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The Secret of Convict Lake (1951)
Gripping and claustrophobic noir western with terrific performances, direction and cinematography
Just watched The Secret of Convict Lake last night and just had to watch it again this afternoon to make sure I thought it deserved 10/10. For me, it definitely does. In two noir discussion groups to which I belong, there's a question of whether a western can qualify as a 'noir." If so, this one defines that category - even better than two often considered and rejected by purists, the Ox Bow Incident and Colorado Territory, both also 20s for me.
It's black-and-white with bleak sets and grainy snowstorm cinematography that is a perfect backdrop for the claustrophobic story in the very small settlement where all our players are stuck. The dialog is spartan noir. We spend most of our time with the convicts and our convict hero, Jim, convincingly underplayed by a laconic Glenn Ford, actually did kill the victim he was convicted of murder for. The twist is that the killing was an accident and the witness lied on the stand saying that it was deliberate murder to get possession of the $40,000 in the bank vault. The liar turns out to be Gene Tierney's fiancee. Three other convicts and fellow escapees with whom he is chained including unctious Zach Scott, brute Jack Lambert and young psycho Robert Hylton. In addition to Tierney, the women of the town trying to salvage their lives and the town include matriarch Ethel Barrymore in a performance as strong as it is underplayed, a well-meaning Jeanette Nolan, a bitter Ann Dvorak (sister of the liar to whom Tierney is engaged) and vulnerable innocent Barbara Bates (Pheobe) from the last scene of All About Eve. All play their roles to perfection and add to the constant atmosphere of bleak tension and general hopelessness.
After 45 minutes to establish all of the above, Tierney confronts Ford to protect her fiancee which results in his obtaining a gun and gaining her affections. When Scott sees Ford has a gun, he plots out his moves and from that point, things proceed very briskly, memorably and grip you at an emotional level (across the spectrum) for all of these characters. The women all have to reflect upon who they really are. The men meet their different fates in very appropriate ways. The resolution is ingenious and packs a punch. As the film ends, we are informed that it is based on an actual prison break and co-habitation of the town by the convicts on the lam.
Obviously, not everything in the film is real but who cares? It all sucked me in and gripped me as much as any of my favorite noirs. The filming of how Scott meets his fate is particularly poetic.
See it! A true hidden gem - will probably break my personal all-time top 200 list.
Rediscovering Christmas (2019)
Loved the story, the romance, the locale and especially the supporting cast
David Naughton as the Dad was pitch perfect for this movie. I love his subtly sweet romance with the male lead's mother. His unconditional love sets the undercurrent for everything else. He has an irrepressible soul even if I have to look hard to see his once beautifully boyish face. I found BJ Britt quite convincing in the male lead whose tough know-it-all-comfortable-in-my-own-skin exterior hides an open wound of self-blame concerning the former family Christmas business. Jessica Lowndes is a force of nature as per usual and her relationship with Sister Sara is nice and non-intrusive. The comic interludes with Emily and grand dame Jessica Walter are wonderful and fitting. The solution to the Boston Department Store Christmas window was very clever.
It was a terrific feel-good movie I'm glad I chose to usher in the New Year.
Downton Abbey (2019)
Magnificent and Brilliant! Old-Fashioned Moving Making at its Best
To all my fellow AARP members and my fellow members of the Cinema Cafe and TCM Facebook Groups: This is a Must See - especially for those of you who proudly say they haven't gone to see a movie since The King's Speech or before because none of them are worth watching: bad writing, too much violence, cursing, sex, montages, pop music, etc. and bad acting.
Not Downton Abbey. This could have easily been made by a host of great British Directos from the 1940;s through the 1960's. it is a delightful whirlwind of a ride but perfectly paced. There are what would normally be considered way too many subplots but they mesh seamlessly and completely understandable hear and with humor and pacing, perfect cinematography and ideal background music.
In fact, the entire movie is entirely more bouncy (never thought I'd be using that word for this kind of movie but it fits), light-hearted and uplifting than things I expected to be reminded of such as Howard's End, Remains of the Day and other class-conscious dramas. Full dsiclosure: I never watched the series. I did watch two dozen or so episodes of Upstairs Downstairs in the day and found it interesting enough to watch but not compelling enough to be addicted to - in general I don't get addicted to soaps.
And that's the most surprising thing about this movie - it does not play like a soap opera. It plays like a stand-alone movie even when you know that most of the other people in the audience are more familiar with the charactrs than you. And I did not get lost or confused or felt left out from something I needed to know but didn't.
It's also a true ensmble piece. His Lord and Her Ladyship are listed first in the cast as they should be but do not have as much screen time and are really not any more and perhaps less intrinsic to what is about to unfold even though they are most certainly inextricable parts of it. And delightfully, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Imelda Staunton are as much in the center of things as anyone else and their subplots are marvelous.
Actually, the closest thing the movie has to a star or lead character is Tom played brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly by Allen Leech who impressed me positively in supporting roles in Bohemian Rhapsody and The Imitation Game but exhibits raw star quality here. And oh those eyes and that face, just perfect from every perspective and especially in conveying the heroic yet conflicted essence of his character, bruised by past skirmishes and being widower but not unbowed. He is the only one central to at least 3 subplots, all interesting and freshly exposed and told. But the entire ensemble - all of whom I assume were regulars in the series - with wondeful guest stars. Simon Jones and Geraldine James are brilliant as the visiting King and Queen. Mark Addy is hilarious and heartwarming in his one scene as a prideful local butcher.
As an old-timer, today's movies rarely impress me as candidates for my chronicles of my favorites of all-time. I keep a list of 500 which I update annually and fewer than 10 from this century are currently on it. This tops my list of candidates for next year's review.
If you are over 50 or a fan of the series or love intelligent writing and dialog with terrific characters and acting, SEE DOWNTON ABBEY!!!
