Movies: The Sense of an Ending, Beauty and the Beast and Personal Shopper

 

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending has many of my favorite British actors.  Jim Broadbent stars as Tony Webster a divorced retiree who lives a quiet existence.  He is on good terms with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and his daughter played by Michelle Dockery but there are hints that he hasn’t always been a great guy. Tony receives a letter saying that something has been left to him by the mother of a girlfriend from his youth.  We see flashbacks to his former girlfriend Veronica and her brother and mother as we start to see the story of his life being pieced together.

It turns out that the thing that he was left, is a diary of a fellow student who dated Veronica and committed suicide shortly thereafter.  Tony goes in pursuit of what is rightfully his but comes up against a stalwart Veronica, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is not willing to give up the diary to him.  The movie kicks into high gear once Rampling is introduced and the back and forth between the past and present intensifies.

In this low-key psychological thriller, we uncover deep secrets as the dualing themes of the cruelty of youth and how our memories become unpredictable as we age, collide.  Tony has clearly altered some of his memories to blot out his questionable actions. Jim Broadbent is excellent as Tony and captures his complex personality perfectly.  Rampling is Rampling and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Dockery and Walter are also very good.  The Sense of an Ending reminds me somewhat of Atonement having some of the same themes but not quite as dark.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.  While Emma Watson’s singing is fine, she is clearly an Actress who can sing rather than a singer.  The same for Dan Stephans although he only has one song and that one sounds digitally altered.  Luke Evans who plays Gaston, however, has pipes and he nails his performance. Audra McDonald in a brief role delivers a stunning aria.

There are some new songs in this version of the classic but it is the old ones that you will be humming leaving the theate including Belle, Be Our Guest and Gaston.  There are also wonderful cameos by Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen.  This film version with live actors is in capable hands with Watson.  It is a big ask to have her star in such a blockbuster but she succeeds admirably.  You won’t be disappointed if you spend a few bucks and see this film.

Personal Shopper

I have seen most of Kristin Stewart’s performances from Twilight to Personal Shopper and I think this is my favorite performance of hers.  In my opinion,  she is even better in this one than Clouds of Sils Marie for which she won the Cesar – the French equivalent of an Oscar.  Nowhere in this performance did I see those peculiar little facial twerks that seemed to plague her for most of her career.  She is great in this film which is a good thing as the camera never leaves her.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright who lies in Paris and is a personal shopper for Kyra, a celebrity of some sort.  Maureen’s twin brother has recently died of a heart ailment that she too suffers from.  Both he and his sister are mediums and Maureen goes to his house to try and contact her dead brother.  They had made a pact that they would contact each other from the beyond if one died.  There are clearly paranormal creatures at work as Maureen continues to try and contact her brother.  That is the ghost story part of Shopper.

Then there is the murder mystery plotline.  Maureen starts getting texts from an unknown person (or spirit) that get progressively creepier. The texts get her to  go to Kyra’s apartment and try on her clothes in an erotic sequence.  Later, Maureen returns to the apartment to find that Kyra has been murdered.  Stewart is mesmerizing in this very weird (but good weird) film that has been seen by about fifteen people in the USA.  It isn’t playing in very many places but I highly recommend it.

 

Movie: The United Kingdom

 

The United Kingdom

United Kingdom is a good but not a great movie and along the way will give you some interesting history of Botswana that I suspect many people are unaware of.  David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama, a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who is studying in England in 1947 when he is called upon to return to his homeland to be King.  Unfortunately, he has met a white woman, Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike and the two quickly fall in love.  Khama proposes to her and the British government gets wind of it and together with his uncle (who seems be the interim ruler) work their hardest to keep the couple from marrying.  Neither believe that a mixed marriage will advance their respective agendas in Bechuanaland.

They are unsuccessful and Khama and Ruth go to Africa as a married couple not supported by either the Brits, who do not come off well in this story, or the tribe.  Khama is subsequently exiled by somewhat nefarious means and Ruth stays behind so she too can’t be exiled.  There isn’t much doubt as to what the outcome will be yet Oyelowo and Pike are quite good and have a quiet chemistry.  Oyelowo gets the great speeches but Pike is fine as the suffering wife.  Together they are believable.  United Kingdom is a film you’ll certainly find enjoyable and historically interesting but it won’t win any Oscars.  The father we get from awards season, the less we seem to have good choices at the theater so this film is perfectly good way to spend an afternoon or evening.

