made sense, then his performance might be much more memorable.  But there are times when it seems he’s do the ultra-method approach to cover up that there is something lacking on the page.

Hoffman has a different issue and here, for me, Anderson makes the same mistake he made in There Will be Blood when he cast Paul Dano as an up and coming preacher of national repute.  It was impossible for me to believe that thin-voiced, scrawny Dano could ever become a Billy Sunday and I still claim that only people who have never seen a preacher at a revival service could think so.  In the same way, Dodd is supposed to be the leader of a cult about to go big.  But Hoffman, who is one of our finest character actors (a modern day Charles Laughton in many ways), shows almost no charisma and gives no indication as to why his character would be able to attract anyone to his beliefs.

The rest of the cast get the job done.  Amy Adams has moments here and there, but like the rest of the actors, she seems a bit lost as to what is driving her character.  In the end, the best performance is probably given by Christopher Evan Welch as a doubter who questions Dodd at a party scene—but in his defense, he has the best written part.

Even the cult that Dodd’s creating doesn’t feel all that impressive or seems that well thought out.  The most interesting aspect of it is a series of questions Dodd asks Quell that forces Quell to confront something about himself that is unpleasant (this is the only scene that indicates that Dodd might be more than the man behind the curtain).  The least interesting aspect of the cult seems based on a basic past life regression belief (certainly an effective approach to attracting believers, since many cults have been built around reincarnation, but not particularly original or exciting).  The most puzzling aspect is a series of strange exercises that Quell is put through in order to help him break away from whatever it is that is holding him back—but since these exercises make no sense and seem arbitrary (which may be the point, but I don’t really know, which is the main issue I have with the movie), they don’t really connect (and go on forever—the food is terrible, but such large servings punch line).

The strongest parts of the film are the technical aspects.  It’s beautifully shot, the cinematographer (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) capturing a stark beauty of the post war world.  The sets (production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk and set decoration by Amy Wells) give a haunting period feel and make us regret that so much of this architecture is being lost.  But perhaps most impressive are the costumes by Mark Bridges that make full use of what is perhaps the strongest line of design in American history for both men and women (and these are perhaps some of the best tailored outfits I’ve seen in a movie for some time).

I admire Anderson and have loved such films as Hard Eight, Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love (though only half of There Will Be Blood).  He is one of our finest filmmakers.  But in the end, for me, The Master was basically Elmer Gantry but without Elmer Gantry or Sister Sharon Falconer, perhaps not the best approach.

P.S.  For those trivia lovers out there, that’s Patty McCormack, the bad seed from The Bad Seed, as Mildred Drummond.