The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
Frenetic, nasty, stupid and pointless
Well, it wasn't slow. That the best thing I could say about this attempted buddy-spy-spoof that is all shouting, cliche and non-stop movement. Someone needs to tell the filmmakers that when you present a line, sight gag or incongruity that is supposed to elicit laughter or any kind of reaction from the audience, you must give it at least five seconds to register. You don't get a nanosecond here. Thus potentially funny lines by the leads, assassins, an abducted cab driver, etc., are scattered by a hurricane withut being seen or heard. The main characters try hard to be pitiable and part of this may well be a generation gap thing. I can pity main characters who are themselves caricatures of nasty, selfish people who are supposed to be our heroes. Kunis shouts all the time while being frenetic and clueless.. No balance here as McKinnon's character is a know-it-all who makes no sense whatsoever. The violence is of the bang-bang variety, nothing gruesome thank goodness but continually tedious.
After an hour, I asked myself why am I still watching this. I said well I wanted to see it and got the disk from the library so let's see it to the end. That said, I did put away some laundry during the rest of the movie which seemed to make it a bit less stultifying. The characters played video games in the beginning and it made me want to go out and play one myself, something I haven't done since Tomb Raider was new and before the first Tomb Raider movie came out.
Like I said, I'm in my sixties and from what I've observed in stand-up and TV, this nastiness, sarcasm, exaggeration thing seems to pass for humor these days so perhaps the generation it's made for may find it funny. If so, God bless them - I don't want to spoil their fun. To people my age, just watch the Spy Who Loved me or In Like Flint instead. For those my age who didn't like either of those two, STAY AWAY entirely.
Disappointing Grandma/Granddaughter Road Movie Substitutes Misanthropy and Derision for Wit
I love Lily Tomlin. I thought she was very effective playing gay in Tea with Mussolini. Most of my friends with similar tastes thought this was hilarious so I looked forward to seeing it on DVD. I was disappointed.
Road movies are by their nature episodic. And the overall length of this film (about 80 minutes) is blessedly short. The first half hour is one-note, nasty and tedious and wastes Nat Wolff. John Cho is especially irksome. After that the visits and episodes get more interesting beginning with Sam Elliott as Tomlin's ex-husband. Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as the mother in the next sequence. Together, the two give the film its best scenes. The scenes following these two are fine and serve to wrap up the plot and land everything in perspective. Finally, Tomlin's curmudgeon does have a soft center deep inside after all.
So, after the first half hour, it's a bit more than watchable; F for the first 30 minutes, C+ for the next 50 minutes. C- (4/10) overall.
The Finest Hours (2016)
Great depiction of the era and New England Coast Guard outposts provide foundation for harrowing rescue saga
This movie does a magnificent job of setting the table for itself. It took me back to the early 1950's in New England without so much as an echo of a false note. The dances, the cars, the attitudes, and the not-so-esprit-de-corps-except-when-it really-counts attitude among the Guard members at the outpost are all presented with remarkable accuracy. It was just like stepping into a time capsule.
I don't understand some people's criticism of the acting as wooden. I found it anything but. Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) is a fantastic dramatic actor who is stereotyped too much from his Oceans movie roles. Here, he steels the movie from Pine, Foster, and the rest. Not that Pine and Foster were bad - they were pitch perfect as the determined and focused rescuers with lives of their own. As the Commander, Eric Bana gave the film's most thankless role everything he could.
I thought Holliday Grainger was a revelation as the spunky and unconventional Miriam. The subplot with her pushiness and combativeness was well told and did an excellent job of providing context.
As for the action, it was magnificent with the saga well told both in magnitude of the task, dissension on the big boat, human courage and weakness in the face of death, and of course, the rescue itself. I did go to the 3D version and the effects and motion of the waves made that well worth it for me. It is a great film for the entire family.
The Homesman (2014)
More Anti-Western than Western and NOT a feel-good movie
The first two-thirds of this movie seem like a Hallmark made-for-TV movie with extremely high production values and excellent acting. We have a plain frontier woman Mary Bee Cuddy (two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank , lonely but with enough grit and determination for 3 men, set off on a mission to take 3 demented women back east for a mission woman (three-time Oscar Winner (Meryl Streep) to reunite them with their families. This mission has been requested by the local Minister (John Lithgow) Being practical and recognizing she needs help to complete the arduous journey successfully. Through flashbacks which are repeated throughout the journey to an annoying point, we find that she had to endure insanity issues with her own mother that resulted in the mother's death and her anger at her callous father.
She encounters hard-edged drifter George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) who vigilantes attempted to hang for claim jumping. She hires him and they meet various challenges along the way, each with a touch of historic reality not found in mythic westerns and each interesting. The last of these challenges comes when they encounter an unearthed corpse of a young boy exhumed by native Americans for the buffalo hide in which he was buried and left on the ground. Mary Bee, in keeping with her religious commitment that made her volunteer for the task, undertakes burying the child, then catching up with Tommy Lee Jones and the women after nightfall. She does so after awhile but at the cost of her aplomb. She returns a crying and dehydrated mess. In the course of trying to restore her, George grows close to Mary Bee and despite every trepidation involved in doing so, reluctantly but lovingly (as well as that word can be ascribed to his character) has intercourse with her.
That is where this ceases to be the movie I thought I was watching. It may well be logical, realistic, and might even be based some real-life situations. But, for me, the film transformed from a crusty buddy movie /romance under hardship to something even much darker. And this is the spoiler: Mary Bee hangs herself out of grief and remorse.
From hereon, it is episodic including a violent scene when George ruthlessly destroys all for a callous fop (James Spader) who denied his group water and food. This "visceral satisfaction" scene took much too long and the self-righteousness seemed out of character for George. Finally, we get to the town. Having completed his mission in a nice scene, George tries to mend his ways but is unable to be accepted, and so, he returns to his live-for-the-day roots.
All in all, fascinatingly directed with some great camera work and use of locale, and unforgettably acted especially by the two leads. But I was numb and put off watching the last third of the film, hence the mixed vote of 6/10.
No Escape (2015)
A Family Taken Beyond Human Limits
Pacing is a top criterion for me in movies. This one sucks you in the beginning and never lets you move from the edge of your seat. The score is perfect, serving to tighten the suspense without ever being obtrusive and with the correct feel for a country like the one in question - at lest to an American ear.