Movies: 2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

In many cities, including mine, audiences can see the 2017 Oscar nominated shorts (live action, documentary and animated).  In the time it normally takes to see a regular movie, you can see the 5 nominated films back to back.  It’s a great way to see these films.  I usually watch the Live Action Shorts and skip the others although I might try to get to the documentaries this year.  I found the Live Action Shorts to be more upbeat this go around than in previous years where it seemed like the first movie was like Manchester by the Sea and then got progressively more depressing!  I was pleasantly surprised by the 2017 group.  This year’s films:

Enemis Interieurs (French)

This film is very relevant to what is happening around the world right now.  A Muslim man (Hassam Ghancy) born in Algiers and raised in France is attempting to get French Citizenship.  He is in a dimly light immigration room which almost looks like an interrogation room.  His “interviewer” is at times aggressive, hostile and calm and watching the interplay between these two men as the conversation goes from cordial to hostile with the introduction of religion and terrorism into the discussion.

Despite the fact that both men are French and have spent their entire lives in that country (Algiers was a French Colony at the time of Ghancy’s birth), history and politics have created a gulf between them and one is now in control of the other’s fate.  You can’t help but watch this film and think about how there are likely similar interviews going on across America every hour of every day.  It is a sobering 30 minutes.

Sing (Hungary)

Sing is about a young girl coming to a new school that has a famous children’s choir.  The shy Zsofi loves to sing and joins the choir.  She also makes friends with another girl in the choir (Liza) who is extremely popular.  The film explores the themes of power and corruption in the apparently uber competitive world of elementary school choirs.  Sing has a nice twist at the end as the children deal with the choir’s dark secret of success in an innovative and creative way making the audience smile.  It is a story of the little guy standing up to oppression and the power of the underdog.  Along the way, there is some great singing and the two young girls who star in it are mesmerizing.

Silent Nights (Denmark)

Silent Nights explores another very relevant aspect of the immigration issue as Kwame, an immigrant from Ghana to Denmark tries to make a living in a land far removed from his home.  He has a family back in Ghana and struggles to get money to send home to them.  He meets a young woman at a homeless shelter where she volunteers and they begin a relationship that gets quite complicated very quickly.

Kwame is a complex character and he lies, steals and commits adultery with this young, naïve Danish woman.  I never bought their relationship.  I understand what the film maker was trying to achieve by asking the audience to have compassion for someone in a difficult situation.  The film might have potentially been able to achieve its goals had it been a full-length feature film where the characters could have been much better developed.  As it was, I just didn’t buy it and thought the ending was contrite even though the actors were quite good.

Timecode (Spain)

This is a very short (15 minute) film that captures two parking lot attendants at work.  One has the day shift and the other,  the night shift.  The two just give each other a cursory acknowledgement as they change shifts every twelve hours.  With cameras, everywhere and an immensely boring job monitoring them, the two workers begin communicating through dance videos done while on the job.  The story of two individuals performing rote jobs quickly turns into a romantic comedy and it is all contained in 15 minutes.  The Director is able to accomplish everything he needs to in this short amount of time.  The dancing is great, the idea cute and the movie ends on a bit of a high note which is always appreciated.

La Femme et la TGV (Switzerland)

Every day, Elise a widowed baker, opens her window and waves the Swiss flag to the TGV train as it passes by her home which sits a few feet from the train tracks.  One day, the Train Conductor, Bruno, drops a note to her out of appreciation and the two of them correspond each day until one day, the train does not come.  The route was changed for the train. Elise, clearly already a depressed individual who does not interact with anyone in the town shuts herself off even more until she finds that Bruno stopped by her home and left a good-bye note.  She enlists the help of a young man to drive her to Munich where Bruno is about to take a train home and catches up with him.  I won’t spoil the ending but it is bitter sweet and the actress playing the lead role is excellent.

