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Thursday, October 23, 2014

NATIONAL GALLERY


By D.E.Levine

Director Frederick Wiseman gives us a beautiful and fascinating documentary in National Gallery about the museum that is located at the northern end of Trafalgar Square in London.

Taking viewers on a tour of the paintings in the National Gallery, Wiseman stops to listen and record conversations about art, context and form.  Focusing on several docents and/or guides, one of whom discusses a Camille Pissarro to visually impaired audience who use embossed reproductions of the painting with which to see it.  Much of the documentary challenges viewers to discover for themselves what the artists meant or mean.

There are fascinating conversations on conservation efforts, speculation regarding what lies beneath the exterior varnish and layers of paint of some masters, and even descriptions of how painter George Stubbs hung skinned carcasses of horses via a pulley system in order to understand their anatomy. There's even a scene where activists climb to the roof of the National Gallery and unfurl a banner protesting Shell's plan to drill in the Arctic during a company art event, as a protest.

Throughout the film there is a constant refrain about the importance of money to art.  This is explored in conversations about whether the museum needs to do more to make itself attractive to the general public, and additional conversations about the National Gallery's budget.

While the film is a 3-hour cinematic journey, Wiseman never lets us forget that there is a relationship between commerce, labor, patronage and sometimes exploitation.  In one scene a guide explains to students that the institutions origins can be traced directly to the slave trade via John Julius Angerstein, an art patron who amassed his fortune through the slave trade in Grenada..

While he gives us a wonderful and enjoyable tour of the National Gallery, Wiseman also lets us gaze upon and into ourselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING


By D.E.Levine

Amazing performances make this film an interesting and amazing story instead of what could have been a dull movie about about a scientist challenged by a terrible disease.

Few people having heard of physicist Stephan Harking.  Stricken by ALS when he was only in 21 and given only two years to live, Hawking continued his education and research, married and fathered children and is the oldest living survivor of the disease.

We see Eddie Redmayne transform remarkably in front of our eyes from a healthy, athletic young man to a physically ill, disabled and continually deteriorating individual.  Emotionally supported and physically helped by his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), who chose to marry him despite the diagnosis, we see how he approached both his academic and home lives, achieving greatness in each.

This story comes to the public 50 years after Stephen Hawking was given his original diagnosis and he is still working, laughing, and recently paid to be a participant in the first Virgin Atlantic space flight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME


By D.E.Levine

When legendary and beloved recording artist Glen Campbell announced that he had Alzheimer 's disease, he decided to do one final farewell tour.

Enlisting the aid of director James Keach, we see Campbell's valiant struggle against a non-curable disease that encroaches further upon him daily.

Campbell has truly done a courageous thing by allowing the public to see the ravages of the disease as they attack his mind.  Opening with scenes of Campbell and wife Kim watching old home movies where he frequently cannot recognize himself or his children, the film takes us right into his doctor's offices at the Mayo Clinic where unable to respond to basic historical questions Campbell finally says, "I can play guitar".

His musical skills remain intact as we see his mental state deteriorate.  And, don't think that Campbell isn't aware of the disease.  Viewers see him preparing for an appearance on The Tonight Show, which goes perfectly, and is followed by his triumphant outburst that he "got through it".

It is heartbreaking to watch this gentle, talented man lose his mental abilities.  On tour to promote his 2011 album Ghost on the Canvas, he is carefully monitored by his wife and children, three of whom appear and perform with him on stage.

Although he never loses his skills at playing instrumentally, his memory deteriorates and he forgets the words to even old classics and depends increasingly on a Teleprompter.  The tender interaction of his spouse and children who watch over him and repeatedly explain that he's losing his memory is  touching and heartbreaking simultaneously.  Campbell, however, remains consistently upbeat.

Finally, at the end of the tour in Napa, California, Campbell can barely get through the performance and is completely unaware that he has played his last performance on stage.  Keach doesn't camouflage the effects of the disease as Campbell becomes frustrated in situations where his memory fails him and phases totally out of other situations.

The end of the film is a touching reunion of Campbell with The Wrecking Crew, one of the all time great session bands, when they record "I'm Not Gonna Miss You", which will be his last record.


Friday, October 10, 2014

BIRDMAN


By D.E.Levine

In a strange occurrence of art following life, Michael Keaton, long absent from the film scene, came down from his ranch in Montana to star in a new film about resurrecting the career of a former film action hero.  Absent from the cinema scene for some time, Keaton gives a marvelously creative, poignant and comical performance, proving he hasn't lost any of his talent and/or timing.

As you'll remember, Keaton was a successful portrayer of Batman in a box office money maker and he gave it up and left Hollywood to go take care of personal matters in his private life.

In this film, Riggain Thomsom (Michael Keaton) played Birdman and is now a washed up movie star hoping to resurrect his career and achieve new fame and notoriety by producing and starring in a play in the famous St. James Broadway theater.  This is his last chance and the consistent appearance of his alter ego, his winged action hero Birdman, who voices his fears and increasingly causes him to doubt himself.

