Sunday, January 26, 2014


Rush (2013)
Biography, Drama, Sports, 123 minutes
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Daniel Brühl, Chris Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara

I remember the marketing campaign for Rush, which claimed it was unmissable and full of thrills. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, it's definitely not as advertised.

It's actually better, but in a different way.

The movie performed badly at the US box office, making just $27 million. Formula One racing isn't very popular in North America, so it's not hard to see why audiences weren't anxious to see the movie in theaters.

The story focuses on the 1976 Formula One championship, which came down to a battle between two men:

James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was an English playboy more interested in pursuing the lifestyle of a superstar than devoting his life to his career. We see him drinking, smoking, and chasing beautiful women. He's carefree, controversial and irresponsible. In contrast, Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) will do anything to succeed. He takes care of his health, goes to bed early, and seemingly has more knowledge of how to get the best out of his car than his mechanics and the team owners.

An early scene shows how Hunt and Lauda first raced together in the lower Formula Three class. Lauda is forced off the track by Hunt and takes an instant dislike to him. Over a period of six or seven years, the rivalry intensifies. Success in Formula One racing depends on the competitiveness of the car as much as the ability of the driver. Lauda negotiates a deal to drive for one of the best teams, Ferrari. Hunt resorts to begging for a position with any team that will give him a car good enough to compete. He eventually signs with Hesketh.

You might think that a movie about car racing would be full of action, but director Ron Howard spends more time off the track than on it. He develops the plot by showing us the contrast between Hunt and Lauda. As well as character differences, they came from very different backgrounds. Hunt's family was rich and prepared to buy him a place on a team, but Lauda was disowned by his father after choosing racing over a more traditional career. We see Lauda succeeding on his own merit rather than being handed anything. While Hunt pursues any attractive woman who will spend the night with him, Lauda chooses a supportive woman who ended up being married to him until 1991.

Formula One racing is a glamorous sport. In 2013, two drivers earned $27 million in salary alone. Sponsorship deals would vastly increase that sum. If you have ever watched a race, you'll have seen the celebrities in attendance, as well as a horde of beautiful women. The movie speculates that women like racing drivers because they are so close to death, and that makes them more alive than other men. It also helps that they are incredibly rich. An early voice-over informs us that of the 25 drivers in Formula One, two will probably die by the end of the season. Although that was true at the time, safety has improved enormously since the 1970s.

Will the movie work for you if you know nothing about Formula One? I grew up following the sport and still watch every race today. I have no interest in any other type of car racing. It's hard for me to imagine watching the movie without the knowledge I have gained over a lifetime, but I would think that the story has plenty to offer those who know nothing about the sport. It should work if you enjoy character studies. As for the acting, many think that Brühl should have received an Oscar nomination, while I have never seen Hemsworth deliver a better performance. The story is interesting and quite gripping. It felt as if only an hour had passed by the time that the credits rolled.

Writer Peter Morgan has given us some great stories set in the 1970s. He teamed up with Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon, which received international acclaim, while Tom Hooper's The Damned United does an excellent job of portraying English soccer.

If you are curious about seeing the film for the racing sequences, you might be disappointed. I would estimate that around 30 minutes is devoted to the actual races. Those sequences are done very well, and really give you an idea of what it might be like to drive a Formula One car. Howard also shows the dangers involved, and how a serious accident can occur in a split second. But there is a lot more to this movie than action sequences.

The Blu-ray delivers a spectacular presentation. Colors are vibrant, features are clear, and the audio is excellent when it needs to be. With ten deleted scenes and just over an hour of special features in total, the package offers plenty of insight into the making of the movie and Formula One in general.

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, some disturbing images and brief drug use.

Overall score 4/5

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (Blu-ray Review)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Drama, 105 minutes
Dorected by Robert Benton
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry

We live in a world in which people watch movies to be thrilled and excited. It's difficult enough to pry someone away from their cell phone, tablet or PC for long enough to watch an entire movie. In order to cater to this trend, Hollywood has largely moved away from emotional dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer, replacing them with CGI-loaded blockbusters. If this movie had been made in 2014, there's an 87 percent chance that Ted would be a shape-shifting vampire with telekinetic powers.

That's a huge shame.

