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Monday, December 29, 2014

KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE


By D.E.Levine

Can you visualize Colin Firth, Best Actor Oscar winner in The King's Speech as a James Bond type secret agent?

I couldn't imagine him in such a role, but there he is, sleek and debonair and one of the Kingsmen, an elite group of underground spies and secret agents who repeatedly risk their lives for Queen and country. And, he has all the right moves.  In carefully choreographed fight scenes, Firth proves himself a skilled fighter not a lover.  He's cool and laid back, the perfect British gentlemen with bowler and umbrella, and great fun to watch.

 Similar but smaller and more elite than MI5, each of the Kingsmen is known by the name of a knight from King Arthur's roundtable and their leader, Arthur, is played by Michael Caine.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is Galahad and he offers street tough Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), some sound advice when he tells him "if you're prepared to learn and advance, you can transform".

With Hart sincerely interested in him, Eggsy begins his transformation from street tough with a dead father and abusive stepfather, into a true British gentleman.  He is given a real chance to qualify for the Kingsmen organization when Lancelot is killed and the group is seeking a replacement.  Qualifying is tough.  Besides stiff competition, the tasks applicants are put through are difficult and actually life-threatening.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn who co-wrote the script with Jane Goldman, Kingsmen is lots of fun. While it spoofs the James Bond characters and films it is seriously an interesting and exciting action film in the secret agent genre.  It's based on a comic book written by Mark Millar and if it takes off, may well be the basis for a new franchise.

Samuel L. Jackson as the key villain, Richmond Valentine, is superb.  His plan to stop global warming and population problems is radical and scary.  His villain is rather silly however, since he has a noticeable lisp that weakens his bravado and although he advocates mass murder, he can't stand the sight of blood.  His "right hand man", a woman named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) has no such weaknesses and happily kills everyone she can with an assist from her two artificial limbs.

This isn't a James Bond 007 film and in some ways it's more fun and more satisfying.  The audience has no expectations because it's the first time these characters are making their appearance.  Since viewers don't know what to expect there are fewer expectations and more surprises.

There's real excitement, lots of humor, and real entertainment.  Although there is some violence, youngsters will find this film appealing and adults will enjoy themselves immensely.






Tuesday, December 23, 2014

CALVARY


By D.E.Levine

In County Sligo, a rural parish in Ireland, Father James (Brendon Gleeson), tends to the souls of the inhabitants.

Before being ordained, Father James was married, widowed and fathered a daughter.  He was also a heavy drinker.  When his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly) comes to visit from London she has bandages on both wrists indicating a failed attempt at suicide.

In a pivotal scene we see Father James in a confessional, hearing confession from an unidentified man who states that because he was abused by Catholic clergy at a young age and has suffered irreparable damage, he intends to murder Father James in one week, on the following Sunday.  Although Father James was not the abuser and wasn't even a member of the clergy at the time, this confessor says he will murder Father James because he's done nothing wrong.

Father James is distressed by what the man has suffered, even more distressed than with the news of his impending murder.

Director John Michael McDonagh wrote the screenplay which is divided into seven days and introduces the viewer to locals who may or may not be involved in the impending murder.

While Father James seeks to minister to his "flock" the locals seem to have given up on the Catholic faith.  Father James believes and he is a solitary and lonely figure.  He can avoid his fate in several ways and even acquires a gun which viewers believe he will use to protect himself.

Cavalry leaves the viewer with a sadness and emptiness that perhaps mimics the feelings of Father James.

Monday, December 22, 2014

BELLE


By D.E.Levine

Belle is an interesting and historically true period piece about a young biracial woman who was instrumental in changing the slavery laws in the United Kingdom.

Taken by her white, British navel captain father, Sir John Lindsey (Matthew Goode) from an island home after her black mother, Maria Bell, dies when she is a child, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is placed in the hands of her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).

Transplanted as she was to a large country manor, Belle is raised along side her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).  The cousins are extremely close growing up together, but Elizabeth is white and fits into the aristocratic society they live in, while Belle, biracial, is considered black and ostracized in a slave-trading society.

Belle does not eat with the family but joins the ladies after the all white dinners.  In the  film we see the painting of a now famous painting of the two girls, side, by side, both dressed in silk and pearls.  Painted at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England where Belle lived for about 30 years, the painting now hangs in Scone Palace, the famed crowning place in Scotland for numerous Kings of Scotland.

The painting is unusual because it portrays the two young women as equal, although in the eyes of society they were not equal.

As she grows, Belle becomes aware of her social, political and and legal position.  Ironically, as her awareness grows and she becomes an activist for equality of all colors, we learn that her great uncle is the Lord Chief Justice who must decide the real case of the Zong slave ship.