Of course, there's a wonderful script with many twists and turns, a great supporting cast, and imaginative cinematography.  Working in close quarters in the St. James, some of the takes are 20 minutes long and filmed continuously while the cameraman follows the actors up and down the back staircases and around the narrow corridors.  The action seemingly never stops and for two hours the viewer feels he/she is watching one single take.

The visual effect is due to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alejandro G. Innaritu, with an assist from the stunning original score by Antonio Sanchez.

There's also a great deal for the audience to think about.  What is real and what is imagined? Sometimes things blur and it's hard to keep track but the film moves swiftly along and is really a blast that shouldn't be missed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

DIPLOMACY


By D.E.Levine

Whether or not the events in this film are all true remain to be seen, however, they make for a wonderful intriguing and tense tale of two men and their respective backers fighting over the city of Paris, France.

In 1944, as the Allied forces gained ground and came closer to Paris, the Nazi command made the decision that if they couldn't hold on to the city they would destroy it so no one else would have it.  Hitler ordered all the bridges, monuments and historic buildings blown up in order to destroy centuries of art, architecture and civilization and kill thousands of people.

Charged with the actual task was the German military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup).  It's historical knowledge that von Choltitz disobeyed the Fuhrer's orders but the reasons he did so are the basis of the story told in this film.

In a cat and mouse confrontation, the general and the Swedish ambassador to France, Raoul Nordling (Andre Dusollier), argue the point of obeying orders and destroying the city versus disobeying orders and saving the city they both love.

There is no evidence that the conversations in the film are accurate but Nordling uses all his diplomatic skills to make the case for sparing the city, and the confrontation and conversations are both morally and psychologically compelling.

We know that von Choltitz was physically ill with asthma, and exhausted and demoralized.  A veteran of both World Wars, he now has to face the fact that the cause and country he has faithfully served is about to be defeated.

The ambassador is smooth and tells marvelously compelling stories about bygone Parisian intrigues while insisting that he and his government are neutral and do not side with either the Nazis or the Allies.  We can tell, however, that the ambassador has been in touch with the Resistance and is helping them.

The viewer must draw his/her own conclusion about why Nordling was successful in dissuading von Chiltitz from destroying the city.  The important thing is that Nordling's efforts worked and unlike so many other cities that were destroyed during the war, Paris remained, for the most part, intact.  So many years later we can still visit and enjoy the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Garnier Opera.


Monday, October 6, 2014

WHIPLASH


By D.E.Levine

J.K.Simmons has been around for 40+ years.  He's a familiar face on the small and big screen. Generally, he's the good guy  -- the police captain, the genial dad, the comical insurance salesman or in his many voice over roles, even an M&M candy.  And, he generally is dressed in a suit or a uniform for his role.

Whiplash is a departure and for Simmons it is probably the best role of his life.  Dressed in a black tee shirt and exhibiting a muscular physique we never knew he had, Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, an intimidating and somewhat masochistic music instructor at a top music conservatory.

Intimidating when he faces students on a one-to-one basis, Fletcher is even more intimidating in front of a conservatory band. Simmons is the protagonist to a young music student, a drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) who drums his heart out and is driven for success.  Even more amazing than the scenes where he's drumming was the disclosure that Teller never drummed before learning to do so for this movie.

When, as a new student, Andrew catches Fletcher's ear and gets an offer of a seat in the band, he jumps at it and intensifies his practice even more.

Fletcher believes that encouragement breeds complacency and that the two words "good job" are the most harmful.  His approach is to humiliate his students and band members publicly.  His constant verbal abuse does result in keeping band members on their toes but also creates in Andrew the painful decision to cut himself off from others including the girl he's started a relationship with, in order to concentrate on his music.

There is obvious adversity between teacher and student, but there is also contention and adversity between the student and his innermost self.

Fast paced and somewhat exhausting, Whiplash, for a small film, makes a big noise.

Friday, October 3, 2014

WILD


By D.E.Levine

Viewers are used to seeing Reese Witherspoon in cute and/or glamorous roles.   In Wild, the second film for her production company, Reese is anything but glamorous.

Based on the true story by Cheryl Strayad about her 2012 solo 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, the film's cinematography is beautiful as a naturally rugged backdrop for an equally rugged interior self-discovery journey.

Strayed is brutally honest as she tells her story of how her mother Bobbi's (played by Laura Dern) death from lung cancer at age 45 sent her 22-year old daughter on a self-destructive journey into drugs and sex that ended her marriage.

As a novice hiker, with no experience and a huge, heavy backpack with sometimes the wrong equipment, Strayed was ill-prepared, but very determined for the journey.  Some thought her reckless, others thought her stupid, however, her determination and ability to adapt, caused her to successfully complete what she started and ultimately changed her entire life.

Witherspoon's portrayal combines vulnerability, grittiness, determination, and physical bravery.  As Strayed, Witherspoon is totally believable and authentic.  We're rooting for Strayed, but we doubt, strongly, that she'll succeed.  Her accomplishment is a journey on so many levels, and Witherspoon does an amazing job of portraying the real Strayed.