OSCAR RACE: Best Supporting Actor

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Continuing my analysis of the Oscar race (or as I call it, I need to get a life), it’s time to focus on the supporting acting categories.  One would think that supporting categories, whether male or female, would be much more difficult to predict and in one way they are.  While there is only one, maybe two, leads in a film (per gender), every film is crowded with supporting since, by deduction, if you’re not one of the two leads, you only have one alternative—supporting.   At the same time, like most categories, the possible nominations actually, and perhaps surprisingly, tend to settle rather fast to usually little more than six, or on rare occasions, seven possibilities.
I’ll start with the Best Supporting Actor category or as I and a friend of mine call it, the Don Ameche Award, named after the win by that actor for his role in Cocoon, not so much for his acting skill (which was often considered a joke by critics and film aficionados, though he did get better as he aged, like fine wine and cheese), but as a career award (like James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Alan Alda).  At the same time, I’m being facetious.  This doesn’t happen as often as one might think, and most of these performances were very deserving.  But I believe someone once did a study and discovered that supporting actor winners on average were older than supporting actress winners.  In the supporting actor category, it helps to have paid your dues more than in the distaff side, where voters (mostly male) tend to like their winners young and up and coming (even to the point of being a bit too Humbert Humbert in their choices, perhaps?).
At any rate, the dust has started to settle and it looks as if the list is becoming fairly clear.   At the same time, predictions are a bit hampered here by some of the films not having opened yet, so the performances in those movies are still somewhat unknown quantities.
Alan Arkin for Argo to win.  This now seems pretty settled and it would take a lot to unseat his position.   He’s already won his career award for Little Miss Sunshine, but that probably won’t cause him any problems this time around.  It’s a tremendous performance, a masterpiece of comic timing, in a very popular movie.   At the same time, Argo may have peaked a bit too soon and I may be speaking a bit too early. 
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master.  The Master went totally over my head (and apparently, based on audience reaction, I’m not the only one).  Everything about The Master is a bit iffy when it comes to nominations just because it didn’t connect with viewers, including Oscars voters.  But everyone is still saying that Hoffman is a shoo in (some think he may even win, but I don’t see it yet).  A lot may depend on the campaign, since the movie has disappeared and may take a little doing to get people to remember it even opened this year (critics’ awards may help here).
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.  He steals every scene he’s in and somehow breaths life into the somewhat stilted dialog.  Lincoln is coming along as a major contender against Argo for best picture with a success at the box office that exceeded expectations (Argo may now have peaked too soon), and Daniel Day-Lewis is almost certain to win best actor, which could give Jones’ nomination a boost.
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.  It has now opened, been reviewed, is doing very well at the box office and no one has stopped saying de Niro is going to get a nom, so it seems that he will be included.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.  This is an unknown quantity as the movie hasn’t opened yet (apparently a story about a slave rescued by a bounty hunter with said slave now out to get revenge against the white men who abducted his wife is seen as the perfect choice for a Christmas opening).  What helps is that DiCaprio is a leading actor doing a supporting role, and this is always a plus when going for a nomination (and sometimes you win—Robin Williams and Renee Zellweger).   But until the movie opens, it’s hard to say.  This has caused some problems for Christoph Waltz.  The talk is he has been pushed to go for Best Actor (an unlikely nom at best), possibly to give DiCaprio a better chance.  But that’s mere speculation based on information I don’t really have, so do with it what you will.
Also possible is Dwight Henry, so deserving for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s a very crowded category and he may get squeezed out; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables, too unknown a quantity right now; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, and in a weaker year he might have a chance since he’s done so many movies this year and has worked hard to broaden himself as an actor, which translates as really paid your dues (which the voters like), but it looks like he won’t make it; anybody else from Argo—very doubtful. 


I think that if someone is disabled, they should at least have the decency of being bitter and angry.  But I guess that Mark O’Brien, the central character in writer/director’s Ben Lewin’s movie The Sessions, didn’t get the memo.   Mark, crippled by polio as a child and unable to breathe on his own for long periods of time, has, what some might term, a rather positive attitude toward life, attending college and becoming self-supporting as a writer.   He never reaches the highs (or, perhaps more accurately, the lows) of Annie singing Tomorrow or the Von Trapp kids singing Do Re Mi.  In fact, one of the funniest lines here is when Mark is asked if he believes in God and he says he has to, that life would be unbearable if he couldn’t blame someone for all the awful things that happen.  But Mark has somehow managed to achieve an equilibrium about life that I doubt I’d be able to achieve in similar circumstances.
But there is one aspect of his life he has yet to explore.  Now, one of the rules for screenwriters is that if you are going to write a story in a familiar genre, then you need to find a new perspective, a new twist, to justify the foray.  And Lewin has more than learned that lesson.   The Sessions is basically a story about a man losing his virginity.   So we’ve had the horny teenage film (boy, have we had the horny teenager film) and we’ve had the middle aged man going all the way film (The 40 Year Old what’s his name).  So what’s left?  The man encased in an iron lung losing his virginity film, of course.  I mean, it’s so obvious, the only thing surprising is that someone hasn’t thought of it before.
John Hawkes plays O’Brien with a constant wistful look in his eyes.  But no matter how sad he is, Hawkes has this quality in his performance that won’t let you feel sorry for his character.  And you find yourself doing exactly what everybody else in the movie does: you fall for him, you fall for him hard.  And he has an advantage that many of us don’t—he is able to write love poems (taking a note apparently from Robin Williams’ teacher in The Dead Poet’s Society who told his students that the only reason one writes poetry is to woo women—though I always wondered how that applied to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman).
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who is called in like Dudley Do Right to help O’Brien achieve his goal, and it’s a perfect, if somewhat standard, roll for her, a character who starts off cold and distant, not able to share her emotions, finding herself forced to come out of herself (the Katherine Hepburn type part).   William H. Macy takes time out from his over the top, hedonist of Shameless to play a down to earth, practical priest who can only enjoy his hedonism second hand.  The previews make one think he’s going to be a caricature; but in reality, he brings a very relaxed and every day quality to his performance.
The movie is witty and touching and laugh out loud funny.  The directing, though a little flat perhaps, doesn’t get in the way and gets the job done.  There is one oddity that should be mentioned.  For a movie that preaches sexual freedom and that one should be comfortable with one’s body and nudity, Lewin is actually a prude and a bit of a hypocrite.  He has no problem showing the women in full frontal, but when it comes to the men, he uses a metaphorical fig leaf in the form of a very, very, very carefully placed mirror.   In the end, it makes one wonder who’s really the more uncomfortable with sex, O’Brien or Lewin?


