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Friday, October 18, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

Chiwetel Ejiofor didn't exactly burst on the acting scene.  He's been acting professionally since the age of 13 and attended the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.  Since Steven Spielberg cast him in Armistad he has had an increasing number of challenging roles in both film and television and in 2009 was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries.

This year, the 36 year old actor may well be nominated for and even win an Oscar and/or BAFTA for best actor in a drama.

Playing the lead role of Solomon Northup, a free black African-American man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South,  Ejiofor turns in a brilliant performance as Northup, who toiled for various plantation owners for 12 years before the law finally came to his aid.

Taken from a memoir written by Solomon Northup, .Director Steve McQueen has woven a story about  society that both shocks and fascinates the viewer as the societies of the North and South are contrasted and we become aware of how slavery degrades both the slaves and their owners.  What we realize now is how dehumanization and mistreatment of any one group of society creates an unhealthy society.  What we didn't realize back when it took place was just how unhealthy our society was at the time.

There are no bad performances in this film.  Large or small, all the performances are superb.  McQueen had an idea in his head to do a film about slavery in America.  When his wife handed him the volume by Solomon Northup he decided this was the story he wanted to tell,

It's hard to believe that a free man could be kidnapped, sold into slavery to suffer for a dozen years from brutality, physical abuse and mental anguish.

Claiming to practice Christianity at the same time that they treated their slaves no better than inanimate possessions or their cattle, the hypocrisy on the part of the white slavers and plantation owners is incredible. There are several remarkable scenes where the white Plantation owners are conducting prayer services with their black slaves seated in a segregated area.  They read from the Bible that an owner has the right to treat his possession in any way he likes and do not see their slaves as people rather than possessions.

There's no way to see this film without feeling shock.  The shock is made stronger because the excellent performances make the story believable and transport the viewer back into history with jolting realism.  The story is brutal and viewers should be prepared for the brutality and the reality of what was transpiring in the country at that time.



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

In 123 minutes writer/director Jim Jarmusch creates a future world with two of the most extraordinary vampires you could ever hope to meet.  In this romance drama we catch a glimpse of what happens to society in the future, when vampirism is fairly normal.

Adapted from the 1964 Dave Wallis novel of the same name, we meet Adam and Eve, two beautiful people,  married and devoted to each other who have been around for centuries.  They are vampires living in a future world and they are unique and gifted.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a bonafide rock star.  He's not only a beautiful person but he's a really gifted musician with a collection of remarkable musical instruments and original musical compositions.  Adam has definite issues adjusting to the modern world and modern technology and suffers from depression which manifests itself by his being very reclusive.. The only person he sees regularly is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a fellow who supplies him with beautiful musical instruments.  Adam lives in Motor City Detroit with his vast collection of instruments, in a large crowded apartment filled with collections of records, instruments, sheet music, antique furniture and vintage clothing.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his beautiful and ethereal looking wife who resides in Tangier and unlike Adam, is flourishing in the modern world..  While in Tangiers she has sources, such as Marlowe (John Hurt),  also a vampire here, who supply her with excellent quality blood whenever she needs it.

This is an unusual film, as are most of Jarmusch's films.  The photography is dark and or muted because Adam and Eve live in a dark world, sleeping days and venturing out at night.  They avoid bright lights and crowds and despite having been together for centuries, they appear devoted to each other and are never bored or boring,  Swinton looks amazingly beautiful here, her pale skin and hair lending themselves to the appearance of a beautiful

The film has garnered a following and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.. It a remarkable story with stellar performances.

Why was it filmed in Detroit and Tangiers?  According to Jarmusch, those are his favorite cities and when he had to decide where to film he decided to film in his favorite places.  They also did some filming in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany.

Originally supposed to start filming in 2010 when Michael Fassbender was slated to play Adam,  Jarmusch had problems getting funding until he qualified for Michigan film incentives and funding from the German NRW Filmstitung.  Filming began in 2012, by which time Fassbender was unavailable and was replaced by Hiddleston.

In the end it all worked out for the best.  This is a film that can be viewed solely for enjoyment.  It does make some interesting statements about our society and the people who inhabit it, but entertainment is really what this film offers.




Tuesday, October 15, 2013

ALL IS LOST

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

In all the years that the Sundance Foundation has supported filmmakers and seen projects through to fruition, it's leader Robert Redford has never been asked to be in any of the films.  He hasn't been asked to act or even do a cameo.  Is it possible that this rich acting resource has been completely overlooked?

