Movie Review ~ Mr. Turner

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life.

Stars: Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, Martin Savage, Lesley Manville, Karl Johnson, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson,Marion Bailey, Sandy Foster, Amy Dawson, Richard Bremmer

Director: Mike Leigh

Rated: R

Running Length: 150 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: The more movies I see I realize that I’m developing a real shine to the “Watch Me” kind of film experience. What I mean by that is that I much prefer a director to have some faith in the audience and allow us to be taken in not by telegraphed scenes that are necessarily easy to discern meaning from but by plots/characters/moments that require a little extra attention to be paid. As opposed to the “Show Me” kind of style, the “Watch Me” director has faith in the material and, though it may cater to a specific crowd, it’s not always made for a ridged target audience.

That being said, let me start off my review of Mr. Turner by saying that the thing I like most about director Mike Leigh is that he’s not a “Show Me” kind of director. Leigh has historically given his work a lot of slack, allowing them to mosey forth instead of speed ahead. Let me also say that Mr. Turner is very worthy of its four Oscar nominations for Dick Pope’s Cinematography, the Production Design from Suzie Davies & Charlotte Watts, Jacqueline’s Durran’s Costume Design, and Gary Yershon’s Original Score. All artistically sound and playing perfectly into the historic drama based on the life of artist J.M.W. Turner.

But good heavens, the film is tedious. The old saying about watching paint dry has never been more true (or literal) as in Mr. Turner.

Now look, I’m not one to turn my nose up at long period pieces nor would I begrudge any who would…but Leigh’s languid film surely is paced just as deliberately as the director intended but it’s a murder on the backside unless you have the benefit of taking in Mr. Turner from the comfort of your own lounge chair.

Had Leigh’s direction been less artful or Timothy Spall’s performance been conveyed with the smallest hint of artifice, this would be the stuff of tortuous college lecture halls — but coupled with the aforementioned worthy production team there’s a beauty to the proceedings, giving it quite a lot of purpose even when there’s not a lot of vested interest.

Aside from Spall, there’s splendid performances from Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s long-suffering maid and Marion Bailey as a widow that provides a bit of spark to Turner’s later years. These are the scenes that carry the movie forward, bridges between more than a few interminable passages of watch-checking.

Whatever portrait this review may have painted for Mr. Turner, make no mistake that it’s a glorious looking film…but time is of the essence and beauty, like a great painting, can only be stared at for so long.

Movie Review ~ Still Alice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s happened before…actors have been nominated for Oscars, deserved to win, and lost.  The next time they’re nominated maybe they win…but often it’s not for the movie that they really earned their Oscar gold for.  I could give examples (coughcoughRusselCroweinGladiatorareyoukiddingme?coughcough) but I’ll instead just say that though she’s been nominated for an Academy Award four times before, if Julianne Moore wins for her work in Still Alice (and she really, really should) it wouldn’t be for any other reason than her performance is worthy, moving, and delivered with a fierce honesty.

As a brilliant linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Non-Stop, Don Jon) takes us through the stages of denial and acceptance as her character fights to maintain the life she’s led and the future she so desperately wants to keep intact.  With her husband as supportive as he can be and three children to think of, Alice charts a new course to a future while it’s still within her control.

As adapted by co-writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, Still Alice doesn’t pull any punches nor is it a downer of a film.  By dealing with the illness head-on, it breaks down the walls of mystery that surround Alzheimer’s disease, allowing for the truth about its effects on families to come through.

Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine) is a bit of an odd presence here.  Though Baldwin and Moore have a generally believable rapport as married scholars that can wax on about textbooks till the sun comes up, there’s something slightly missing from Baldwin’s overall presentation of the healthy spouse gradually realizing his own limitations to fully assist his ailing wife.  Kate Bosworth (Homefront) is the oldest child trying to start a family of her own and Hunter Parrish is the son that turns up with a new girlfriend for each family occasion.  Both roles aren’t as well-defined but Parrish and especially Bosworth admirably make the most of their time onscreen to not simply be reactionary to the catalyst of the disease.

Then there’s the youngest child, played by Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) in a turn that makes you forget the Twilight movies ever happened.  Stewart isn’t a bad actress, just the unfortunate victim of hitching her wagon to an oft-reviled series of films that opened the door for numerous treacly imitations to clog movie houses.  In Still Alice, we get to see Stewart back in fine form as the rebellious child that doesn’t see a lot of herself in either of her parents…especially not her mother.