(I don't want to get lost in a sidebar but the identity of the country and ostensibly its capital city with a US Embassy has been discussed. I've hear to crossing a river to get to Vietnam is all wrong and it's generally a more glistening city. It's a fictional movie so perhaps it's meant to stay an amalgam. But if it's somewhat based on a real country, Burma/Myanmar would make more sense to me as Rangoon is on the side of the country across from Vietnam and the country has seen more than its share of human rights violations.)
As has been pointed out, the director's brings his horror roots and creates a movie scarier than any horror movie because of the average American viewer's identification with the family. The rapidity with which a completely believable overseas assignment could suddenly turn into an unfathomable nightmare where chances of survival seem nil takes the viewer's breath away and never lets it go. When Wilson grabs his daughter from the pool and mutes her protests while his wife tries desperately to make the killers going room to room for foreigners and anyone perceived to be related to working for the company (including Asians), the wild ride begins. From that time to the time incognito agent Pierce Brosnan helps guide them to the roof where people frantically hope for escape, there is no time to breathe. When all others but them are slaughtered and they are the only ones who put together the obvious fact that the only alternative is to attempt a feasible but scary jump to a nearby building, there was no thought in my head that aspect was a bit far- fetched because the acting, direction, pacing, and flow made it seem perfectly consistent with the suddenly inhumane terror of their situation.
The family dynamics and the evolution of Wilson's and Bell's thought processes throughout the frantic and at times aimless rush from anywhere to anywhere for survival are amazing and certainly separate this from a normal action movie with hero/heroes and a mission. There is nothing but doubt and lack of self-confidence in the minds and hearts of the two adult heroes and only the need to try to save the lives of their children keep them from the recriminations and remembering the sadness with which they began their journey. This psychology subtly carries the emotional dynamic under the actions when survival mandates encouraging the youngest girl to pee herself, then further as they need to kill as cold-bloodedly as their hunters for survival. The hesitancy and grief with which Wilson kills even though he know he has no alternative and the cold-bloodedness in which a dying Brosnan executes his duty are displayed in stunning contrast even though the frantic pace doesn't allow the audience to appreciate the comparison until the end.
At the end - and the family's final escape is due to what is probably the least realistic and at the same time the most viscerally rewarding sequence in the movie - I couldn't inhibit myself from shouting "Wow!" aloud, and I am not easily impressed.
In fact, even though this movie was completely fictional, the movie No Escape most reminded me of is the fact-based Hotel Rwanda. In very many ways, including the hero being a career-oriented family man suddenly thrust into desperate survival mode while a holocaust of murderous xenophobic frenzy breaks out all around him, the two situations are close parallels as was the excellence of the acting and the development of the characters from non-violent citizens with ordinary fears and problems into men of action who regret what they must do to survive. To me, these are much better analogies than Taken or Mission Impossible - did these heroes show an ounce of regret in doing what they have to do? Just part of the training, ma'am. Contributing to that dynamic is the equally stunning transformation of Lake Bell from whiner to having to be the mentally and physically strong one when Owen's psyche lapses (and every step in between). The daughters, while frustratingly annoying obstacles to their own safety, are incredibly realistically portrayed. Kudos to both young actors. Brosnan's professional and cynical agent, reminiscent of Ed Harris in Under Fire and Nick Nolte in Hotel Rwanda, provides a perfect contrast to the incredible physical and emotional stress experienced by an untrained family who never had an instant to analyze anything beyond survival.
Anyway, even though it is to me an incredibly textured lead performance hitting many nuances right on the money, I don't expect Wilson to get nominated because of "odious" political motives that both left- wingers and right-wingers seem to be attributing to the film. Then again, you can never explain to me how an at-best flawed black comedy like Birdman won Best Picture against fantastic competition such as Imitation Game, American Sniper, Theory of Everything, Grand Budapest Hotel, etc.
I'll summarize by saying that you are cheating yourself if you let critics deter you from this incredible experience. 10/10.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Well-directed and well-acted voyeurism delivers well on its objective
I come to the movies to be entertained. I was very much entertained. I came this movie partially to see a character study featuring a virgin on the verge of college graduation coming of age at the hands of a self-advertised millionaire sadist who considers himself soulless. That is precisely what i got. THe other attraction of this movie, of course, was the opportunity to watch B & D sex set against a trashy love/lust story. This obviously is not for all tastes but just as obviously, given the box office, attracts many and half of the people I know who went once have now gone twice.
I see a lot of IMDb critics giving this movie one star on the basis of calling it soft porn. I won't deny that this film is right on the edge of soft porn and that if you don't like voyeuristic sex and soft porn, you should not go into the theater. Is there anyone who bought a ticket who did not know to expect "the sexual abuse of a young woman being used as supposed entertainment." I read this quote verbatim in at least three reviews. Like anything else, if you know you find such things so abhorrent, that's all you'll think about, then you SHOULD NOT GO to see this film.
Me, I like well-made soft-porn laced with occasional humor. As someone with what I consider a healthy and open-to-anything libido, I also enjoy watching naked bodies engage in kinky sex, especially when set up properly. For this kind of movie, the direction was incredibly crisp and cogent. Christian Grey was exactly the menacing, narcissistic yet charming control freak he was supposed to be. I found it impossible not to be overwhelmed and seduced by his power. I certainly found it easy to believe that Dakota Johnson would be. Marcia Gay Harden's brief turn as Grey's adopted mother is wonderful.
Even the many one-star haters seem to indicate that the direction and pacing (fantastic in my opinion) were not bad. I would say the best I've ever seen in a borderline soft-porn movie and among the best I've every seen for a trashy love story (Think Butterfly, The Other Side of Midnight, and Once is Not Enough). I'd also ask how a movie with decent direction could get ONE star (3 o4 4 would be more reasonable). I reserve ONE STAR for total disasters with totally incompetent direction like Homer and Eddie. This was slick, well-directed, and in my opinion (perhaps the biggest actually pertinent major disagreement with the critics) uniformly well-acted especially by the supporting cast and Johnson. I also did find the chemistry electric with Jamie properly stiff when he found himself confused by letting Anastasia into a heart he had blockaded and a soul he was convinced he didn't have.