Summary

I’d highly recommend seeing these films.  It’s hard to predict which one will win the Oscar  but several are worthy.  The critics seem to like the French interrogation film the best but the predictors think La Femme is probably the favorite.  I personally liked Sing the best followed by La Femme.  I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Movies: Fences and a few quick thoughts on the Oscar nominations

Fences:

The acting in Fences is superb and all the accolades coming Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’s way are well deserved. They can get all the Oscars in the world as far as I’m concerned. The problem I had with the film is that it was a play up on the big screen. After awhile, this very long film (2 hours and 19 minutes) got to me with all the talking. At least on stage, there would have been an intermission to break it up. I am somewhat surprised that the screenwriters did not create more of a story as opposed to giving us what I assume was pretty much word for word the over 25,000 words of the play. I would have preferred that along with the important soliloquies and major dramatic moments of the play, that there had been some flashbacks or other techniques to engage us in the story.

That being said, there are so many powerful moments in this film that in conjunction with the acting makes it one of the better movies of the year. Viola Davis being able to cry and have snot coming from her nose at the same time is an Oscar winning performance if I ever saw one. I think it is difficult to take a play and make it work on the big screen and this one has its issues but along the way, there is some glorious dialogue and amazing acting.  It is well worth seeing.

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations:

The Positives:

  • Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea – he is amazing
  • Much more diverse set of nominations which are all well deserved
  • By and large, the best films and performances are being honored

The Strange:

  • No Amy Adams for best actress? She has been nominated by every other major group and deserved a nod
  • Thought Hugh Grant would have received a nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. His performance was deserving and recognized by the other major groups
  • Deadpool clearly did not resonate with the old white Oscar voters – too bad
  • No Taraji P. Henson? Great job in Hidden Fences

My Wish list – Outside possibilities that I wished for

  • Viggo Mortensen got his Best Actor nomination but would have loved to see Captain Fantastic get a best picture nod
  • Would have loved for Sonny Pawar to have been nominated for “Lion”. He made the movie
  • Wasn’t going to happen but I thought Chris Pine was better than Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
  • My favorite foreign films of the year both came from New Zealand and weren’t nominated – “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “The Dark Horse”

 

Movies: Hidden Figures

 

Hidden Figures in conjunction with Loving provide a history lesson that everyone should  be aware of. The two films take place in roughly the same timeframe in Virginia and show what life was like in a segregated state not so long ago. In addition, Hidden Figures reminds us of what women had to face in the workplace prior to the equal rights movement. The film’s story of how three brilliant young African-American women helped the USA send men into space and win the race with the Russians is nothing short of inspiring.   These women had so much to overcome yet persevered and succeeded.

We are first introduced to Katherine Gobel Johnson as a child math genius in West Virginia. A jump in time and she (Taraji P. Henson) and her friends (Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson) work in the “Colored Computer” division of the Langley research center in Hampton Roads Virginia. It is called the computer division because this was a time when people who were really good at math on adding machines were called computers. The film takes place in the early 60s, everything is completely segregated in Virginia and NASA’s Space Task Group is no exception. The Engineer in charge, Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) needs someone with knowledge of Analytic Geometry and Johnson (then Gobel) is sent over. To say her reception by a bunch of white guy engineers was frosty would be an understatement.

These three women all had brilliant minds and despite continual discrimination slowly become appreciated by some in NASA. Kevin Costner’s character is under intense pressure to get an American into space after the Russians launched both Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. He is focused on calculating all of the requirements for launch, orbit and reentry and he comes to appreciate Johnson, the “human computer” and breaks down barriers so that he can maximize her knowledge to achieve his goals. Nothing is easy for her in this environment, including her having to run 1-½ miles to the “colored” bathroom every time she needs to relieve herself and Harrison helps remove these obstacles. He also showcases Johnson to the military brass and ultimately John Glen refuses to go into space without her calculations which proved to be critical to his mission’s success.