It is believed that Lord Mansfield's affection for Belle influenced his feelings toward slavery although he was careful to maintain exact interpretation of the law.  His historic decision is considered a landmark step toward the abolition of transatlantic slave trade.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

STILL ALICE


By D.E.Levine

In a brilliant performance, Julianne Moore explores the feelings and actions of a woman going through early onset Alzheimer disease.

Dr. Alice Howard (Julianne Moore) is a Columbia University professor who in 50+ years has achieved a distinguished career and successfully raised three grown children.

Initially, her small moments of forgetfulness don't raise any red flags.  Although forgetting a word during a linguistic lecture is disconcerting, Alice doesn't worry.  However, when she goes jogging and loses track of where she is, where she's going and how to get back home, she starts to become concerned.

While a consultation with her doctor informs Alice that intelligent people generally are harder to diagnose because they develop work-around techniques, when she's told that the condition is hereditary and that in addition to eventually losing her own identity and self she may also be responsible for passing it on to her children, Alice is concerned and plagued by guilt.

With increasing disorientation and a dulling of senses, Alice grieves while she attempts to come to terms with the fact that life as she knows it is ending.  Gradually descending into a "fuzzy" world where she can't grasp ideas and concepts, gets lost in her own home, doesn't remember things her family tell her and repeatedly asks the same questions, she is frightened but honest enough to confide in her department head at Columbia University.

Her immediate dismissal from her position is an all too try revelation of how employers treat employees who become ill and/or disabled.  Although it's supposed to be against the law, most employers dismiss employees as rapidly as they can.

Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) refuses her request to take a year off so they can be together before the disease progresses and she is completely lost and makes plans to keep his career on track even when it means leaving her behind.  She spends some of the valuable time that he denies her visiting retirement homes, making contingency plans, and recording video messages to herself that can direct her when she literally loses her self.

Still Alice isa tender look at a woman rapidly deteriorating and descending into a muddled mind.  Although Alice doesn't give up her rapid deterioration is horrifying to those in the audience who haven't seen the effects of degenrative diseases before.  To its credit the film is less about the impact of the disease on family members and caregivers than on the actural sufferer and we are given a unique insight into a woman going from a self-assured, assertive individual to a frightened woman who cannot remember things from one minute to the next.

Monday, December 8, 2014

INHERENT VICE


By D.E.Levine

Based on the Thomas Pynchon book Gravity's Rainbow, Inherent Vice is a masterful work but I had to see it three timees before I finally got the gist of what was going on.

This is a funny film.  Whether or not Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to incorporate Pynchon's gags and his social indignation, he has managed to direct a slick, 1970s era mystery/comedy.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator living in the Los Angeles area with an office in a medical clinic.  Sportello's ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) pays him a visit because her married boyfriend's wife is planning, with her lover, to murder  (Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real estate mogul.  When Doc goes to investigate he's knocked out at the Chick Planet massage parlor and when he wakes up next to a corpse that turns out to be one of Mickey's bodyguards,  both Shasta and Mickey have both disappeared.

There's another seemingly unrelated case where Doc is hired by Hope Harligen (Jena Malone) to locate her missing husband and presumed dead husband Coy (Owen Wilson).  Of course, it turns out the two cases are related and Doc is successful in solving both.

Told to beware of the Golden Fang, which is either a boat previously charted by anti-Communists subversives, a drug cartel headquartered in a building that looks like a golden fang, or the murder weapon in a homicide.

There are several subplots and everything that happens and every person that we meet seem to be clues in solving Doc's cases.

Set in an era of easy to get weed where everyone, including Doc seems to be perpetually stoned, how anything gets solved is a stretch.  Detective Christian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), also known as Bigfoot, is assigned to the Wolfmann case and is brilliantly funny.  His demeanor and appearance are exactly the opposite of Doc's laid back hippie looks and actions.

Since this is the first film based on Pynchon ever produced, we have nothing to compare it with but we do know that it is fairly faithful to the book.  The film is confusing but it's fun.  I expect a few more viewings may be necessary for further clarification and understanding.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

AMERICAN SNIPER


By D.E.Levine

Following on the heels of the musical Jersey Boys, director Clint Eastwood has tackled another war film.  The real life story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, one of the most highly decorated snipers in U.S. military history, Chris Kyle documented his exploits in a best selling book prior to his death.  He was actually touring with the book and involved in planning the movie when he died unexpectedly.

Eastwood cast Bradley Cooper as Kyle, a seemingly improbable choice.  Cooper's physical transformation is amazing.  He resembles the real Chris Kyle so closely that even Kyle's children had trouble telling them apart.

Eastwood's method of directing is to be right there next to his actor, coaching him o to provide the most intensity.  And this film is certainly intense, never wavering or pausing in its story and message.

We ride along the war torn streets and poise alongside Kyle as he aims and takes his shots.  We see that there are two Chris Kyles.  Both Kyles are devout patriots and believe they are  doing a job necessary to protect both the United States  and fellow troops.  In the field in Iraq, with fellow SEALS he's social, profane and funny.  But the other Kyle, who returns home to his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and his children, is withdrawn, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and haunted by the troops he couldn't save.