I watch my fair share of action, science fiction, and adventure movies, but most of my favorites are serious dramas. I like being made to feel something other than amazement at the visuals. Kramer vs. Kramer won five Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Watching the film in 2014, those awards still seem thoroughly deserved.

This is a great story because it's so real and believable. It opens with a scene in which Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is given a major promotion at work. He's thrilled at his success and eventually makes his way home to deliver the news to wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep). Unfortunately, Joanna is just finishing the task of packing her bags, and announces that she is leaving him. Ted can't believe her poor timing, but it's clear to us that work is his main priority.

The mood changes as the reality of Ted's situation sets in. Most of the events are told from his perspective, so it's easy to empathize with his problems. His boss wants him to be available 24/7, but that's impossible if you are responsible for an 8-year-old child. Ted has relied on Joanna to take care of his son, Billy (Justin Henry), and despite his false optimism, Ted has little idea of what is involved. This is apparent when we see Ted making French toast with Billy the morning after Joanna leaves. He doesn't even know what grade his son is in at school.

The charm and beauty of the story is that Ted does everything in his power to learn, improve, and be a good father. His work inevitably suffers, but Billy is happier. Ted's neighbor (Jean Alexander) was more of a friend to Joanna than to Ted, but she sees that he has changed. She's also separated herself, and she regularly hangs out with Ted while their kids play together.

As the title would suggest, there is a court case. Some 18 months after Ted has adapted his life to Billy's needs, Joanna reappears and says that she wants custody of Billy. You have to remember that the movie was made in 1979, and it was highly unusual for a court to rule in favor of a father over a mother. Ted loves his son and thinks that he has earned the right to raise him.

One thing that strikes me is the truthfulness present throughout the whole story. Instead of tearing each other apart inside and outside the courtroom, Ted and Joanna seem to respect one another. They genuinely want what is best for Billy. Neither of the parents are cast as villains, and the film is all the better for it. What we see is a family rationally coming to terms with the problems presented by a divorce. There's no sensationalism or anything written purely for effect.

Many of the scenes were improvised by the actors, especially when Billy was involved. Hoffman was about to be divorced in his real life at the time, and I'm sure he accessed some of those emotions. The result is a brilliant performance, and Streep was effective in her more limited time on the screen. I am not a parent, but I was thoroughly engrossed in Ted's life for 105 minutes.

The Blu-ray offers a pleasing upgrade and comes with just one special feature, Finding the Truth. However, this documentary does run for around 50 minutes and contains plenty of interesting information if you are a fan of the movie. The first cut of the film was 43 minutes longer, and it would be nice to see some of the scenes that were removed, but the story is tight and tense in its final form. This is why I own older movies and continually explore films I initially missed.

There is brief nudity, but it's quite humorous, and not a reason to prevent children from seeing the movie. 

Overall score 4.5/5

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (Theatrical Review)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Biography, Comedy, Crime, 179 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie

Martin Scorsese's last movie was the family-friendly Hugo, so I guess he felt the need to make something a little more controversial this time around. The Wolf of Wall Street is bold, loud, and a totally wild ride for three hours. There are more than 500 F-bombs, sex, plenty of nudity, drugs everywhere, and even a little violence.

Like Goodfellas, the movie uses voice-overs to give the audience an insight into how the characters think. We learn that Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) made $49 million when he was 26-years-old, but he's annoyed that it was $3 million short of a million per week. The story is non-linear, so we can also see how Belfort started in the business as a stockbroker, and the events that led to him owning his own company.

Belfort's initial job is terminated, and for a short while he's desperate for work. But then he takes a chance on a small local firm which claims to be in the same business as his previous company. When he arrives, the employees are sitting around in jeans. There are no computers of any kind. The stocks being traded are only worth a few cents, but the rate of commission is 50 percent. In a very convincing scene, Belfort's character makes a $4,000 sale, earning him $2,000 on the spot. The other employees can't believe what they are seeing.

This initial success enables Belfort to buy a fancy car and he attracts the attention of his neighbor, Donnie (Jonah Hill). After learning that Belfort made $72,000 the previous month, Donnie begs him for a job and quits his own immediately. Belfort is gifted at sales and convincing people to do things his way, He hires a collection of apparent losers, writes sales scripts, and teaches them how to sell. These scenes are very funny, and the whole venture succeeds brilliantly. Belfort is beginning to think anything is possible.