It’s Moore’s film, make no doubt about that, but her generosity is such that every other actor she comes in contact with is made to look that much better because they have such a great scene partner.  As her character begins to forget more and more, we see her frustration manifest itself in small ways that become more heartbreaking as they get increasingly personal.  The first time Moore forgets one of her children (albeit briefly) nearly sent me over the edge but it’s when she stands in front of a conference for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and states “I’m not suffering, I’m struggling” that you’ll want to have a Kleenex on standby.

It’s interesting to note that co-directors Glatzer and Westmoreland are married in real life and that Glatzer suffers from ALS.  During the making of Still Alice Glatzer’s condition got so bad that he had to direct part of the movie using a speech-to-voice app on his iPad.  Considering the couple behind the scenes making the movie may be going through something similar to what Moore and Baldwin’s characters are experiencing help to give the film a real sense of dignity and unwavering grace in the face of a degenerative illness.

Is it Moore’s year to win her Oscar?  I sure think it is and even if some have said the Best Actress category is weak this year (um, did you see the impressively varied work of the other nominees?) there’s no denying that Moore’s performance stands tall above the others.  It’s also nice to report that the film itself is quite good, a bonus when you consider how many Oscars go to strong performances in otherwise weak films (coughcoughMerylStreepinTheIronLadycoughcough).  Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to get this cough looked at.

Movie Review ~ Foxcatcher

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher lead by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul – a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

Stars: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Delayed by nearly a year when Sony Pictures Classics decided to pull its release to avoid going up against a late 2013 onslaught of award-worthy films, Foxcatcher finally arrived in 2014 and proved that SPC was right to wait and that the wait was most certainly worth it.  True crime dramas don’t get much better than this impressive examination of personal and professional obsession.

I knew next to nothing about the crime at the center of Foxcatcher’s tale and for the sake of my spoiler-free nature I’m going to assume you don’t either and will keep the various turns concealed for you to discover on your own.  In short, the film follows the late 80s relationship of Olympic wrestlers David and Mark Schultz with their eccentric sponsor John du Pont.

Driven by a desire to win and acquire a celebrated status based more in fantasy than reality, du Pont (Steve Carell, Hope Springs, capped with a putty nose from the Nicole Kidman/Virgina Woolf collection) first engages the more impressionable and equally desperate Mark (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) before bringing the more accomplished brother (Mark Ruffalo, Thanks for Sharing) into his inner sanctum.  These three men form a triangle that becomes more problematic as time goes by; brother is pitted against brother and du Pont is at the apex of it all.

Though free from the sordid feel of a tell-all crime tale, there’s a sinister edge lurking around every corner in Bennett Miller’s film.  The script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye doesn’t shy away from awkward moments that turn into real nail-biters, without ever showing their hand as to what lies in store.

In only his third film as a director, Miller has once again achieved a high bar of accomplishment.  In Capote and Moneyball he guided actors to Oscar nominations (and one win) and the same seems likely here.  Carell looked like an early front-runner for taking home Best Actor and while his performance is an austere departure from his comedic ways, the buzz seems to have faded a bit.  I personally felt Tatum was the important performance of note with the actor showing heretofore unseen depths in his work but the tide seems to be turning for Ruffalo to bag a nomination.

Creepy seems like a bit too simple of a term to put on the film but that’s exactly what it is…creepy.  That overall sense of something not being right seeps through the proceedings but doesn’t make it bottom-heavy to the point of being slushy.  It hums with the fear of what’s to come and the pot boils over at precisely the right moment, though a rather perfunctory climax lessens the impact a bit.

The strong performances would be worth a recommendation alone, but the skilled deployment of story coupled with a compelling structure make it very worthy of your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Still Alice

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Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Will this be the year that four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore finally takes home the trophy? Even turning up in the silly Non-Stop hasn’t seemed to hurt her chances at making her way to The Academy Awards come February. Between the buzzed about performances in Still Alice and Maps to the Stars (not to mention a nicely nuanced turn in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), Moore is having a killer 2014. Odds seem to be good she’ll be nominated for both films but even money says Still Alice is a lock and after a look at the trailer showing Moore as a successful woman coming to terms with her early onset Alzheimer’s it’s easy to see why. Co-starring Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine), Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), and Kate Bosworth (Homefront), it’s sure to be Moore’s show but she seems to be in good company.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mr. Turner

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Synopsis: An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life.