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Flight, the new film from writer John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis, has an incredible set piece near the beginning of the movie in which a pilot (Denzel Washington) is forced to crash land a plane in nightmare conditions by making it roll 360 degrees (flying upside down for awhile) and coming down on a field near a church about ready to do some Sunday go to meeting baptisms.  It’s an amazing technical feat (and not just the landing, but the filming as well) and it’s an exhilarating start.  When this section is over, the movie sets up an equally incredible enigma: Whip, the pilot, was drunk and had cocaine in his system when he performed this unbelievable stunt; but that wasn’t the cause of the crash.  And Whip’s handling of the landing was something that ten other pilots couldn’t have done sober.  So the whole movie seems more than ready to tackle issues and questions brought up by this fascinating conundrum.
And then the movie becomes…something else, something else entirely, and something that has nothing to do with either the crash landing or what sort of punishment should be given to a pilot who is able to make a miraculous landing (Gatins’ words, not mine) while drunk.   It actually becomes a rather routine, formulaic The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, When a Man Loves a Woman, Clean and Sober (fill in with your favorite film in the genre) story about an alcoholic.
Six people died in the crash and a huge number of people were seriously injured.  But is this their story or is the story about the crash and what it means?  No.  Believe it or not, all of this is chopped liver.  All of this is a macguffin, because the only reason for any of this, the only purpose for all these deaths, the only purpose of the crash, the only reason for all this destruction is so that Whip will start going to AA.
I’m not kidding.  I am totally serious.  And to back up this idea, there’s a ton of talk about God in the movie and whether everything is preordained or has a purpose, whether everything that happens is just part of an overall plan.  To be fair, all this mention of God at times tends to be a bit metaphorical in that whenever the big guy’s name is mentioned, He’s a stand in for all the unforeseen and uncontrollable things that happen in life, as when destruction from a hurricane is an “act of God”.   But still.
And it’s not that the movie is without its positive aspects.   But oddly enough, it’s not when the film focuses on Whip’s journey, but when it focuses on the issues related to the crash that the movie really comes to life.  Both Don Cheadle, as a long suffering lawyer, and Peter Gerety, as the owner of the airline, stand out as the few who really seem to understand what is really going on and that the meaning of the crash is the crash and that Whip’s journey is actually a hindrance and just getting in the way of the real issues.  When Gerety tells everybody off, I thought, finally, someone who really gets what it’s all about. 
Washington is fine as Whip, but he’s always a lot more fun when he’s playing anti-heroes like here, people you would not want to meet in a darkened alleyway.  Melissa Leo also makes her mark at the end because, like Cheadle and Gerety, she’s in a different movie.  The low point, though, has to be John Goodman as Whip’s connection.  Goodman is one of our finest character actors, but here, as in Argo and some other recent films, he’s been reduced to playing, well, John Goodman roles, and he deserves better.
In all fairness, I should point out that many in the audience around me were deeply moved.  But I just couldn’t join in.   For me, if truth be told, I was bit offended.  Here I thought that Leibnitz and the philosophy of “the best of all possible worlds” ended with Voltaire’s ruthless satire Candide.   But apparently not.  No matter how awful things are, no matter how many people die, no matter how much destruction there is, it’s okay, because there’s always a silver lining.   People can die, but their death has meaning because it helped someone enter a recovery program.  Really. 