Dorothy Vaughn realizes that her group of African-American mathematicians is going to be rendered useless as the first IBM mainframes are brought in and teaches herself Fortran and how to use the computer. She is able to retrain all of her employees and they become instrumental in the successful conversion to computers. Mary Jackson breaks barriers in her pursuance of an Engineering degree having to convince a judge to allow her to take the required courses at an all white high school.

Everyone should see this movie to appreciate the history as well as the present day implications. I think my only critique of the film is the lack of character development of the Vaughn and Jackson characters as well as Johnson’s husband Jim played by an under-used Mahershala Ali. It would have been nice to have them as flushed out as Johnson.  The acting is solid by Henson, Costner, Spencer and Ali but Janelle Monae really excells as Mary Jackson. It has been a great year for her with parts in Moonlight and Hidden Figures and she shined bright in both. The score by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams is great and I still have “Runnin” repeating in my head.  See this movie!

Movies: La La Land, Weiner and the Best of 2016

Awards season is in full swing and I’m trying to get to as many of the potential Oscar nominations as possible over the next few weeks. Here are two along with what I thought were the best movies of 2016.

La La Land

I really liked La La Land. Did I love it? No. Do I think it should win Best Picture? No. Should everyone see it? Probably. The first and third acts are the best. The middle drags and I confess I did nod off during that part, but this homage to the great musicals of the past has many moments of brilliance and the last 10 minutes are stunning.  La La Land (LA land) is the story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) struggling to find their respective success in LA. Mia is an actress keeping herself alive by being a barista and Sebastian (Seb) is a jazz musician hoping to open his own club. In the meantime he plays the piano for anyone who will hire him.

The movie starts out on a high note with a wonderful sequence on a gridlocked LA freeway. There is at least a five-minute singing and dancing routine as one by one, the occupants of the cars get out to join in. Mia and Seb first encounter each other at the end of the number and enjoy a few other chance meetings before love blossoms. The middle part of the movie follows their respective career struggles as they also try to create and maintain a lasting relationship. The main theme of the movie is clearly the price of following one’s dreams and ambitions and it is woven throughout the film.

I won’t give away the end, as it is bittersweet and pretty much perfect. It is one I want to see again because I know I missed things. I’m not a big musical person so this homage to the great ones of the past is pretty much lost on me, but I do know that Gosling and Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers. Their acting, however, is flawless and every accolade they are getting is well deserved. Before the awards season finishes, everyone should see Manchester By the Sea, Moonlight and La La Land.

Weiner

Weiner is now streaming on multiple platforms and I must have been pretty desperate for something to watch on TV because I decided to check it out. I guess my excuse is that it is being nominated by many groups for Best Documentary so in my attempt to see as much as I can before the Oscars, I saw it. “Weiner” is essentially the story of his ill-fated mayoral campaign after a self-imposed exile from politics following his first sexting scandal. The filmmakers seemingly had full access to Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin as the film unfolds and Weiner looks as if he is going to make a major comeback as he runs for mayor.

This all falls apart completely when a 23 year-old woman announces she and Weiner had a long sexting history. It is shocking that the Weiners continued to allow the filmmakers to film the resulting disastrous impact on both the campaign and the personal relationship of the couple. What is even more amazing is that Huma continued to stay with him until after the film had been released. It was only after a worse sexting scandal erupted this summer that she left him. Weiner is a narcissist with big problems and this film gets to the heart of his personality as it traces what the filmmakers saw as his final fall from grace little knowing what was to come after. “Weiner” is an excellent documentary if you can stand the subject matter.

The Best of 2016

In the spirit of Awards Season, I’m going to provide a list of what I thought were the best movies I saw this year in no particular order. They are all worth checking out!

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

La La Land

Lion

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Arrival

The Lobster

Hell or High Water

O.J. Made in America

Sully

Love and Friendship

The Dark Horse (not to be confused with “Dark Horse” which is supposed to be very good but I didn’t see)

I also want to give a shout out to three movies that had elements of greatness, particularly acting, but weren’t very fun to watch.

Elle (for the amazing performance of Isabelle Huppert)

Certain Women (for the acting – particularly Kristin Stewart and Lily Gladstone)

Birth of a Nation (particularly the acting but also the history)

Finally, I haven’t yet seen Hidden Figures or Fences, which likely would have landed up on this list.

