Mid-Day Mini ~ Ironweed

The Facts:

Synopsis: A schizophrenic drifter spends Halloween in his home town after returning there for the first time in decades.

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Waits, Carroll Baker

Director: Hector Babenco

Rated: R

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:   The pairing of Nicholson and Streep worked so well in 1986’s Heartburn that the two were teamed up again the very next year in this adaptation of a novel by William Kennedy.  Set in depression-era New York, the movie is a somber look at the lives of a rag-tag group of bums and drunks around Halloween as they deal with the ghostly shadows of their unfulfilled lives.

In roles that seem tailor-made for them (perhaps a tad too tailor-made), Streep and Nicholson go for the jugular and earned Oscar nominations for their effort.  She’s a failed singer on her last legs, leaning perhaps a bit unwisely on the shoulder of Nicholson’s ex baseball player.  Now he digs ditches and occasionally visits his abandoned wife and family who want nothing to do with him.  They hang out in shanties, drink, gossip, argue, and care for one another the only way they know how.

It’s a bleak film given dignity by the performances (including Waits, Nathan Lane, Fred Gwynne, and especially Baker as Nicholson’s wife), script (by author Kennedy), and direction from Babenco who found similar light in dark pieces like Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Pixote.  By the end of the film you’ll be as haunted by these characters as they are by the dreams of their lives that might have been.

Down From the Shelf ~ How to Survive a Plague

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long

Director: David France

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This passionate documentary about how the AIDS crisis gave birth to a new form of activism isn’t the first film about the impact that HIV has had on our world to garner Oscar attention but it’s a strong addition to the historical record of how a disease labeled ‘Gay Cancer’ became a global issue that hit close to home for nearly everyone.

Using invaluable video records, documentarian David France brings the audience into the world of the early responders who demanded more information from a government that didn’t respond as fast or as well as they should.  From local politicians all the way up through the highest level of government, the call to action wasn’t heard until many people had died.

Two activist groups were front and center during these years and where the film really fires on all cylinders is charting the coming together of like-minded individuals and the eventual fracture that happened amongst them thanks to in-fighting and differences of approach taken to get the message out.  Both sides are impassioned in seeking answers and neither are wrong…the strength of the film lies in its middle of the road approach that lets the audience decide for themselves where they would figure into the mix.

As is typical of documentaries that deal with illness, many of the faces that we meet during the course of the film are no longer with us but they live on in the archive footage of their speeches at memorials, rallies, and backyard parties.  These men and women were ready to shout and scream until someone heard our cries for help.

Activism about the AIDS crisis continues even today and the film feels very current in its information – a new generation has grown up knowing what AIDS is and its effects on families and loved ones.  While the dark days of no information may be behind us, there’s still more work to do until a cure is found…and it’s inspiring to know that so many people fought so hard to educate the public.

A film with many moving moments, How to Survive a Plague gets to the heart of the matter early on and is perhaps just a little longer than it has to be.  Length is of little concern though since the subjects are so frustrating yet watchable.

Movie Review ~ The Master

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.

Movie Review – 2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

While I would have also liked to have seen the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts and Live Action Shorts, I decided instead to focus on the Documentary Shorts.  I’m a huge documentary fan (any suggestions on your favorites?) and seem to gravitate toward these first if my Oscar viewing gets down to the wire.

Showing 4 of the 5 nominees (one wasn’t available due to licensing issues), this was 130 minutes of good viewing entertainment.  Some will be shown on HBO in March and April or you can see them all now OnDemand or via iTunes.

Here are my capsule reviews…in the order they were shown.

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Incident in New Baghdad

I must admit, I’ve about had all I can with movies/documentaries/news reports on the war in Iraq.  Yes, there are important stories to tell and we must never forget those that fought and are fighting for our country.  I just am finding the constant retelling of the same variation of story to be exhausting to watch.  Last year three of the five nominees were on the topic of the war and this year we only have one entry.

This is a story of a returning war vet with PTSD that is thrust back into his memories when a video is released via WikiLeaks that exposed an incident the army would have liked to keep under wraps.  Were the rules of engagement followed?  The film isn’t long enough to really dig deep into these issues and it wisely focuses on the man and not on uncovering new truths.  The shortest of the nominees, it was also the least memorable when all was said and done.

Saving Face

Soon to be broadcast on HBO, Saving Face tunes its lens on Pakistan and the women who have been horribly disfigured when acid has been thrown in their faces.  We follow two women as they recount how they came to be the victims of these deplorable crimes, the doctor who has come back to his hometown to help them, and the politicians that are fighting to pass a law ensuring that the persons responsible for these crimes are punished to the full extent of the law.

Far less gruesome than it sounds (the previous film, Incident in New Baghdad has some nearly gag inducing photos of carnage in war), the film is ultimately uplifting when focused on the courage and pride of these women.  The plastic surgeon storyline drops off for a bit but comes back in a big way by the end to cap off an inspiring journey.

The Tsunami and The Cherry Blossom

No big budgeted special effects summer blockbuster could ever duplicate the opening shot that stretches on in this nominee.  Helpless residents watch in horror as their town is literally washed away in front of their eyes by the massive waters raised by the 2011 hurricane and subsequent Tsunami that ravaged Japan’s coast. It’s a gut-wrenching few minutes watching houses, debris, and people being taken away in an instant.

The focus soon moves from destruction to rebirth of the town and rebirth of the cherry blossoms that play such an important role in Japanese culture.  Attempts to link the mythology of the popular blossom to the lives of the people affected by the disaster never feel forced or false. Told through the faces and voices of the Japanese people and fully subtitled, this doc felt the most well produced and complete.  A narrative is established that I responded to making the longest of the docs feel the shortest to me, there were great interviews and it was well made.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

The most light-hearted of the group of documentary shorts, though I’d bet that God Is the Bigger Elvis would have been equally as genial (the fifth nominee wasn’t shown due to licensing issues…it too is coming to HBO in April).  I enjoyed this short and sweet look at the life of Mr. Armstrong, a Birmingham barber that was a ‘foot soldier’ in the civil rights movement.  With the inauguration of our country’s first black president, Mr. Armstrong mediates on the changes he’s seen over the years.  His two boys were the first to be integrated in the Birmingham school district and he was a part of the Bloody Sunday march.

Through historical footage we get a brief history lesson of the times the town has seen.  While it could have been a bit more in depth with a goldmine topic and central character, it’s easy to see why this was a selection that made the short list of the Academy.