October 29, 2013

Movie Review: Captain Phillips *****

Tom Hanks will assuredly receive an Academy Award nomination for his role of the title character, and deservedly so. And so will the guy who plays the captain of the pirates. Man, that guy was authentically frightening.
I saw Captain Phillips right on the heels of Gravity, and I needed anti-anxiety meds when it was over.
Even though I knew what was going to happen (it's a true story, in case you, somehow, don't know this) my heart was pounding from the moment Captain Phillips spies the pirate boats advancing quickly toward the ship, and that's the very beginning of the film. You think, how can these little boats and these skinny, little guys be a danger to this gigantic (but unarmed) ship and crew? As soon as you see them up close, see their eyes, and witness their determination and fearlessness, you know.
Every performance feels real. The emotion of this terrifying real-life incident is raw and relateable, and you can't help but get caught up in it. Your breathing will quicken, your heart will palpitate, you will feel like you're there.
There's a particular scene late in the film when Hanks' character is at the end of this harrowing experience, when his emotion and relief come to a boiling point, and this is the scene that will win him his nomination. Not that it's the only reason - his entire performance is flawless - but this scene is haunting. You'll see what I mean. If you haven't already, go see this film.
Five out of five stars for Captain Phillips.

October 20, 2013

Movie Review: Gravity ****1/2

Gravity is not just a film, it's an experience. I watched with a hand to my mouth for most of the film, and while it's not exactly believable it's not unbelievable either. But it doesn't matter either way, it's a story that will grab you.
Gravity is a survival story, a story about fighting against dire circumstances, and how one finds the resources to endure. The characters are likable and vulnerable, and Clooney and Bullock play their roles with charm and magnetism. It's hard to extract Sandra Bullock from any character she plays - her personality is always front and center for me - but still I was caught up in her struggle and emotion. She delivered in this roll where there are long moments where she's all you see.
Even though I'm not a big fan of 3D that's what was playing when I wanted to go, but you'll get the full effect either way. The only thing you'll miss if you don't see it in 3D is flying space debris (there's one time, in particular, where the entire audience ducks), but the effects and the beauty of it will amaze either way.
Four and a half stars out of five for Gravity.

October 13, 2013

Movie Review: Enough Said ****

It's impossible to watch James Gandolfini in a romantic comedy as the big, huggable, vulnerable guy with the broken heart, and not feel sad that he died before his time. I could be wrong but I imagine that's what he was like in real life.
Albert (Gandolfini) and Eva (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) meet at a party and while it's not exactly love at first sight they delight in making each other laugh. Gandolfini and Louis-Deryfus play off of each other well as this unlikely couple, although Gandolfini is the stronger actor here. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is a really strong comic actor, is endearing in this film when she's not staring off into space trying to appear emotional. At times she was relaxed and real and other times her performance felt forced. Not that it's bad, but it's uneven.
It's a sweet film to watch and I would have given it five stars if I'd had an easier time buying the premise that Eva's new client (Catherine Keener) turns out to be Albert's ex-wife (a poet, of all things, and a seemingly successful one at that, which I believe is an oxymoron), and Eva doesn't know it until halfway through the movie. I have a hard time believing the woman never used his name when that's all she talked, and bitched, about. Might have worked better if his name were Bob or Jim, and she could use the name without raising any red flags.
Regardless, it's an enjoyable film and a pleasure to watch them both and the ending is perfect. Too bad his
ending was so soon.
Four out of five stars for Enough Said.

October 11, 2013

Movie Review: The Immigrant *

Can you see the organist on the left there?
The Chicago International Film Festival opened last night at The Chicago Theatre. When we walked in there was a giant pipe organ on the stage and an organist playing things like "That's Entertainment" and movie theme songs. Very cool.
My BFF Bill Kurtis was the emcee for the night (if you don't remember when he had me over to his house for dinner click here).