As for the bodies shown, the nudity, the devices, and the choreography of the sex, I've never seen better. One problem I generally have with the borderline soft porn genre is spending two much time on mechanics. Most movies based on trashy novels also spend too much time dwelling on emotionally ravaged faces not quite executed bu mediocre actors. This movie never stopped coming at you with excitement, intrigue, and sex long enough to stagnate like that.
So, I had a great time and enjoyed it thoroughly and most of the 100+ women and 8 other men in the audience seemed to enjoy it on that basis as well. After all, they got what they knew they were coming to see.
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Fast-paced tale of how technology changes standards - Fantastic Cumberbatch
I enjoyed it quite a bit. Cumberbatch was PERFECT as Assange, nailed him - and so piercing. Excellent supporting performances by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Seddig (Dr. Bashir from DS9), Anthony Mackie, and Michael Culkin. Yes, I said Laura Linney - who I consider the most overrated actress ever and whose performances I always despise. Here she was beyond perfect in her timing, dialog, expressions, and nuances as a State Department Official who has some conscience, thinks she is a pragmatist but needs periodic reality checks from Stanley Tucci, and certainly won't sacrifice her own neck for principle when it comes down to it. Tucci underplays his part to great effect. Culkin and Seddig are both very interesting in their two scenes. The direction was fast and well-paced with amazing sets and a most appropriate score.
I haven't mentioned Cumberbatch's co-star, Daniel Bruhl, who gets just as much if not more screen time, as co-Wiki-leaks Founder Daniel Berg. Nor did I mention the female lead, Alicia Vikander, who played Amke, Berg's girlfriend. Berg provided the source material use for the film and he is the voice of conscience with which we are supposed to sympathize - especially when Assange fires (expels actually,since no one at WIki Leaks got paid) both of them for insubordination and brands them as delusional traitors. I say we're supposed to sympathize with them but I came away feeling them more self-pitying and whiny than heroic and I'm not sure whether it was the writing, the acting, or a combination of the two. I'm not saying that I could pinpoint anything wrong with the performances; and I'd have to see other work to see whether my reaction to the two came from he script. Those two characterizations/performances make this a 3.5-/4 instead of 4/4 (8/10 if you prefer). I thought it was very good - especially if you have an interest in the media's role in politics and intelligence agencies.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Mesmerizing
She also starred in Belle and totally captivated me with her intensity and ability to convey multi-layered and complex feelings of varied intensities. After seeing Beyond the Lights, I am even more impressed with her abilities and ever-refining raw talent. The entire cast was very good - especially co-lead Nate Parker who managed to overcome some of his sermonizing dialog to make his officer with political ambitions by-way-of-his-father become a bit more real than the cliché the writing of his character set him up for. The actors playing Trey and Liam worked well off each other in the group-think mindset of the music industry.
Minnie Driver has been one of my favorite under-utilized actresses for a long time. Her Hell-bent on Success Manager/Mother had unusual layers of complexity and dimension for what would normally be a well-worn stereotype. Danny Glover brought some of his magic and personality to elevate his character beyond being an equal and opposite meddling and domineering force, despite the limitations given to him by the scriptwriter.
I thought the auteur fares better as director with excellently telling visuals and as author of the story's "book" than as a dialog writer - especially for her male characters. The good news is that she allowed her actors enough freedom to work past the clichés.
Overall 8/10 - well worth seeing.
Amazing Amanda Seyfried Carries Taut Thriller
This well-directed if thinly scripted thriller has more-than-adequate supporting performances by a good cast, but almost all are given little to do beyond providing the backdrop for Amanda Seyfried's Jill. And Jill has us in her corner from start-to-finish as she tries to overcome her branded-as-delusional history to race against time to save her sister's life. The police and her psychiatrist do everything possible to undermine her efforts.
Now don't over-analyze the plot or view this in context of what would happen in the real world. It won't hold up if you do but such scrutiny would be missing the fun. This is not a docudrama.
There are plenty of thrillers with driven protagonists bit Seyfried's remarkable and multi-layered performance puts this one two notched above most. Score is perfect for the movie, understated but drive. I give this an 8/10. Be seated with your popcorn and go to the bathroom before you sit down and watch, turning your cell phone off. You won't want to be interrupted during this one.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
The Theory of Everything - Magnificent Acting and Intriguing Story - But Oh, that monotonous score
Herb Blank Head, Business Development and Managing Director, ESG Solutions Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are nothing short of remarkable in the Theory of Everything. The supporting cast, cinematographic innovations, and costuming were all excellent. I learned a lot and recommend it fairly highly.
However, the tedious piano score, relentless throughout, really started alternatively putting me to sleep and getting on my nerves. I know many of today's young filmmakers and critics have a disdain for overly dramatic scores. I don't personally but either way - this was truly the other extreme!
The only other nit I'll pick I recognize as representative of the fact that I am from a prior generation. I found the dialog overly spartan and a lot of story blanks deliberately unexplained. To me and I daresay others from my generation, this creates distance and makes personal emotional involvement difficult. That said, I am aware enough of both the subject matter and today's artistic and industry standards to believe that was exactly what James Marsh had in mind.
I've often heard today's highly regarded filmmakers and "experts" express disdain for verbal storytelling insisting that really talented directors should emphasize imagery and the visuality of the medium over story exposition. For those people in the reviews I've read, the DIrector didn't go far enough in that direction so I should be grateful - and I am. There also is a marvelous scene where Jane tells her mother (who inadvertently starts the new Chapter in Jane's life with the choirmaster) that "She's never heard anything so English in her life." So indeed, the lack of outward emotion expressed on film and the economic and sterile dialog is quite illustrative of a very English family background and Cambridge-educated gentry. It also is consistent with the recurrent subtext of the film contrasting Jane's C-of-E morality and natural proclivity toward adherence to standards of decorum with Hawking's personal immaturity (dictated by circumstances), unconventionality and unrepentant atheism. So the understatement is quite appropriate especially from Jane's lens which is how we get to view most of what unfolds. In short, I have to recognize that James Marsh did a superb job of conveying in cinema the subtext of the film.
So, I conclude that most of IMDb will appreciate what I found detracted just a bit from my personal enjoyment. But that's quite trivial overall. I enjoyed the movie and think most will as well.