Release Date: December 19, 2014

Thoughts: I tend to forget how much I enjoy the work of writer/director Mike Leigh. A filmmaker interested in the unconventional life, he’s provided great roles for some of our most dependable actors over the years. From exploring the class system in Secrets & Lies to his bouncy biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s films are long but rarely feel like you’ve been seated more than a few minutes. His newest picture features the always dependable Timothy Spall (Room on the Broom) as painter J.M.W. Turner, a landscape artist known as ‘the painter of light’ during the Romantic period. Sounds like stodgy stuff but in Leigh’s hands I wouldn’t be surprised to see this lauded as one of the better pictures of the year.

Interview ~ Ira Sachs

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

Love is Strange is the new film from director Ira Sachs and it’s one that’s been getting major buzz since premiering earlier in 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival.  In the last few weeks the film’s ridiculous R rating has come into question from groups claiming the MPAA’s decision reeked of homophobia.  With no sex, nudity, violence the rating does seem, to this critic, to be another example of the secretive MPAA applying a double standard to films that may not follow their values.

No ratings or awards talk was discussed in my interview with the warm, genial Sachs early in the morning on August 12.  He was in town for a quick round of interviews and a visit to the Walker Art Center before taking to the skies spreading Love all around.

Love is Strange tells the story of New Yorkers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) who find themselves newly married then separated after George is fired from his teaching post.  Only days after their wedding their family and friends now have to come together to help figure out how to help their two friends.

 

Your previous films (Leave the Light On, Forty Shades of Blue) seem to me to be cautionary tales regarding love with some dark, rough edges.  Love is Strange, however, seems to have a more positive outlook on relationships.  Was that an intentional shift?
That is completely true and I think it’s because I’m at a different stage in my life and I have different feelings about love.  For the first time I really feel optimistic about the possibilities of love to grow and blossom…and I think that’s been hard won, for me specifically also as a gay man it’s something that generationally we had to learn was possible.  So this film comes out of at time in my life where I’ve married my partner, we’ve had two kids, we’re raising the kids with their mom who lives next door…and I can imagine this being a good thing.  That’s where the film came out of…wanting to make a romantic love story.

In a recent interview you noted that your inspiration for the film were several long term relationships in your own extended family as well as films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (critics note: which I coincidentally watched right before popping in my Love is Strange screener).  Do you find people, gay or straight, identifying with these characters?
I think a lot of people identify with the film for a number of reasons. This is a picture about a couple in a long term relationship and it was as inspired by my mother and stepfather as much as anyone else.  I think they see themselves in little moments between Ben and George, certainly.  And the similarities are almost as interesting as the differences. Ultimately, I’m a cinephile and film becomes part of my collective memory.  If you do your job right you’re taking them all in and speaking with your own voice.

What was the collaboration like with your screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias?
I think Keep the Lights On was definitely a dark film but it was a film about self-discovery.   It came out of a time in my life that was not dark…meaning when I made it I was very open.  And I think that Mauricio and I meet at that point in our lives.  We’re now finishing a third in a New York trilogy and we have a wonderful shared interest in people, and stories, and movies.  He’s the godfather of my son and we share qualities and beliefs – it’s very important in collaborations that you share human values because it makes for a much easier time together.  Not just in creative relationships but in love relationships – right?  It’s so much easier if your basic values are in line.

What I found especially interesting in the film were the supporting characters, how richly etched they were.  Each seemed to have a moment that made me want to know more, want to watch whatever movie they were entering after leaving this one.
For me, every person in the frame really does have my interest.  To the point in which there is a concert scene where you see a bunch of portraits of people you don’t ever see again…but for that moment the film values them.  As a filmmaker I try to be attentive to each individual and that’s in line with humanist tone of the film.  There isn’t a hierarchy of importance among the characters.