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Three movies that are each countries’ entry in the foreign film category for the Academy Awards.
The Romanians obviously have issues when it comes to their health care system.   First, it was the powerful The Death of Mister Lazarescu wherein an elderly gentleman is shunted from one pompous doctor to another all the while trying to find someone who will take him seriously.  And now we have Beyond the Hills, the new film from writer/director Cristian Mungui, in which a doctor releases a young woman, who is showing uncontrollable fits and outrageous behavior of the mental illness genre, back into the hands of the priest and nuns who first brought her in because the doctor thinks they are more likely to be able to help her than he can (and cue Tubular Bells).  And when tragedy strikes, a doctor blames the Priest, who is then arrested. 
However, the health care profession is not really the central theme here.  Beyond the Hills is based on a true incident involving an exorcism which is more the centerpiece.   Voichita, the very lonely and often severely depressed aforementioned young woman, looks up her ex-girlfriend Alina who is now staying at a monastery cum nunnery run by the aforementioned priest (this nunnery is an interesting establishment unto itself in that it’s quite Medieval and not when it comes to religious belief, but in that the woman are joining not so much because they have a spiritual calling, but because they can’t find work or a husband).  Voichita wants Alina to leave and join her in Germany as they had always planned while growing up in an orphanage together.   Alina refuses, having found peace at the nunnery; but soon after, Voichita starts acting like Linda Blair and no one knows what to do.
Mungui came to prominence after giving us 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the devastating must see film about abortion and its illegality under Communist rule in Romania.  Beyond the Hills may not have quite the same tension as 4 Months…, at least in the beginning, which is a bit leisurely to say the least.   But once Voichita starts spiraling out of control and they decide to do an exorcism because they know of no other way to save her, there is no turning back.   It’s a riveting, dark and even devastating piece of filmmaking.
Again based on a true story, sort of, the Italian film Caesar Must Die grew out of a program for prisoners in which they perform a play.  Here, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  I must be honest.  I have no idea what the Taviani brothers (Paola and Vittorio of Padre padrone fame) are trying to do here.  It’s not a documentary.  It’s obvious that what is being filmed takes place after the production has had its last curtain call, everything is so carefully staged (in a very forced and unbelievable way most of the time), and the rehearsal process is not remotely realistic (even the scripts they use are in screenplay format, not Shakespearian play format).  We never get to know the prisoners or find out what any of this means to them or if it affects them in any way.  There doesn’t seem to be a moral to the story (except that criminals can be good actors, I suppose, though many would think that’s just being redundant).  We don’t even get the joy of Shakespeare’s dialog.  He’s actually listed as one of the writers for the movie along with the Tavianis, but I call shenanigans on that.   The excerpts from the play are not translated into Elizabethan verse, but into some sort of bastardized, everyday patois (even Et tu, Brute is subtitled into something like, And you, too, Brutus?).  The only really interesting aspect of the script for me is the locations the actors choose to “rehearse” (and I mean those end quotes with all sincerity) certain scenes (which, of course, in the context here, would not have been chosen by the prisoners, but by the Tavianis).  It might have been interesting to see Julius Caesar staged in a prison in which the convicts’ relationships were reflected by the play, or even to see a straightforward production of the play.  But alas, ‘twas not to be.  Many people loved it.  I was totally lost.
And again based on a true story, or at least inspired by true events in the director Benjamin Avila’s life, the Argentine film Clandestine Childhood opens with an amazing scene of a young boy witnessing a shoot out involving his parents that turns into panels from a graphic novel.  It’s an assault on the senses that one doesn’t soon forget.   If only the rest of the movie astounded us with as much originality and vibrancy.  But this technique is only used a couple more times in the course of the movie and instead the story jumps a few years and a slightly older boy is reunited with said parents in Argentina after growing up in Cuba where his parents had earlier fled and recently returned from so they could continue working against the government.  At this point, it all turns into a rather standard, coming of age, first love film, one that you’ve seen a million times before.  It’s sweet and effecting at times, but not that much more.  What’s surprising is how little tension is added to the central characters flailing for a girlfriend by the background situation he finds himself trapped in.  I suppose one could be somewhat comforted in the idea that life goes on even under totalitarian regimes, but I’m afraid that wasn’t enough for me.  In the end, a formulaic story is a formulaic story, no matter what form of government runs the country.  And in the end, rather than being deeply moved I found myself asking, what were these parents thinking smuggling their kids back into Argentina with death camping out on their doorstep?   Easy for me to say, I suppose, sitting here typing as I am without much danger of being imprisoned for life for political thought, but still, the thought did occur to me.