Not Easily Broken (2009)
Very well-acted and interesting adult soap opera that elicited visceral reactions in both directions
I watch movies for their entertainment value in the sense of keeping me engaged in its world and its story. I do not care if it reinforces my political, religious, or cultural beliefs. I recognize that is not true of everybody, and that's okay also. I just wanted to provide context.
At its core, Not Easily Broken is the story of a marriage that undergoes various tests and stresses from many directions. There is tragedy, heartbreak, and hidden agendas along the way. In other words, this is what we used to call a classic "sudser" or adult soap opera.
For a limited budget movie, I thought the acting was superb - most especially Taraji Hanson (Joss Carter on Person of Interest and hilarious in the otherwise tiresome Think Like a Man). Others here refer to her as a one-dimensional harridan but I think nothing could be further than the truth. My wife and I cared about their marriage because she was conveyed well but subtly that she was balancing different instincts and being pulled in different directions and was searching for but not finding a moral compass. And yes, this really is where belief in God can make a positive difference in real people's lives (whether he "really exists" or not) and frequently does. This was also well conveyed extremely well by this talented actor. Jenifer Lewis was magnificent as her interfering mother who also was not without her redemptive qualities but could not overcome the damage she had sustained.
In many ways, their roles were much tougher than that of the sympathetic Maeve Quinlan or co-Executive Producer and star Morris Chestnut. I've always thought it easier for an actor to convey empathy and understanding for a sympathetic character than a nasty one. Not that both were not terrific in their performances. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Quinlan but she truly impressed. I've adored Albert Hall since his performance in Apocalypse Now. He does a convincing job here as the minister but I would have loved to have seen more from him.
Morris Chestnut who portrays lead character Dave, the narrator of the film, obviously, is a terrific and increasingly accomplished actor. He was also co-producer of the film. I do not know to what extent he was involved in the messaging aspect of this movie or to what extent the Jakes' novel (I've not read any of them but have seen two other movies based on his works) focused on the relationship between women and men "being turned upside down" in today's world.
In many ways, this plays a bigger role in the film's apparent raison d'etre than its message of getting back in touch with God - which is universal in these movies. As an ardent feminist, I am personally very uncomfortable with this point of view. But as said, I enjoy the movie on its entertainment value on its own terms. In its principal illustration, Not Easily Broken attempts to show that an imbalance can be created when an independent woman uses money or some other artificial barometer as a means for controlling the marriage and the household and demeaning her husband whom she has convinced herself she does not really need. As it turns out, she has been indoctrinated by her mother's negative experiences and anger. The minister helps bring her closer to God and realize the importance of not letting their marriage be torn asunder. Dave (Morris Chestnut) persuades her that their marriage must be more of a partnership. Voila, a woman who had put her career in front of the inconvenience and loss of independence she perceived in having a child is now thrilled that she is pregnant.
Okay, I've known couples like that - unfortunately, that solution in all 3 of those cases ultimately led to divorce. But, that's just 3 cases and makes Dave's viewpoint no less valid or at least somewhat defensible by a reasonable person.
There was a scene that did bother me a lot - and maybe I'm just being defensive because I am just like Kevin Hart's character in that he happily allows his wife to make all decision because he says, "Happy wife equals happy life." I agree, but in the context of the movie, he is comic relief and ultimately the object of scorn. I thought it was especially odious when his wife threw him out because not only did he have no backbone and no independent opinions, but because he has small feet (wink, wink). Talk about judgmental about what constitutes manhood!
Then again, not only was I actively engaged in the movie, but it also provoked enough thought from me afterward to compel me to write this lengthy review. It also made me cry when Maeve Quinlan's son dies - which according to the movie's scorn for Kevin Hart's character must also be "unmanly." But like I say, the filmmakers are entitled to their opinion - they just need to entertain me. They did and even made me think.
Gone Girl (2014)
Unique and meticulously crafted spider web transcends genres
I did not read the book of know anything about Gillian Flynn beyond the fact that she adapted her book for the movies screenplay. Therefore, I did not realize that this would be more for my money than an excellent suspense thriller or a did-he or didn't he movie. This turned out to be such a clever and meticulous spider web of plotting and counter-plotting, that it was difficult to keep up with all of its twists and turns. What made it especially difficult to keep up with once we were an hour into the film was that I kept laughing from the pitch-dark American-values comedy that flowed naturally from the situations and character's motivations.
If you enjoy intricate plots that are perfectly executed and a thinking person's thriller, you will not be disappointed. If you also enjoy movies that comment on the absurdities of society and marriage and the needs to please the masses, you will be even more happily surprised. And if you like movies with great co-star performances and great supporting performances all around, you will love this movie.
On the other hand, if you want a reality escape where the good guys are all good and the bad guys are all bad, skip Gone Girl and go see The Equalizer or A Walk Among the Tombstones. This movie requires all of your gray matter to appreciate it.
Middle of the Night (1959)
Marty-esque evocation of May-December romance is worthy viewing
I actually watched this in the middle of the night on one of those evenings where you fall asleep too early, then wake up and can't get back to sleep. As a veteran film buff and a huge fan of Director Delbert Mann and writer Paddy Chayefsky, I am surprised that I never heard of this very New York 1950's slice-of-real-life family drama with a May-December romance between Kim Novak (Betty) and Frederic March (Jerry Kingsley) as its Centerpiece.
As with Marty, the movie centers around the way that fiends of family members with concerns and pre-set notions of "what should be" of their own and reject the budding and heartfelt romance between two very lonely and insecure people who have just recently experienced trauma (divorce of husband and death of wife). The supporting turns by those trying to scuttle the relationship including Joan Copeland, Lee Grant, and Glenda Farrell among many others are terrific. On the supportive side, my favorite performance in the film was by Albert Dekker has March's long-time business partner. He advises March to reach out and hold on to the special relationship he has with both arms. He also has the film's best line saying, "When I die, they should write on my tombstone, What a Waste of Time!" Martin Balsam is also supportive as daughter Copeland's husband who supports Jerry's relationship and gets it with both barrels from his wife. The most surprising performance to me was from Lee Philips who I thought was awful in the two TV show guest appearances I saw him do before deciding that directing TV shows was a more suitable endeavor for him. Here, I found him perfect for his role and incredibly convincing as Betty's ex-husband who wants her back and at a minimum wants another sexual conquest of her. He's a smooth cad without being unctuous or obvious in any way and provides a stunning counterpoint to every other character in the film. He knows what he wants and is determined to get it regardless of whether it is what his ex-wife wants.