Finally, director J.C.Chandor sent a 31 page script to Redford and asked him to star in the film. All Is Lost. Redford is not only the star of the film, he is the only actor.  In fact, except for a bit of narration at the very beginning of the film, the entire film contains about 10 spoken words by Redford.

At 77, Redford proves that he does indeed still have impeccable timing and delivery.  Since the dialogue is almost none existent, most of the acting depends on his body language, task accomplishment and facial expressions.  Physically fit, and an expert swimmer, Redford does most of his own stunts in and under the water, and never falters for an instant.

He is completely believable as a man  (Our Man) stranded at sea, battling the elements to survive and facing his own mortality.  Some will say that this is the best performance of his life, since he is on screen all the time and has nothing except nature to play against.  Others have commented that watching his struggle to survive is just boring to them.  The man sitting next to me had to get up and leave because he became seasick. True, this film is not for the faint of heart.

It's a very simple story.  An unnamed man (Redford) sailing on his 39-foot yacht, the Virginia Jean, in the South Pacific is left stranded when a Chinese shipping container of athletic shoes plows into his yacht which then begins rapidly taking on water.  For those sailors among us, the actions that Our Man takes to survive are fascinating and did I learn that the interior of the yacht was built by Mexican prop men out of foam rubber, to prevent the star from being permanently maimed when the yacht turns upside down or goes through other inclement weather conditions that necessitate it and him being tossed around violently.

It is amazing that this succinct script and 106 minute film came from the man whose last picture was Margin Call,  Even more amazing is the fact that Redford would take a chance on this project and that it could be accomplished so cleanly and quickly.

Certainly All Is Lost makes a statement that Independent films are alive and well and are a force to be reckoned with.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

I always wanted to believe that the prolific writer Charles Dickens was turning out his stories and books because of a vivid imagination, immense creativity and in order to support his wife and 10 children.

That hope was dashed several years ago when through an exhibit of his personal papers at the Morgan Library in New York City, I learned that Dickens was a cad and a womanizer.

In this spellbinding period piece, Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens and also directs a stellar cast in a film about Dickens and one of his paramours, perhaps the most important in his life.

Already famous as an actor, playwright and writer, married with children, Dickens falls for Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), who is performing with her mother Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas) and sister Maria (Perdita Weeks) in Dickens' adaption of his friends Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) play The Frozen Deep.

The beautiful Nelly (then known as Ellen) is only 18 when she meets Dickens.  Dickens is at the height of his career both in performing and publishing.  Nelly becomes the intense object of his desire and he pursues her relentlessly.  With her growing affection for Dickens, Nelly becomes more socially and emotionally vulnerable.

As they become closer and Victorian society whispers about their relationship, Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) becomes afraid of abandonment.  No longer the center of his affection, in fact on the periphery of his life, Catherine becomes more anxious and her children are equally distraught.

Although passionate with her, Dickens suggests she become his "hidden" mistress, realizing that he can never divorce and marry her, in fact never let his adoring public know that he has erred and deserted his wife and children.

While Nelly is angry, she cannot ignore his his passionate declarations and goes away with him to live under false identities and give birth to a stillborn child.  Injured in a railroad accident where Dickens doesn't even acknowledge he knows her, Nelly realizes that Dickens will never marry her and that she is the "invisible woman" who must share Dickens with the world.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks  1885 since Nelly eventually has married headmaster George Wharton Robinson (Tom Burke), borne him a son and settled at the boys school where he is headmaster.  Memories are evoked through rehearsals that the boys are having of a play by Dickens and Collins and by a visit to the graveyard where Dickens is buried.

Well cast, well acted and well directed, this is a film well worth the price of admission and a visit to the theater.

Friday, October 11, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

We've come to expect brilliant performances from Tom Hanks and in this film, portraying Richard Phillips, a ship's captain kidnapped by Somali pirates, Hanks does not disappoint.

Adapted from the original book by Captain Phillips, Billy Ray has written an exciting screenplay.  Although this is a long film, 134 minutes, there's never a moment when it lags or when the audience loses interest. That's fairly significant since the story is already well known, as is the outcome.

To increase the suspense and excitement, director Paul Greengrass used an unusual technique. Already known for his ability to produce thrillers by the second and third installments of the Bourne franchise, he took a different approach to casting and rehearsing the actors for this film.

While he hired Hanks and experienced actors to play the captain and crew of the freighter that was attacked, and rehearsed them extensively, for the pirate roles he advertised in a Minneapolis newspaper for actual Somali men who were non-actors.

During an open call he selected a group of friends who spoke the Somalian language, kept them and rehearsed them separately from the other actors, and basically trained them on how to attack a freighter and take hostages.