The Angel’s Share, the new movie written by Paul Laverty and directed by Ken Loach, is kitchen sink meets Ealing comedy meets The Asphalt Jungle.  I’ve been told that’s a bit of a mash up, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.   The mood is as whimsical as the kilts everyone wears for a disguise (something may sound off there, but trust me, it works).   The structure is all over the place and would kill a cat (the real plot doesn’t start until almost halfway into the movie).   And the accents would drive ‘enry ‘iggins to drink (Loach often uses subtitles, but manages to make do this time round sans texting).  But in the end, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Loach is one of the leading filmmakers that focuses on the working class and the underprivileged.  He’s always shown a great deal of empathy for people who don’t have a lot of options and this movie is no different, though perhaps a bit more light hearted and feel good than usual.  The story revolves around Robbie (played by first timer Paul Brannigan who gives a first rate performance) who narrowly avoids jail after severely beating up a young man.   His girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to turn his life around, but he can’t get a job, his girlfriend’s father wants him out of his daughter’s life, and he’s made an enemy of his victim’s brothers who want to do some serious bodily damage to him in turn.   As punishment for his crime, he joins a group of characters (with the emphasis on “quite a cast of”) to do community service. 
His possible salvation comes in the form of whiskey and if you want to make jokes about the Scottish and their love of a wee bit of drink, it’s not what you think.  But how this all leads to Robbie discovering he has an expert’s nose for sniffing out quality spirits and a plan to steal a few bottles from a keg of whiskey so old that it gets sold for 1.2 millions pounds at auction, is something you’ll have to find out for yourself.   And don’t worry about whether you can get behind a group of criminals who are adding theft to their legal resume; one of the cleverest aspects of the screenplay is that you find it impossible to really tsk, tsk these people because anyone who would pay that much for whiskey not only can easily survive without a bottle or two, he actually deserves to be taken. 

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress, Part Duex

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My analysis of the Best Actress Oscar Race, part duex.
My previous entry was a general analysis of the race when it came to Best Actress.  For this entry, let’s go directly to my list:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook right now has the lead to win even though the movie hasn’t opened yet.  At the same time, I hesitate to be definite here since the movie is still an unknown quantity.  But her nomination seems assured.  Probably what helps is that she has proven herself as an actress by getting a nomination for a small, independent film (Winter’s Bone), but also an actress that can make a ton of money (The Hunger Games), a double whammy.
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This has been settled law for some time.  Not only did this eight year old munchkin give a marvelous performance, the movie is likely to get a Best Picture nom, a possible Best Director, a possible Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nom.  And it’s still in the theaters.  I also can’t imagine any voter, no matter how Scrooge McDuck they are, who would want to give this fairy tale an unhappy ending.
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.  This is also supposed to be almost a sure thing.  Though the Academy is more loathe to give career awards and noms to women than to men, Riva has been around since another amour film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the great films of all time.   Amour was also suppose to get a nomination for co-lead Jean-Louis Trintignant, but as the movies with strong male leads started pouring in, that was that.  Amour is suppose to be Michael Haneke’s most accessible film and is in the lead to win in the best Foreign Language category and may even get a Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nom.
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone.  A Hollywood favorite since winning the Oscar for La Vie en Rose, she is supposed to give a knock out performance.   The filmmaker Jacques Audiard is also responsible for such films as A Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped and is fast becoming one of France’s leading directors.   However, this is still an unknown quantity.
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock.  It doesn’t really matter where she decides to run, this is the category that will most likely get her.  A superb performance helped by a strong possibility that her co-lead, Anthony Hopkins will also receive one.
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible is getting some buzz, but it may be too little too late.  Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina just opened, but it didn’t get very good reviews and is not exciting anyone.  And Helen Hunt in The Sessions will probably get a supporting actress nom.
Which means, sorry Jessica Chastain.  You should probably start pushing for that supporting acting nom instead.