I always considered Novak underrated in Picnic and she's even better here. She conveys an insecurity mixed with determination about Betty that is as delicate a balancing act as I've ever seen. She wants to trust her love for Jerry but is so fragile she can't trust herself to be worthy of his love. At the same time, she loves the way he makes her feel special and finds that so different from everyone else in her life, she's willing to navigate the venom and BS thrown at her by all her friends and relatives. It's an incredibly complex and simple performance at the same time. I was almost awestruck.
All fairly compelling so far, right? So why didn't I give this a 9 or a 10 (Marty is a 10 in my book and a 10+ if IMDb would allow such a rating)? March's chemistry with Novak does not match hers with him in far too many of their scenes. March, of course, is a magnificent and accomplished actor who has given some of the most memorable performances on film (my favorite 0 Best Years of Our Lives). But he also can over-emote and connect more with the camera than with his love interest at times. Unfortunately, that happens here quite a bit. And his jealousy borne-out-of-insecurity seems to express itself too self-righteously given hid character and feelings - at least to me. When he allows himself to make eye contact with Betty, it is like day from night. In those scenes, the romance seems and feels genuine even when they are having rough spots (such as in the car toward the early middle of the film). On the other hand, March's chemistry with his threatened sister and with daughter Joan Copeland is perfect. He just seems to prefer the camera to Novak when his character is starting to convince himself that the doubters are right. These disconnections do not by an means ruin the film for me. I enjoyed it and wish to watch it again. It just stops it from being a classic for me.
I still recommend watching it - especially if you love Marty.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
Liam Neeson embodies Bloch's detective Matt Scudder, a reformed alcoholic, in expert fashion. He captures his character's regret, angst, expertise, solemn commitment, cynicism, balance by a strong desire to make amends except when doing so would harm others. For all of us Neeson fans and perhaps even the uninitiated if there are any, this is a great start. But that's it. The movie goes through its paces trying to find an psychotic pair of deadly efficient ex-DEA serial killers who extort money from their victims before killing them. Doing so immerses the guilt-ridden Neeson (from killing a kid while pursuing 3 bad guys while a bit drunk) into the worlds of organized and disorganized drug dealers. These worlds are ones we have encountered in countless TV shows and movies also based in New York. With a cast of little known actors of workmanlike but unexceptional talent (at least as shown in this movie) and with a script mostly bereft of humor, Neeson has to be the whole show. And his character is one-note, changing little, and experiencing little growth beyond his hallowed 12-step program.
The one exception is the young actor Astro as TJ. His relationship with Scudder gives the film life and gives us a rooting interest in things. It's a solid supporting turn that imbues an otherwise relentlessly grim movie with some humor and empathy, something sorely lacking through most of it. Neeson and Astro are almost enough to make us forget that there are no clever plot twists, no revelations, no intriguing insights, just hunting down and killing the psychos. I checked the spoiler box if you consider the fact that Neeson's Scudder prevails over the psycho as spoiling the world's most predictable ending. Overall, this is certainly a watchable movie but it lacks anything special and is relentlessly grim.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
Enjoyable antidote for hot summer afternoons
I enjoyed this movie quite a bit for what is. It provided humor in 3 forms: sight gags; repartee; and inside jokes. I just loved Robert Davi's cameo and Arnold's crack about marriage. The movie was two hours short - in that it flew by and I didn't look at my watch once. But I must admit, the movie may have gotten an extra half-star or more from me because my local movie multiplex gave me what I was looking for most: blissful air conditioning. Judging by the number of other seniors in the audience on a 90+ degree September day in its fourth week of release, I would say we weren't the only ones looking for heat relief with unchallenging popcorn action and humor. And that's what we got.
One thing that made this movie one cut above most action films for me was the villain, (Mad) Max Stonebanks, played to the hilt by Mel Gibson - so convincingly mercenary and smug, I came close to rooting for him. OK, he's no Hans Gruber - but who is? After that, he's probably in my top 3 of action hero villains in the past 40 years. He chews up the scenery but always in the framework of who he is. A wonderful surprise for me was Harrison Ford playing the agency desk jockey in what I assumed was a cameo role. It turned out to be a major role and he provided a wonderful counterpoint for both Arnold and Sly. It almost goes without saying that Jason Statham continues to be one of my favorite action movie stars while Lundgren and Couture got to give their best performances in the series. Sly was Sly - not as good as he was in the first one, but a good straight man to Statham and Kelsey Grammar (speaking of wonderful mercenaries) and the young kids. I note other criticized the performances of the young actors. I thought the gal and the tech guy were highly engaging and well-suited for their roles. The other two provided beefcake and nothing's wrong with that. The one-joke that played on much too long was Antonio Banderas' character. This is a bit of a shame since Banderas' performance and swagger were dead-on and he still provides eye candy for those so inclined. His character was the supposed comic relief and had so much repetitive screen time for variations on the same joke that it ceased to be funny long before the screenplay continued to tell it. But this is the only irritating note in an otherwise wonderful afternoon.
I came to have fun and I had fun - in blissful air conditioning. I'm happy!
The Railway Man (2013)
Sitting through this film was torturous. Watching it oh-so-slowly and meticulously unfold depicting, graphic wartime torture, "the code", guilt trips, post-traumatic-stress-disorder-in-the-extreme, executing Lomax's revenge plan, followed by a transforming forgiveness and redemption that seemed a bit forced - but oh-so-welcome! As convincing as Kidman and Firth were separately in delineating convincingly the tortures and challenges of their characters and the motivating depths of their love, they were even more unconvincing about having any physical chemistry with each other (and Kidman REALLY tried - it just was not there). The actor playing young Lomax and the actors playing the young and older versions of the Japanese Inquisitor were also excellent and convincing - which made watching the scrupulously detailed and in-your- face-so-you-should-never-forget-these-horrors torture scenes - all that much harder to take.