Undoubtedly it was this separation that accounts for the facial expressions and shock on the part of the "crew" when they are attacked and boarded.  While they knew they were going to be hijacked by pirates, no one in the cast had actually seen the Somalians playing the pirates and no one understood what they were saying to each other.  So the reaction to the attack is real and the subtitles explaining the dialogue were added later because the "pirates", having had the plot explained to them, did quite a bit of ad libbing.

Barkard Abdi, a non-actor who plays Muse, the leader of the pirates, gives a riveting and scary performance.  Actually soft-spoken and when hired, a non-swimmer, Abdi leads his pirate band is a terrorizing takeover of the freighter.  The chasm between theater and reality is closed since the audience is spellbound and totally absorbed in the action.

Later in the film there is a scene where Captain Phillips is taken to sickbay on a navy destroyer, an unplanned scene that was done at the last minute without a script.  By using the actual medical corpsmen from the ship, the scene achieves reality and believability.

Whether you are into pirate tales or not, this is a thriller on the high seas that should not be missed.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

NEBRASKA

by D.E.Levine

A NYFF51 Selection

Alexander Payne has once again taken a simple subject and made it into a superlative film.

This is a  115 minute road trip comedy about a father and son going through the Midwest, where the relationship between the actors is so good the audience actually believes they are family.

The story of the Grant family of Hawthorne Nebraska, the story focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), now transplanted to Billings Montana.  Having received a letter saying he's a million dollar winner in a sweepstakes, Woody, stubborn and taciturn, repeatedly heads off to the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska.

His efforts are thwarted by a caring son David (Will Forte from Saturday Night Live) who tries to explain that Woody hasn't actually won the million dollars but it's all a solicitation to order magazines.

Dern, who is now 77, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival  He is superb as Woody, who can barely shuffle down the road and needs alcohol on a consistent basis to fuel his daily endeavors.

Unable to convince his father of the reality of the situation and it with his mother Kate Grant (June Squibb) threatening to institutionalize his father, it falls to David to agree to take his father on the 750 mile journey to Lincoln.

With humorous and poignant events happening along the way, there is of course the obligatory visit to the family in Hawthorne, and the stellar performances by Rance Howard (father of Ron Howard) who plays Woody's brother Ray, and Stacey Keach who plays Woody's former business partner, Ed Pegram.  We see the surfacing of envy and greed as family and friends, who believe that Woody is a millionaire, come looking for money.

Shot in black and white Cinemascope, Payne gives realistic and hauntingly beautiful shots of small town USA.  The scenes of the Midwest are real, not staged --- how else could you get the mountains and the prairies that appear?  Payne, who comes from Omaha, knows both the scenery and the temperament of the area.  When he needed a "dive bar" on a country road, he traveled the country roads until he found the bar and then convinced the regular patrons to be in the bar scene.

Throughout the humor and heartbreak is the theme of David, the son, continually striving to give his aging father some dignity.  Also important are the realistic and universal theme that Payne confronts about children watching their parents grow older in an aging society.

Perhaps the reason the film has attracted such attention is that the actors have a relationship that mimics the relationships in the film.  It's almost as if they really are a family, with all the dysfunction, the pathos and the humor that are portrayed in the film.  From interviews and press conferences it would appear that this was a very harmonious group and the relationships they built carried over into the film, or was it the other way around?

Monday, March 18, 2013

OUR NIXON

By D.E.Levine

A New Directors/New Films 2013 Selection

Even if you're too young to have experienced the dark era associated with the Nixon presidency and Watergate scandal, this fascinating documentary comprised of  8mm"home movies" by prominent White House staffers, predominantly H.R.Haldeman, Dwight Chapin and John Ehrlichman is mesmerizing to watch.

Initially we're told that the films sat in a government vault for 40 years and now paired with news footage from the same era we see deeply into the Nixon presidency of 1969-1974.
Everyone looks so young and they were young with young children.  We tend to forget that there were a lot of young people staffing the Nixon White House, even Henry Kissinger is mentioned as being a young, flirtatious bachelor.

Nixon comes across as having an actual sense of humor and being a rather charismatic speaker.  He appears to have been genuinely liked and admired by his staffers, who, when interviewed, still don't consider themselves to be criminals.

Director Penny Lane uses the films primarily to explore the audio recordings made secretively by Nixon rather than to explain the inner workings of the white house.  And there are skillful interweaving of news reports, especially after the Watergate admissions when Haldeman, Chapin and Ehrlichman shot less film.

Regardless of your feelings about Richard Nixon, the film is fascinating to watch,