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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

FLIGHT

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 World Premiere

Director Robert Zemeckis has left motion capture films to give us a big film with a big cast.  Centering around Whip Whitiker, a middle-aged pilot and veteran who heroically crash lands a jet, the viewer sees that the heroics are masking serious behavior and drinking problems.

Whip, played by Denzel Washington, works for a Southern regional airline and when the film opens he's in Orlando, Florida after a night of booze, sex and drugs.  With the help of a little more of the same he takes the controls for 9AM flight to Atlanta.  With a new co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) at the controls with him, Whip boldly takes off in terrible conditions and sleeps through a large part of the trip.

Hampered by a terrible storm of pelting rain and hail with severe lightening and intense wind, viewers encounter a 20-minute nail-biting sequence during which looks like the plane will go down killing all aboard, but Whip does some phenomenal flying and seemingly unaffected by the booze and drugs when the chips are down, and with the help of some great special effects, Whip lands the plane with only a small number of casualties, including his lover of the night before, a flight attendant (Nadine Valazquez) who was working the same flight and was killed while helping a child passenger.

While Whip is hospitalized with only minor injuries he's visited by both his old buddy Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) who is now a pilot's union rep and his drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) whom he informs of his intention to stay away from alcohol.

At the hospital Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly) an ex-addict hospitalized after an overdose.  Released and hoping to avoid the press, Whip seeks sanctuary on his grandfather's farm where the viewer sees him methodically pouring all of the beer and booze down the drain as he attempts to clean up his act.

Acting as sort of a "white knight", Whip rescues Nicole from eviction and takes her to the farm where they start a relationship.  But her intention to go to AA and achieve sobriety so she can rescue her life doesn't sit well with Whip for himself.  And while he rescues Nicole, Whip is totally unable to repair the relationship with his own family and remains alienated from his teenage son.

Sobriety doesn't last long, especially when Whip learns that toxicological tests reveal the alcohol and drugs in his bloodstream during the flight.  Such a revelation could result in serious jail time for Whip.

Whip is represented by Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a strait-laced high-power attorney brought in by the pilot's union who has figured out how to get Whip exonerated if he behaves himself.  Unfortunately, ripe with self  denial, Whip is unhappy enough to hit the bottle again and turn to drugs in order to make it to his public hearing.

His public hearing and his inquisitor (Melissa Leo) bring about some unexpected turn of events and
prove the true mettle of the man.  The ending is completely surprising and definitely gives the viewer something to think about.

Zemeckis hasn't lost his touch.  This may not be action capture but he makes it totally believable with his direction and the excellent performances and special effects.


Monday, October 15, 2012

THE PAPERBOY

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Selection

In a departure from expected casting, director Len Daniels has cast normally happily-ever-after Matthew MacConaughey as  hard drinking Miami Times investigative reporter Ward Jansen; John Cusack as a former swamp dweller, Hillary Van Wetter who's on death row for killing a corrupt local sherrif; Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bliss, a death row groupie who believes Van Wetter is innocent; and Zac Posen of Disney musical fame, as Jack, Ward's younger and directionless brother.

Jack is the paperboy who delivers the paper published by his and Ward's daddy, Scott Glenn.  Jack falls for Charlotte, an older woman who dresses lasiviously and exudes carnality on screen.

Ward, together with his black partner (David Oyelowo) investigate Van Wetter's case in an effort to dig up a sernsational story that might make their careers and win them a Pulitzer Prize.

While this film won't appeal to everyone, it is sexually and racially charged, taking viewers into the backwater swamps of Southern Florida.

Based on a best-selling novel by Peter Dexter, like an onion, Daniels peels back the layers of southern gentility to expose the evil that lurks beneath the surface in and around the town.



Friday, October 12, 2012

FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Premiere

Director Alan Berliner examines his cousin poet/translator Edwin Honig's struggle with Alzheimer Disease.  An HBO production, the film will make it's TV debut in 2013.  It has already won the top prize at Amsterdam's IDFA documentary festival.