The movie will appeal to a large number of people because Belfort essentially has the life that others dream about. He does and says what he wants, marries a beautiful woman, lives in a huge house, and buys just about anything his heart desires. He speculates to his employees that we all want such wealth, and let's face it, the vast majority of people dream of that kind of life.

Some of the dialogue is excellent. For instance, one scene shows Belfort taking advice on dwarf tossing. He has a perfectly serious conversation about the legality of the idea, and wants to know the extent of his liabilities. Because it's serious, it's funny. One of the biggest laughs comes when we see a scene from Belfort's perspective and later learn the truth about what really happened. If you see the movie, you'll know which one I am talking about. The heavy drug use does cast some doubts about the accuracy of what we are seeing as it's mostly from Belfort's perspective.

In rather predictable fashion, these largely illegal practices eventually catch up with him. However, I won't spoil the outcome by talking about how he deals with his problems.

DiCaprio is outrageous for much of the movie. At times I thought I was watching Jack Nicholson around 40 years ago. If you recall Nicholson's performances in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or The Shining, the manic quality is similar to DiCaprio's turn as Belfort. If you aren't squeamish about nudity and bad language, The Wolf of Wall Street is a lot of fun. It felt as if 90 minutes had gone by when the credits rolled, but it was three hours. I can imagine watching this one over and over.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County (Theatrical Review)

August: Osage County (2013)
Drama, 121 minutes
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard and Benedict Cumberbatch

I was surprised to find my local theater almost full for today's viewing of August: Osage County. I had assumed that with the movie being in the second week of its run, and the NFL Championship games on TV, I would have the place to myself. That says a lot about the appeal of Meryl Streep, who is probably the best actor we will ever see. The first thing I noticed was that there was a lot of grey hair present in the audience, and I briefly enjoyed the fact that most audience members were older than me for once.

Despite being listed as a drama, the movie produced plenty of laughs. However, most were in sympathy or shock at the darkness of the subject matter. The laughs came because the movie so keenly observes how dysfunctional families can be. The Weston family takes that theme to the extreme and cannot boast a single member that comes close to what we would consider normal.

If you have seen Eraserhead and remember the scene where Henry Spencer meets his girlfriend's family, you might begin to approach how uncomfortable the atmosphere in the Weston household can be. The opening scene introduces us to Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), who writes poetry when his alcoholism allows. We quickly realize why he feels the need to escape reality when we meet his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). She's almost permanently high on a cocktail of pills, and has the appearance of a zombie in these opening shots. Her husband decides to leave in the first few minutes of the story, and we eventually learn that he has committed suicide. This sets off an incredible chain of events as family members start showing up to offer their condolences and attend the funeral.

The movie was adapted from a play, and it feels like it throughout the two-hour running time. This is a story which only uses two or three settings, and most of the time we are in the Weston's home. The acting on display is terrific across the board. As much as I admired Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Streep's performance was better. I highly doubt that she'll beat Blanchett on Oscar night because of the nature of the story, but the performance is the best I have seen all year. Despite Streep's towering performance, her supporting cast had a lot to contribute. Julia Roberts deserved her Supporting Actress nod, but I would have to say that every character was portrayed well.

Some of the confrontations in this movie are powerful and memorable. Streep's showdown with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt came to mind a few times as some of the arguments in August: Osage County sizzled and boiled over. One of my favorite scenes involves Chris Cooper saying grace, and in a way it's a microcosm of the entire movie. There are also a couple of major surprises along the way, and I certainly won't reveal them here, but if you're a fan of dialogue and the portrayal of human interaction, you'll admire this movie. That doesn't necessarily mean you will want to see it repeatedly and add it to your home movie collection, but it's worth seeing at least once.

The reason I think it will be ignored at the Oscars is Streep's previous track record and the fact that this story is so unsettling and ugly to experience. That said, the acting took my breath away at times, and I enjoyed seeing the story unfold. I loved listening to Streep, Roberts, Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson deliver their lines. I wouldn't consider the movie a fun watch, despite the dark humor, but it does a lot of things extremely well. Like Lincoln, this is one you'll grab from the shelf when you are starving for intelligent dialogue and masterful acting, rather than the sheer pleasure of some movie plots. You'll might well be reminded of chaotic conversations you've had with your own friends or family.