Movies: Lion and Elle

There are a lot of movies with Oscar buzz currently playing in theaters and the holiday period is a great time to catch up on them.  Here are my thoughts on two of these award contenders.

Lion 

You will like this movie.  The acting is great; the cinematography breathtaking; the true-story unbelievably compelling and the haunting musical score compliments every scene.  The movie is essentially comprised of two distinct parts.  The first is the story of a five-year-old Indian boy Saroo played brilliantly by Mumbai native Sunny Pawar.  It is his engaging personality, adorable facial expressions and remarkable acting skills that suck you into the film from the get go.  I’m not sure that without Sunny playing this part, that the audience would be as engaged going into the slower second part of the film which depicts Saroo as an adult.

Saroo is just five when he is separated from his older brother one night and falls asleep on a train that takes him more than 1000 miles from his Indian village.  He becomes a street child in Calcutta, living under intolerable conditions and unable to speak the language or remember the name of his village. Every scene of this young boy being carried away from all that he knows is gut wrenching. Eventually, he is put into an orphanage and ultimately adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham (Faramir in LOTR). Kidman gives a particularly compelling performance as this story obviously resonated with her real life adoption experience.

The second half of the film focuses on the adult Saroo played very well by Dev Patel.  This part of the movie moves at a much slower pace as Saroo tries to come to terms with his origins. Saroo remembers an amazing amount of detail about his Indian home and when introduced to Google Earth, begins a virtually impossible search for his origins in hopes of finding his mother and brother.  The film doesn’t rely on sentimentality and saves the true emotional moments for the end where you can’t help but be moved by an amazing outcome.

I liked a lot about his film but particularly the relationship Saroo has with his adopted mother and the fact that he doesn’t abandon her for his birth mother in India.  I also appreciate that the Director doesn’t make this a tear jerker from the onset – he could have – and waits for the final moments of the film for us to wipe a few happy tears away.  This movie will particularly tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever been a parent and I’m glad that the Director didn’t focus on Saroo’s birth mother’s reaction to losing her five-year-old child which would be a different and devastating story.  As 2016 closes out, it is nice to have an uplifting story and Lion is a movie all should enjoy.

Elle

Elle is one of those movies that you won’t be able to stop discussing long after the credits roll.  It is a psychological thriller that twists and turns and blows up your assumptions as to what is happening throughout the movie.  As a woman, I was particularly conflicted by the rape scenes and the motivations of the victim as the film progressed but it made more sense to me with a surprise ending.  This is not a happy movie so beware.

Michele is a co-owner of a small gaming company when she is sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home as her cat watches.  For some reason, she does not report the crime to the police.  We next see Michele interacting with her young,  predominantly male employees and telling them that a game depicting the rape and brutalization of a woman needs to be more “orgasmic”.  The degree to which Michele enjoys brutal sex becomes grey as are the dysfunctional relationships with all the men in her life as Michele goes about her daily activities seemingly undistracted by what has happened to her. Ultimately it proves to be a “cat and mouse” game of the highest order.

The movie continues with more sex and brutality as we watch Michele interact with her ex-husband, current lover (and best friend’s husband), son and even her rapist.  She is in a car accident and injured but neither calls the police or goes to a hospital which explains a lot about her and her feelings toward authority.  I’m never happy when rape is used as a plot device and this movie will make you squirm and feel uncomfortable.  It is not a film to enjoy but it is a movie to watch Isabelle Huppert as Michele command the screen from beginning to end as Michele.  She is magnificent as the standoffish woman who the camera never leaves for entire 2 hours and 20 minutes length of the film.  I have never seen Huppert act but wow, she was utterly amazing in this movie.

The end of the film was a surprise to me (maybe not to others) and explains a lot about her motivations but the entirety of this film experience will leave you exhausted.  Elle is a tough movie to watch but seeing Huppert’s performance made it worthwhile for me.  Elle didn’t make the last Oscar cut for best foreign film but hopefully Huppert will be nominated.   Both have been nominated for awards this season by other organizations.