I can sit and watch a film that depicts horrible and inhumane acts on varied scales (eg., Lone Survivor, Hotel Rwanda, The Killing Fields) and still appreciate the experience even though it leaves me drained and I may only be able to watch those movies once, they still get 9 or 10 ratings from me. And they are watchable while leaving their indelible impressions. This was an endurance test that made Zero Dark Thirty seem like Mary Poppins in comparison. There must be a better way to tell Mr. Lomax's story than to torture the audience to make absolutely certain that its "Amnesty International" message never leaves its audience's consciousness. I also did not appreciate the older version of the senior officer (played by the greatly overrated Skellan Skorsgard - a method actor who is all method and no act) committing suicide as a glorious sacrificial act to get the message across to spur Lomax to action. I don't know whether Lomax claims this really happened or if this was artistic license on the filmmaker's part but to me, this suicide-as-dramatic-statement segue made the whole experience that much less meaningful.
In short, Lomax's story was interesting and should have been told. But it should not have been turned into a polemic and an endurance test for its audience which is what this was to me. I love Firth and Kidman and thought almost all of the acting other than as mentioned was excellent. So maybe 2 is too harsh and as I get further away from the torture the filmmakers just forced me to endure, I might raise it to a 4 - but not now. It's just too soon for me.
At any rate, if you watch this wishing to watch a well-acted and graphic anti-torture polemic using Lomax's story and his epiphany of forgiveness and reconciliation to justify the extreme lengths it goes to make its point, then enjoy torturing yourself! You'll probably give this 10/10 and feel like a superior human being for doing so. If, on the other hand, you are looking to be engrossed and entertained for two hours by a love story combined with a sufferer of PTSD and a story of redemption (which is what I thought I would see from the trailers), then STAY AWAY! STAY FAR AWAY! There is nothing entertaining about The Railway Man,
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Absolutely Remarkable Movie and Performances
I am avid movie lover and have seen more than 2,000 movies in my tome - and remember most of them. The best male lead performance I have ever seen is Paul Schofield in a Man For All Seasons. In second place, I had Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine - until now. I've long liked McConnaughy and found him very impressive in We Are Marshall and The Lincoln Lawyer. Neither performance set me up for this. His every mannerism, every nuance, every way of carrying himself in every scene and every situation is utterly on target. This is a terrific movie and almost the entire cast is flawless but the lead performance is truly in a class by itself.
The next point I wish to make is that this is one of the few of the very many independent movies I've seen that involved HIV and the gay community without hitting the viewer over the head with it even though it was 100% central to the plot. What I mean is that there was none of the normal obligatory gilding of the lily just to make sure the viewer gets the message.
Also interesting is the fact that both McConnaughy and Leto (also 100% Oscar-worthy) manage to play larger-than-life characters convincingly without ever acting larger-than-life. It's a subtlety and rare that actors can play such characters without chewing up the scenery but both manage somehow to do it which speaks quite well for the director.
The pacing is considerably better than most indies or Hollywood non- action dramas. I only looked at my watch once. Griffin Dunne is noteworthy in his supporting performance. Jennifer Garner is far better than in the last movie she did about battling Big Pharma, Love and Other Drugs. She still tries a quarter-of-an-octave too hard, but that's really getting picky in one of the best movies I've seen in this century thus far.
This has a lot more suspense and is faster-paced than Neeson's last 3 films I saw: Taken 2; Unknown; and The Grey. In fact, it reminded me a bit more of Unstoppable in its pacing and tone. It is exciting and well- acted. Most of all, it's fun to watch. It all strains credibility at time. It's interesting to me that the denouement is not so much to stop the board on exploding but to get the plane down to an elevation where the pressure has a chance of stabilizing and minimizing the loss of life -a different twist. The way in which Neeson becomes everybody's prime suspect and then recovers - which is the bulk - of the film is clever and suspenseful. If you like Neeson and you lie heroic action-suspense movies - especially in the theater -yo will enjoy this. If you like neither Neeson nor his version of the genre which always calls for you to suspend a bit of credibility, then why did you bother to see this anyway?
A Good Sport (1984)
80's TV Update of Woman of the Year
The Tracy-Hepburn Woman of the Year is on my all-time top 10 list. This 80's attempt to modernize it doesn't hold a candle to the original, but what could?
On it's own terms, this is an amusing way to spend an hour and a half. Although it is true that the age-old battle-of-the-sexes and fish-out-of- water jokes are no longer fresh and the supporting case and directorial prowess are nothing special, Lee Remick and Ralph Waite are seasoned pros who are well-suited to their roles and have great chemistry together. In her 25th year in acting, Ms. Remick still looked as scintillating as she did in A Face In The Crowd if much more mature. Her acting times each line perfectly for maximum effect. Waite's gruff teddy bear style compliments her perfectly. The result is enjoyable fun and seeing the two professionals bounce lines of f each other is pure pleasure. Worth watching.
Enough Said (2013)
Seinfeld for the Fifty-something set - Disappointing
I was looking forward to what had been described to me as an offbeat and whimsical independent romantic comedy. What I got was more Thirty- something dramedy with Seinfeld-ish quirky mocking humor (at least they spared me the ugly baby jokes), self-conscious direction and camera- work, and no real plot. JLD's Eva was very similar to her characters such as Seinfeld's Elaine and Old Christine, a pretty woman with a nice smile whose pettiness and annoyance with everything undermines her aspirations to make her life better. Gandolfini is perfectly cast and delivers a solidly nuanced performance in the male lead.
Side note - Toni Colette is one of my favorite all-time actresses but she's horribly misused here in a character that starts out being mildly eccentric and is consistently photographed in close-ups that make her big head seem enormous. But what was really disconcerting was the way her Australian accent filtered in and out, mixed with something else, but not at all sounding like her natural Australian self in her early movies. Just one of many examples of missed opportunities with the talent at hand.