I'll always be amazed at how Meryl Streep seems to become the person she is playing on the screen. It's different every time.

Overall score 4/5

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Her (Theatrical review)

Her (2013)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 126 minutes
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt

Her is a very unusual movie with some interesting observations about the way in which people are becoming more reliant on technology. It's set in Los Angeles in the not too distant future, and tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Phoenix). He works as a writer, producing flowery love letters for people who who lack the ability to express their feelings. He's good at his job.

Unfortunately, Theodore's own relationship is failing and he is soon to be divorced from his wife, Catherine (Mara). When he buys a new computer operating system, his life changes dramatically. The program adapts to his personality and needs, and evolves at a tremendous rate. This screen persona names 'herself' Samantha, and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

To his surprise and delight, Theodore finds that he is able to connect with Samantha in ways that he never could with a physical person. Communication is everything in his relationship, and he finds it easy to express his deepest thoughts and feelings to Samantha. At the outset, it's probably a form of self-analysis, but as the relationship develops, it's clear that Samantha is real to Theodore.

I think modern technology is under the microscope in this movie, and director Spike Jonze is observing how so many people are open to sharing their feelings on the Internet. It seems that many of us are less guarded and willing to risk revealing our secrets when we don't have to do it face-to-face. That's certainly true for me. The movie also deals with the irony of Theodore's success in writing about other people's feelings while struggling to communicate in his own personal life.

Theodore's best friend, Amy (Adams), is the only real person he feels comfortable talking with about the things that really matter in life. These are the kind of friends who are there for each other when they are most needed, no matter how hard it is to listen.

I don't want to spoil any of the surprises, so I'll stop talking about the plot. The story is intelligent and thoughtful in its observations, and Phoenix is exceptional as Theodore. If you're used to seeing him cast as a villain, you might find his performance refreshing. He's vulnerable and rather likable, and it's easy to empathize with the things he experiences. Despite being nominated for Best Picture, Her won't win any awards. But I'm not sure that I've seen a better acting performance all year. Phoenix has to show considerable range in the role, and does it without ever seeming as if he is acting. Amy Adams plays one of the lovable characters that we see in most of her movies, and she's perfectly cast. I could imagine myself spending the rest of my life talking to her character.

The movie raises plenty of questions about modern society. What constitutes a real relationship? Is physical contact essential? Can we exist without technology?

I found myself thinking of the Ender's Game sequels (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind) for much of the story. If you have read them, you'll know that Ender's most trusted friend was a computer program that he accessed through a jewel in his ear. His friend Jane is not too dissimilar to Samantha. I urge you to read the whole series if you enjoyed the Ender's Game movie.

As the movie ended, the audience quickly filed out, and people began accessing their cell phones. As for me, I rushed home to share my thoughts with you. We live in the virtual world far more than some of us are willing to admit.

If you like original ideas, good acting, and thoughtful stories, go and see Her. If you need a fast-paced story with plenty of action, give this one a miss.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The 10 movie characters I am most attracted to

Defining Beauty

I'm sure you have seen people list their top 10, 50, or 100 hottest actors or actresses in all kinds of places on the Internet. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, a forum, or perhaps on their own blog. You'll also encounter it in popular magazines. We've all made lists like that, although many just exist in our heads. Well, I'm going to attempt to name my 10 favorites here.

We all measure beauty in different ways, and there are many different kinds of beauty in the world. However, most of these Top 10s are really lists of people we would like to have sex with, aren't they? I can't possibly make a list like that, because physical attractiveness is way down on my list of priorities when it comes to measuring beauty. I care about people's personalities, whether they are kind, ethical, honest, or good people. I am not attracted to physical beauties who lack intelligence, empathy, or kindness.

That means I can't make a list of 10 actresses based on looks. I have never met these women. I have no idea what they are really like, or whether I could spend more than five minutes in a room with them. We rarely see them in a real situation because they are always acting out a role, whether on the screen or at an awards show.

So what I am going to do is list the 10 characters that I find most attractive. None of them actually exist, so the list is pretty meaningless, but it will give you an insight into the way that I think.

I think I just lost 30 readers.