Living in New York, you have access to a wealth of talented actors from the stage (like Adriane Lenox, John Cullum, Harriet Harris, etc) and I know that both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have strong roots in the theater.  Was there a rehearsal process before filming began?
My background is actually theater; I was a theater director in college and high school.  When I got into film, one of the things I learned from Sydney Pollack (executive producer on Forty Shades of Blue) is that he gave me permission not to rehearse.  He didn’t tell me to do that but I began to understand that for myself I wanted the actors to be really ready, feel comfortable, confident, and well taken care of but not to know what they were going to do.  Not to pre-consider subtext, we don’t talk subtext at all because the minute you talk subtext you begin to play subtext.
So what I do is that I meet with everyone individually and spend time talking through the script.  John, Alfred, and I had dinner and a steakhouse and just talked about our lives, trying to get comfortable.  Then you get on set and a production day is you shoot one scene for eight hours…that’s enough rehearsal.  I like it all to be in the moment of shooting, and that’s the texture I’m able to get in my films through that process.

It seems in the last few years Hollywood has begun to embrace the fact that romantic leads don’t have to be hunks and starlets in their pre-30s.  That veteran actors in their 50s and 60s can tell/sell a story as rich (or richer) than their younger counterparts.  Do you notice that shift as well?
One thing I’ve noticed on the other side for example, (he speaks directly into the recorder) “Sorry John and Alfred” but you don’t get covers of magazines…because covers of magazines won’t go over 30.  I will say that this was an independent film, not financed even with this cast from Hollywood.  And now Hollywood has embraced the film because they see that there is a market for it.  But they don’t finance the film and that’s an interesting place as a filmmaker because you really have to find your way in order to keep going.

Do you have to think about that when making films now?  I mean, making films independently is great but with then having to sell the film and thinking about promotion, does all of that come into play when creating the final product?
I’m always trying to make a movie that people will connect to.  In this case, I also benefit by having wonderful actors that are also very good at comedy.  There’s an access point which is humor and that’s something we knew going into it that’s important to their roles — they really do have exquisite comic timing within a dramatic film…

…and that winds up lending the film dramatic moments that really feel sharp.  We know how John Lithgow can flip from comedy to drama but there’s a restraint on both ends of his spectrum here that winds up giving him one of the best roles of his career.
There is a restraint and that’s something John and I talked about very early on…that this would be a very different kind of Lithgow.  What we see now is that he is very good, brilliant really, at delivering a naturalistic performance.  It’s just not what he’s been asked to do previously, it’s not what Third Rock from the Sun wanted.  It’s such a different palette and yet, the skills are evident.

After the success of Keep the Lights On, was this an easier film to get made?
It was easier.  It wasn’t easy…but it was easier.  Ultimately it was 26 individuals, 23 of which were gay and lesbian.  The majority of those were retired lesbian businesswomen that connected with the film.  They saw it as the story of same-sex marriage and felt that it was also a film women would connect to and parents would connect to.  And they’ve been right…they’re businesswomen for a reason and they had a good assessment of what the film could be.

Though it’s not the main subject of the film, one event that becomes a catalyst for your characters is when George loses his longtime job as a music teacher at a parochial school when he marries his partner.  It’s a story that seems to be happening repeatedly all over the country.  George could have been fired for any number of reasons so were the particulars included as a way to highlight what’s going on?
We had read of a case in the Midwest and that seemed to be the starting point of the story but I knew it was not the story itself.  One of the things I find interesting about Ben and George is that they aren’t individuals who then fight back.  They’re not taking it to the streets or joining ACTUP; that’s not who they are.  There’s a humility to them that I think is very much about this kind of class and this kind of age that I see in a city like New York.  They’re average people.  They’re going to find a new way to live their lives…but as themselves.
The film is about a lot of things.  It’s about discovery but it is about loss too…and acceptance of that loss to some extent.  For me it’s written from the perspective of being in the middle of my life and seeing my parents’ generation coming to their later chapters and having to face that head on.  Being a parent, I look at my children and they don’t know anything about loss…which is why I have a young character discovering those emotions of something so fresh for the first time.

 

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Check back this weekend for my review of Love is Strange, opening at Landmark’s Edina Cinema on September 5.

Movie Review ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Stars: Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Shamos

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If Magic in the Moonlight had been made by anyone other than Woody Allen I think I would have scored it lower because ultimately the movie is very simple, inconsequential, light entertainment that once seen quickly evaporates like a summer breeze as you exit the theater.  Still, it’s an Allen film through and through so I find myself giving the prolific director a great deal of slack because while it may not be as layered with dramatic nuance as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, it does find the director working comfortably in his element.