Returning once and for all stateside, Kyle found redemption in helping other PTSD suffers from the armed forces.  He began to regain his emotional connection to his wife and children.  That's why, with so prominent a figure, and knowing that he was actually being rehabilitated, the end is all the more shocking.

Eastwood's direction is masterful but Cooper's portrayal is better than anything he's done so far.  We are always involved and never bored.  The action never ceases.  Even knowing the heartbreaking end of the story it's still a shock.  It's especially vivid because the story is still headline news today and the legal system continues to try to do the right thing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

BIG EYES


By D.E.Levine

A couple of years ago I was in San Francisco and I wandered into a gallery selling paintings and prints with "big eyes".  This wasn't a new concept, but it had been a famous case in the papers a long time ago when an artist named Margaret Keane proved that her husband, Walter Keane, had been taking credit for her paintings for years.  Along the way, he became quite famous but will probably best be remembered for the immense fraud he carried out.

The elderly woman I spoke with at the gallery was charming but never mentioned that she was Margaret Keane.  Only when I saw the movie Big Eyes, and there she was sitting on a park bench, did I realize the woman's identity.

When she took her daughter and left her husband for San Francisco in the 1950s, Margaret Keane was leaving an unhappy relationship where she felt unfulfilled.  Supporting herself by painting designs on furniture, she painted did charcoal portraits in the park on weekends and continued to paint waif like children with big eyes.

Meeting and marrying Walter Keane, she became an abused wife cut off from friends while he took credit for her paintings and the paintings gained popularity and became highly sought after.  She married him thinking that he was a struggling painter who moonlighted in real estate to pay the bills. It wasn't until years later that she learned he hadn't painted any of the pictures he claimed as his own.

Once again leaving a bad marriage and taking her daughter with her, she fled to Hawaii where she found strength in religion and courageously challenged Walter in court to get recognition and monies owed for her many years of paintings.  She won the case but never collected the money from him as he died penniless, never admitting that he perpetrated a fraud on the public.

Amy Adams is superb as Margaret Keane and Christophe Waltz is equally fine as Walter. Their performances are what we expect.  Perhaps the greatest surprise is that the film was directed by Tim Burton and it's nothing like his imaginative flights into fantasy that he's given us in other films.  Of course, this story is truly bizarre in it's own right, so much so that it's hard to believe, but historical reference proves it did occur.

Burton does a wonderful job of directing the actors and achieving intimate and believable performances.

Friday, December 5, 2014

UNBROKEN,


By D.E.Levine

There's been a lot of buzz about this film because it was directed by Angelina Jolie.  Taken from the true story of American Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who as as a World War II bombardier was shot down and survived 47 days adrift at sea followed by years in Japanese prisoner of war camps where he was severely brutalized, I wasn't sure what to expect.

The book that Laura Hillenbrand wrote  was a bestseller in 2010.  It told the story clearly and was inspirational in his survival as well as his ability to forgive his captors.

Jolie's film however, is too long and contains a lot of unnecessary brutality.  Louie (Jack O'Connell) is appealing as the adult Zamperini, who didn't medal at the Olympics but has great plans for his future.  Blown out of the sky he survives adrift at sea, but here is where Jolie loses her grip.  The amount of time that she spends on Zamperini's survival at sea needs to be edited and shortened.

Once picked up by the Japanese and imprisoned, Jolie spends an incredible amount of time on individual of time showing individual punishments inflicted on Zamperini, and in one scene, where individual prisoners strike him, it's simply unnecessary to show every blow.  We get the message clearly that he was physically abused, and once again the film drags and needs editing.

Overall, Jolie's attempt is admirable, but misses the mark and unfortunately is disappointing in the end.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR


By D.E.Levine

In 1981 New York City was having a rough time economically and with crime.  Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) has a heating oil business and he's having financial problems.  Having come from a racketeering background, married a gangster's daughter and done his best to go straight and run an honest business.

Donning a blond wig and smoking cigarettes, Anna (Jessica Chastain) whose father used to own the company, wonders whether her husband Abel is capable of growing the business, keeping them solvent, and protecting her and their three young daughters.  Anna arms herself and is willing to resort to violence.

Abel's trucks are hijacked, his salesmen are beaten up and one of his drivers is in danger.  As a tenacious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) prepares indictments, Abel's attorney (Albert Brooks) worries.  Despite everything, Abel believes that he can conduct business in an honest, reasonable way.

Set against the gray skys of a bleak city, with a rather anxious musical score that adds to the intense feelings provoked by the film, A Most Violent Year explores the relationship between Abel and Anna as well as the hubris and greed that tempt and threaten an honorable man who tries to stay true to his values.