As Ebert taught us, I'll list them in alphabetical order rather than by preference. I'm also only allowing one character per actress, just for variety. Here goes:

Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga)

It's hard to describe why I like Vera Farmiga. I do love Up in the Air and I have chosen Alex because she's intelligent, and seems to be a lot of fun. She's also fiercely independent and an adulterer. The latter would usually be a huge negative for me, but I'm seeing her through the eyes of Ryan Bingham when I watch the movie.

Alex seems like the sort of woman who would try anything once, and she wouldn't need three hours to apply makeup before she would consider leaving the house. Yep, she's very appealing.

Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt)

One of my friends has figured out that I am attracted to vulnerable women, and in a way she is right. I find myself wanting to save them and fix everything that is wrong with their lives.

Carol is a single mother who works as a waitress to support her sick little boy. As Good as It Gets is an unconventional film. It's hard to imagine her making the choices she finally makes, but she seems pretty special. As Jack Nicholson's character said, she made him want to be a better man.

Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson)

Talking of vulnerability, Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) is dying and in need of a heart transplant. In Seven Pounds, she faces her likely death with enormous grace, demanding nothing and refusing to feel too sorry for herself.

Dawson's performance opposite Will Smith is wonderful and touching. Here's a woman who deserves to live so that she can pursue her modest dreams. She does receive unconditional love from her dog, but she deserves to have a full life.

Henriette Roi (Marie-Josée Croze)

Henriette works in a hospital and she's given the task of helping a stroke victim find a way to communicate with the world. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an extraordinary story and Henriette's compassion and commitment is a vital component. 

Of course, if I really lived with a woman like that, she would probably work ridiculous hours and I wouldn't see her very often. I'm still attracted to her character though.

Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

I would have to suddenly be 20 again, but my younger self would definitely be attracted to Hermione. She's loyal, intelligent, and an incredibly good person. Oh, there's a maniac trying to kill her, so I could save her too.

Emma Watson has to be the best find from the Harry Potter series. I'm extremely impressed with what she has achieved so far.

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page)

I'm still 20 and I'm attracted to Juno MacGuff. She's in trouble in the worst way, but has a good support system that I would want to be a part of. She's funny, intelligent, and weird in a great way. I would have to continue her musical education and convert her to Sonic Youth, but she has potential.

Seriously, I would love it if Jason Reitman chooses to make a sequel so we can see what happens to Juno.

Mathilde Donnay (Audrey Tautou)

It is hard to choose just one of Audrey Tautou's characters because most are easy to like. 

In A Very Long Engagement, Mathilde suffers from polio and the love of her life is missing and presumed dead. However, she never gives up hope, and follows one lead after another. The story is a great quirky romance and my heart would melt if someone went to such incredible lengths to find out what happened to me. I fall in love with her every time I watch the movie.

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams)

Amy Adams is another actress who plays characters that are easy to like or even love.

I chose Rose because of her vulnerability. In Sunshine Cleaning, she's made some bad choices in the past, but we can all see that she has so much to offer the right man. She's intelligent and tough, and has the help of her father and sister as she tries to raise her little boy. I always find myself wanting to rescue Rose.

Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence)

By her own admission, Tiffany used to be a slut. She's also widowed and a little bit crazy. I love her in Silver Linings Playbook because the movie comes alive the moment she enters the story. She takes on a man who has mental issues of his own and tries to make their relationship work. 

I love Tiffany for her honesty and willingness to own up to her mistakes. Communication is vital in any relationship, and if you're honest with Tiffany, you might get something wonderful in return.

Valentine Dussaut (Irene Jacob)

I said that I wouldn't rank the characters from 1 to 10, but I have to admit that Valentine is my dream movie character. She's beautiful, innocent, trusting, and radiates goodness with every part of her being. 

In Three Colors Red, Valentine shows compassion for an apparently unlovable old man and gives him a reason to live. Irene Jacob is so convincing in the role, and as Veronique in The Double Life of Veronique. I wonder if she posesses some or all of those qualities in reality?

So, there you have it. You'll notice that some of the more obvious names are not among the 10 I chose. I am not at all attracted to women such as Angelina Jolie, who actually makes my skin crawl most of the time. Life would probably be a lot easier if I thought like most other people, but it's not who I am.

What would your own list look like? What type of characters are attractive to you? Does the presence of such people make or break a movie for you? What movies were ruined for you because the wrong casting choice was made?