The period comedy set in the 20s is as light-hearted as they come, with a plot that feels straight out of a thin paperback novel that itself is part of a larger series of adventures.  An English magician (Colin Firth, Devil’s Knot) in Berlin, performing under the un-PC moniker Wei Ling Soo, is tempted to the French Riviera by a colleague (Simon McBurney) to help prove a young psychic (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is a fake.  The psychic has convinced a wealthy woman (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) of her gifts and caught the eye of her ukulele playing love struck son (Hamish Linklater) while staying at their gossamer villa with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and conducting the odd séance in between high tea and scones.  Into the mix comes the doubtful magician and before you know it, he too is wrapped up under her spell…but is it all just an elaborate ruse?

Going down like a chilled glass of champagne, Magic in the Moonlight is mostly bubbles, only going flat in the far reaches of its last act when the charm starts to wear off.  Explanations always ruin an illusion so the more the characters talk, the less interesting they all become.  Still, it takes a while to get to that place so it’s best to put your feet up and let Allen’s comedy wash over you.

As Allen (Radio Days, Fading Gigolo) nears his fiftieth feature film, it’s truly amazing how he’s able to churn out a movie year after year.  True, they may not all be winners but he’s moving away from his pattern of having solid gold with every third film.  Yes, Magic in the Moonlight lacks the depth of Blue Jasmine but who really cares?  The two films couldn’t be more different, just as Blue Jasmine was different from the film that it followed (To Rome With Love).  Allen’s filmmaking style is instantly recognizable and goes by the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so production design, costumes, and musical cues are all keeping with Allen’s eye for detail.

Already working on her next Allen film set for release in 2015, Stone may be Allen’s new muse (replacing Scarlett Johansson) and her crisp delivery meshes well with Allen’s dialogue.  Though her possible romance with Firth seemed a little too May-December for my tastes, the two actors chum it up well in their scenes together, with Firth thankfully unwinding a bit from his more serious roles as of late.  As Firth’s aunt, Eileen Atkins (Beautiful Creatures) gets some nice zingers in and seems to be enjoying herself quite a lot.

It’s a bauble of a film that serves as nice counterprogramming for those exhausted from a summer of explosions, aliens, lizards, and transforming robots.  Yeah, it’s easily forgotten but it could be just the laid-back kind of entertainment you’re looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Whiplash

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Synopsis: A young musician struggles to make it as a top jazz drummer.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: If early awards buzz is to be believed (and in this PR heavy brave new internet world every trumpeted performance should be taken with a grain of Kosher salt) then Whiplash is going to be a movie audiences will want to add to their Oscar shortlist.  Actually, it’s supporting actor J.K. Simmons (Labor Day) who might want to make sure his tuxedo fits because his performance as a driven music teacher coming down hard on a young drummer (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, That Awkward Moment) is earning raves across the board.  With Simmons reprising his role from a 2013 short of the same name, this represents a rare case of a short film being expanded into feature length.  Another film I’m greatly looking forward to this year, Whiplash could be 2014’s little indie that could.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic in the Moonlight

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Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: My thoughts and feelings about writer/director Woody Allen’s personal troubles aside, it’s hard to deny that he had a most impressive 2013 with the slam-dunk of Blue Jasmine. Not only was Cate Blanchett’s performance of the Oscar she was awarded, Allen’s script (a veiled re-working of A Streetcar Named Desire) was sparkling and en pointe. Now Allen (who is in front of the camera on the recently released Fading Gigolo) takes a page from Noel Coward in the Blithe Spirit-y comedy Magic in the Moonlight which seems to be the traditional lightweight comedy he typically follows a more dramatic film with. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Colin Firth (Paddington) seem right at home with the period and while it’s true that any bad movie can be made more interesting with a well-cut trailer, I have my eye on this one as a late summer refresher.

The Silver Bullet ~ Foxcatcher

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler whose relationship with mentor John du Pont and brother Dave Schultz would lead to unlikely circumstances.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: It came as somewhat of a shock that this film was moved from its late 2013 release to almost a year later thanks in no small part to crowded fall slate of Oscar contenders. Who knows what impressive films 2014 will bring but this first look at Foxcatcher leads me to believe Sony made the right call. Building on good buzz for Steve Carell (The Way Way Back) and featuring a formidable supporting cast with the likes of Channing Tatum (Side Effects), Mark Ruffalo (), and Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) this looks like a compelling piece of filmmaking. One of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year.