One thing the director is obviously trying to do is show us the good and bad of all her characters. This is admirable, but like the camera-work, alternately jarring and brilliant - but more former than latter. The attraction to the creators of doing an independent film is the ability to express yourselves artistically bu doing jarring things different from the norm. As Keener's Marianne alluded with her poetry, art is open to interpretation but only idiots don't get her poems. I think the filmmakers may feel the same way, As art, draw your own conclusions, as entertainment, there was enough enjoyable and thought-provoking here to watch it all the way through, but not enough to enjoy doing so very much.
The movie is not without its interesting insights. Some reviewers saw Keener as one-note; I vehemently disagree - she got the nuances of her talented poet character whose only other friend was Joni Mitchell very well. Nothing is universal but poets tend to be prone to introversion and depression. They feel misunderstood by the masses. The scene where she is obviously unmoved by the adoring fans who recognized her and tell her how their poems changed their lives is perfect. Keener could not have been more dead-on with her portrayal - more interested in witching about how her ex-husband was uncouth and couldn't get her poetry than noticing how uncouth she was being with young women whose lives she had affected. That's what's so frustrating about this movie - it has wonderful moments such as this but focuses more on the dysfunctional way Eva runs her life. Building resentment from what she's not wants but is not getting without knowing how to give - except to equally dysfunctional women such as Maryann and Chloe (another subplot that went nowhere). Interesting observations that stop short of being insights and turn out to be more frustrating paths leading nowhere than entertainment for the viewer.
Back to the Seinfeld comparison, in the end, this is a movie about nothing. It has some witty humor but more ridicule humor and misanthropy. In the end, Enough Said leaves its characters pretty much in the same place where they started. Enough said about Enough Said.
Last Vegas (2013)
The Flatbush Four reunite in Vegas and it's pleasantly entertaining
This movie lets you know the concept from the start and rolls it out in wry style. The Flatbush Four had been together from High School. The wealthiest and most conniving Billy (Michael Douglas) was the only one who had never gotten married. But that changes in the beginning of the movie when he proposes to his shapely 32 year old live-in girlfriend Lisa - while giving the eulogy at his mentor's funeral - following a couple of tasteless sex jokes that evoked reactions from the mourners like the Springtime for Hitler musical evoked from the audience at the Producers.
The rest of the movie never lives up to that start - and it as predictable as a well-planed day - but it is an exceedingly pleasant romp with old friends. Kevin Kline's opening bit with wife Joanna Gleason when he's trying to determine whether water aerobics biddy Ira is still breathing is hilarious. He carries his character with charm and aplomb and even though we know what will happen when he finally gets his big shot, he still makes it work for us somehow. Morgan Freeman's character, Archie, is probably the least interestingly written but he's played by Morgan Freeman so he shows us a wonderful time as usual. Somewhat surprisingly to me, DeNiro gives the most restrained performance and it works wonderfully. Even though it is ostensibly Michael Douglas' film, his character is the most clichéd and the least surprising - but he's still enjoying being with his friends and so are we. The bits surrounding rapper 50 Cent fit in well with the decadent venue. A cameo by 70's Harrad Experiment star Elliott Street is a real treat as a Vegas minister who knows that his clients don't take his services seriously but still does his job devotedly. In a fantasy comedy world where the septuagenarians have no real money problems, the decadent-but-still-doing-its-thing-for-as-long-as-it-lasts Vegas they show is surprisingly real. That said, the scene where Morgan Freeman bribes the Deejay so the Flatbush Four can be the celebrity judges works wonderfully as we get the same T & A cheap thrills the boys do - harmless lower case titillation and what's wrong with that?
So, I've taken a long time to say that Last Vegas is an unchallenging lowbrow entertainment with a few wry twists. If you are looking to be amused for two hours and don't take yourself or your morals very seriously, you'll probably smile as much as I did and even chuckle out loud two or three times.
Separate Lies (2005)
Self-Centered Gentry Drama Founders in Clichés
This is a very British movie. To the gentry, the inconvenient hit-and- run death of a commoner is too messy to allow it to tarnish their lives even if that commoner happens to be the spouse of their servant (wonderfully played by Linda Bassett).
In point of fact, all the acting is excellent and takes us in-depth into the shallowness and fecklessness of its three leads. Emily Watson is one of my favorite actresses and her eyes and smile send my heart a- flutter. She is fascinating plumbing the depths of the soul of well- meaning wife who kills her beloved servant's husband without taking legal responsibility and cuckolds and deserts her husband. She earnestly regrets all but does nothing about it - even to the point of forcing the cuckolded husband to lie in support of her lover's lie. Rupert Everett is so perfectly cast as the feckless and ne'er-do-well- but-charming son of A Lord (wonderfully played by John Neville)that it almost seems as though the part were written for him. Tom Wilkenson plays the influential barrister who allows himself to be disrespected and depressed but never quite disgraced enough by the private humiliation to show his embarrassment in public. To say that this is a balancing act for an actor of titanic proportions is an understatement. But, after all, this is Tom Wilkinson, one of the greatest living actors on the planet and he pulls it off with grace and aplomb.
So, why just 4/10 for this drawing room drama? it buckles under the weight of its own clichés and the script fails to compensate with any type of droll wit, just bitter irony -and not enough of that. For a glimpse of how this should be done, see the marvelous 1950 adaptation of J. B. Priestly's An Inspector Calls starring Alistair Sim or the film adaptation Terrence Rattigan's Separate Tables. Both interject their characters with enough self-effacing and ironic droll wit that the tawdry situations seem fresh and new. Here they are simply tawdry clichés. This is especially true of Wilkinson's obligatory affair with office-mate Hermoine Norris who welcomes the boss into her bed and still supports him after he unceremoniously dumps her. The obligatory rants against the gentry's disregard for the working class by the Police Detective (the always-excellent David Harewood) to the servant just adds to the viewer's shrugs of "Again?"
I'd pay good money on the West End to see Wilkinson, Watson, Everett, Harewood, and Bassett read the phone book. The trouble is that I think they would be able to improvise more interest, originality, and droll lines from the phone book than from this script. Ultimately, I found this a disappointing deployment of a half dozen amazing performances.
In summary, if you wish to see Separate Lies as a canvas for excellent British acting to study and hone your own techniques, it is well worth renting. If you watch this as entertainment, you will find yourself looking at your watch and ultimately be disappointed.