Begun when  Honig was in his prime and enjoying international acclaim, we watch as his mind clouds and he becomes forgetful, his speech becomes jumbled and he fades into a non-verbal individual with only brief spells of lucidity.

Edwin's sister Lila speaks out in protest against her brother being shown in such a compromised state.  But,Edwin gave his consent before the later onset of the disease and Berliner approaches the subject without sentimentality.

The directness and objectiveness of his approach makes watching such a difficult subject bearable.



LINCOLN

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Sneak Preview

Although it deals only with the four months prior to President Lincoln's assassination, the emphasis of this fantastic film is on showing how our political system works.

Lincoln, who had to deal with people who resented his having been elected President, especially when he beat them for the office, is shown as knowing he has to work with these same people to get the 13th Amendment on the abolishment of slavery passed by the House of Representatives.  Having signed the amendment and gotten it passed easily by the Senate, it is the split House and the Civil War that are holding up the final passage.

Written by Tony Kushner and produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln appears as the primary orchestrator who will get the amendment passed.  But he is also the individual who sets in motion a series of actions to cajole and use any other means possible to change the minds of Democratic holdouts.,

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives an amazing performance interpreting Lincoln, there is an outstanding cast of supporting actors such as Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, the founder of the Republican Party.  The cast is large and there are no bad performances.

Concentrating on the time frame between January 1865 and the end of the Civil War on April 9th, followed by Lincoln's assassination five days later, this is a look at history rather than at biography.

Interspersed are scenes of the Union (including black regiments) and Confederate soldiers on the battlefield.  Also, we see Mary Todd Lincoln, as the woman behind the man.  Although depressed over the death of one of her sons, she is presented not as a crazy woman but as a definite positive and supportive wife, playing an important part in counseling the President on his actions and advising him on how to achieve his goals.

Kusher does a remarkable job of juggling large numbers of players and subplots with ease and clarity.  An indicator of just how good the script and performances are is  that when the film is finished the viewer wants to research the political figures and learn more about them.

According to Spielberg, he got interested in doing the film a decade ago and it took ten years to put it together.  The wait was well worth it.  This is a brilliant and informative film about a very important President and a very important time in history.




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Selection

Ricky Jay is famous as a performer of  magic and incredible card-trick skill who participates in this somewhat autobiographical and charming film about how he got to be who he is today.

Following a chronological line, the story begins with Max Katz, Ricky's grandfather and an amateur magician of some renown.  Ricky, who is fascinated by the history of magic, introduces us to his grandfather through photos and newspaper clippings that show Max appeared with his 7-year-old grandson Ricky.

Taken under the wing of his grandfather's magician friends such as Cardini and Floso, Ricky learned their simpler tricks. It was their interest and mentoring that helped to make magic Ricky Jay's lifelong obsession.

When he moved to California, two famed magicians trained him intensely and Ricky includes generous amounts of archival footage of Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, who mentored him during his early years,

There's interesting footage of Ricky's early career on variety shows such as Ed Sullivan,  Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore

Once his career gained momentum, Ricky gained fame through his numerous books, TV specials and one-man shows.  David Mamet, who directed several of his theatrical appearances, speaks warmly about his relationship with Ricky.

Besides being fascinating, this is definitely a feel-good film and well worth seeing when it comes to a theater near you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

LIFE OF PI

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Premiere

Director Ang Lee has given us another brilliant and extraordinary film.  Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, the film is focused on the Patel family who run a zoo in Pondicherry, India.

Having decided to leave India and emigrate to Canada, the family sets sail, along with selected animals from the zoo, to cross the ocean on a freighter..

After a shipwreck, the sole survivor, 16-year-old Pi is left adrift in a 26-foot lifeboat along with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450 pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

All of the lifeboat occupants are fighting for survival against the elements, starvation and each other.