My BFF Bill Kurtis
I digress.
It was a lovely venue for this event and there was a fitting tribute to Roger Ebert who, if you live on Pluto, died this year. His wife Chaz Bono...oops, I mean Ebert...spoke about her husband in a way that had the woman next to me rummaging in her bag for tissue. Oddly, even though it was very touching, I remained dry-eyed.
Then, director James Gray spoke and he was very funny and charming as he introduced his film The Immigrant to open the festival. If only his movie had been half as charming. It was the most interminable two hours I've spent since We're The Millers.
One thing I learned about the legendary Chicago Theatre is that it's not a good place to watch a bad movie. The rows are so close that you can barely cross your legs, let alone excuse yourself to get past people to get the hell out of there, so I had to sit through the entire thing. Oh. My. God.
It should be called The Immigrant Arrives On Groundhog Day because the same thing happens over and over and over again. The exquisitely beautiful Marie Cotillard is the immigrant Eva who arrives at Ellis Island with her less beautiful sister but the sister has to go into quarantine because she's ill and so Eva spends the rest of the film saying, "I have to do it to save my sister."
She hooks up (no pun intended) with Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who runs a local theater and who falls in love with her but doesn't mind pimping her out and then being remorseful. So she runs away from him, but then the authorities find her and she's going to be deported and Joaquin saves her and then she tries something else and the authorities find her and she's going to be deported and...well, that's the story. People are always finding her. What? Was she implanted with a GPS tracking device at Ellis Island?
This film tries so hard to be a period piece that it's almost a parody of one. It's beautiful to look at but the music and the burlesque shows are cartoonish. People are always chasing each other like Keystone Cops, trying to create tension that simply doesn't exist.
I didn't care about any of these characters, not even Ivan (Jeremy Renner), another love interest (because of course everyone was always falling in love with the beautiful and sullen Eva). I was just hoping someone important would die so the damn thing would end.
One out of five stars for The Immigrant.

October 6, 2013

Writing Lessons from Breaking Bad

As a writer I study everything I read and everything I watch. Not consciously. Well, sometimes consciously, but whether I'm aware of it or not, everything informs my own writing. When something's really stunning (like Gravity, which I saw today...review to come) I analyze the story arc and the characters. What makes it so good? When was I bored (I wasn't, during Gravity) and why? What turns me off? What makes me cry? What makes me laugh? When am I confused and is that good or bad?
Breaking Bad is a great vehicle for a writer to study. It's deservedly wildly successful, and there's a reason. It has all the essential elements; great writing, stellar acting, amazing direction, humor, the element of surprise...and the list goes on. And it does it all in spades.
To me it's a lesson in how to draw people in to a story they wouldn't ordinarily watch. I mean, who wants to learn more about drug dealers and guys who cook meth for a living? But you do, because the characters are unique and ordinary, interesting and vulnerable. And there's the dramatic element: want, obstacle, action, over and over again, keeping us riveted.
I came late to the game, I'm on season four (thanks, Netflix) and I'm a huge fan.
If you don't believe me, read the article below. It'll have you signing up for Netflix in a nanosecond.

Top 5 reasons BREAKING BAD was insanely good BY 

The usual reasons don’t cut it. BREAKING BAD wasn’t great because of brilliant cinematography, writing and acting, though Bryan Cranston deserves an Oscar or three instead of an Emmy. It wasn’t great because of the gritty subject matter. In fact, it was successful in spite of the topic of meth dealers, which made many people not even give the show a chance. Let’s dive deep, and dig hard, into what really made this show so different and so flipping good. 

 5) A complete story In the normal world, 99.9 percent of TV shows cling to life from week to week. The creators and actors are happy if the pilot gets funded and made, then nibble on a diet of fingernails to see if a network picks up the first season. Then they live in fear of not getting a second season. If they get a second season, they stay up all night worrying about some network executive moving their show to a night and time that guarantees doom, or keeping their show in the same slot only to have it slayed in the rating by some hot new thing from CBS or HBO. Successful shows have different problems. Lead actors who were nobodies can suddenly do no wrong and start demanding the GDP of Spain per episode, or bail from the silly little show that turned them into a star to make a go at movies. The ending of a series is often sudden. There’s no time to wrap up the series with a true finale. Even when a series has time for a planned ending, you often get something muddled and maudlin, like a retrospective. Or the writers do something artistic and ambiguous (SOPRANOS facepalm) or go all the way and pull a LOST, causing us to curse their names for eternity.
Read the rest of the article