Films that are adapted from novels frequently fall short of expectations but Ang Lee has managed to provide a film that is sensitive, surprising and beautifully photographed.

Ang Lee was modest about his accomplishments during interviews, but the main portion of the book takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with only a boy and a tiger upon which to focus, and both the boy and the tiger must take direction.

Bringing the novel to the screen was not without problems.Several big name directors have been involved and bowed out.  Lee signed on in 2009 and began working with writer David Magee to adapt the novel into a screenplay. The seemingly effortless result was actually many years in the making.

Not to give the story away since it is a fantasy, the important thing to remember is that Lee is always in control of the story and the actors.  The film gives the impression that a confident director is actually enjoying himself rather than laboring to produce the end product.

The center of the story is belief, whether it be in religion or science.  Early on in the film Pi explains at dinner why he believes in all gods and all religions rather than one god and one religion.

The special effects are also amazing.  I'm still trying to figure out how Lee achieved some of the scenes because I know realistically they couldn't be done and yet they look perfectly natural.

Suraj Sharma who plays the teenage Pi is performing in his first acting role and gives a spectacular performance.  Not only is he new to acting but he had to play to green screen and to a live tiger - both of which are major accomplishments.  Yet, you can't tell that special effects were used because they all look so real.

I was unable to get Fox to tell me what the budget actually was, but judging by the technology that's up on the screen, this is a big budget film.  However, the fabulous look and story are throughout the film, not limited to just one or two scenes.  Lee keeps us on the edge of our seats with amazing happenings yet makes us believe they are real.

It's in 3D which enhances the film even more making everything look bigger, better and more vibrant.  Ang Lee has given us a classic which will become part of the not-to-be-missed films everyone must and will automatically see.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

FRANCES HA

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Selection

This film is engaging and funny.  Co-written by director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig, Frances is a late twenties female whose life is currently a train wreck.

A klutz who lives surrounded by mess and chaos, Frances yearns to be a choregrapher.  If this sounds like it's an unrealistic dream, that's not the case.    It's simply that Frances is unfocused and is still in her "moth" stage although she's definitely aspiring and working toward becoming a butterfly.

Shot in Brooklyn in black and white, the visual effect is stunning.   The way its shot is suitable to the story and the action.

The film and characters are funny.  While there aren't any major plot turns, it's really the minutiae of daily life that draws us into the story.

With all her flaws, we don't find outselves adopting a condescending attitude toward Frances.  Instead, we're actually rooting for her.  We want to see her grow up and achieve.  She's taking tentative baby steps to reach her goal and we're on her side.

Frances herself isn't really sure of what she wants and the film doesn't tell us where it's going until it actually gets there.  Then we have "Ah-haa" moments.

Since she co-wrote the film, we have to assume that the part was tailor-made for Gerwig's abilities and she does give an admirable performance.

This is a film that leaves the viewer with a smile on their face when it's over.




Wednesday, October 3, 2012

LIV AND INGMAR

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 Selection

U.K.-based director Dheeraj Akolkar has given us a first documentary that is a reminiscence of the love affair between actress Liv Ullmann and director Ingmar Bergman.

Ullmann reflects on her relationship and with her candid reminiscences and voice over readings from her book "Changing" interwoven with clips from Bergman's films, passages from his love letters, archival photos and footage, the film is fascinating and appealing.

Just 25 years old when she met the 46 year old Bergman on the set of his film "Persona", there was an immediate powerful attraction although both were married to other people at the time.

Leaving her husband and going to live with Bergman on Faro Island, Ullmann bore him a daughter.  Although passionately in love, the director spent his days working in solitude and refused to allow her to have friends visit their walled off property.   It must have been difficult to live with him and although Bergman is deceased, by quoting from his own memoirs and letters to Ullmann to demonstrate the awareness he had of his own shortcomings which would eventually drive Ullmann away.  Their affair lasted five years, but their collaborative efforts lasted until the end of his life, as did their friendship.