(R) • 94 minutes • On-screen here from 12/16/11 to 1/5/12
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt
Synopsis: When it’s done right, as it is in Young Adult, there is something absolutely mesmerizing about watching a train wreck unfold on screen. When the wreck in question is a narcissistic beauty played to scheming, sour, downward-spiraling perfection by Charlize Theron, cringing is definitely called for, but so is laughter.
In fact that’s exactly the reaction director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody are going for. Paired up for the first time since their 2007 knockout punch Juno, the two ironists have switched sides in a sense. While Juno celebrated an acerbic, outsider pregnant teen, in Young Adult they are interested in the prom queen — still pretty, still mean and now a decade into life on her own. It’s not going well.
This is comedy extracted from pain start to finish, with its through-a-shot-glass-darkly story starting in Minneapolis — or Mini-Apple, as her small hometown friends call it. Mavis (Theron) spends her days writing young adult novels, basically high school in-crowd pulp, and her nights making the club scene, binge-drinking, sleeping around and surprised to find happiness eluding her.
The self-absorbed stream of consciousness of a teenager that she needs for the books comes easily for her, which seems like a gift until you realize that is how she still thinks. The time she spends writing in front of the computer, working through issues for her characters, also serves as a handy voice-over device to let us in on just how much growing up Mavis still has to do.
That journey begins in earnest when she heads back home to pick up things with her high school sweetheart, football star Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). That he’s married and has just had a baby doesn’t alter her resolve. But things take an unexpected turn when she encounters Matt Freehauf, the high school geek she’d forgotten about. Comedian Patton Oswalt (King of Queens, Big Fan) is exceptional playing a sarcastic devil’s advocate, forever prodding Mavis toward her better self.
Their friction and their friendship, their brush with romance, is what gives the film its humor and its heart. Young Adult needs a lot of that to soften the outrage as Mavis sets about seducing Buddy, who looks as fresh-scrubbed and outdoorsy as if he just walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Elizabeth Reaser plays Beth, very likable as the new mom, the patient wife, a wannabe rocker who jams with a bunch of other new mothers. She represents a nice bit of smart tartness added to what is more typically a throw-away character. But Buddy and Beth are really just on the edge of the storm being whipped up by Mavis and Matt.
Theron and Oswalt turn out to be a terrific odd couple. Not easy because Cody’s screenplay calls for, and Reitman demands, that they both reveal a great deal, and a great deal of what they reveal is exceedingly ugly. In Mavis, it is her unintentional drive to destroy everything and anyone who comes close and for this Theron uses her statuesque beauty as if it is just something else in life to be squandered. Though Mavis is creating a different sort of mayhem than the murdering Aileen that earned Theron an Oscar for Monster in 2004, the actress has taken as much care in creating all of the character wrinkles — the heaviness of an alcoholic getting started the morning after, the strands of hair she pulls when she can’t drink away the nerves.
The Skin I Live In
(R) • 117 minutes • On-screen here from 12/9/11 to 12/15/11
Director: Pedro Aldomovar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya
Synopsis: There’s an early decisive moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s exhilarating film The Skin I Live In, when Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon and madman played with soul weariness by Antonio Banderas, gazes at the image of a woman on the wall of his bedroom. She’s bigger than life, this woman, and more beautiful. He calls her Vera (Elena Anaya), and she’s stretched out in the classic recumbent pose of the odalisque: that exotic Turkish harem dweller and Orientalist fantasy painted by the likes of Goya,Ingres and Manet, and given opulent new life and reverberant meaning by Mr. Almodóvar, a master of his art.
In paintings of odalisques, the often naked women lie across the image like unwrapped gifts, exquisitely available to the men who paint them and to the patrons who value such female voluptuaries. There’s something different about Vera, though it’s initially difficult to pinpoint what. Ledgard lives in a mansion brightened with paintings of big nudes and blooms, and when you first see him looking at Vera, it’s as if he were viewing another canvas or a photo, or peering into a window. Yet this is no ordinary image; rather, it’s a surveillance video, and Vera has just tried to kill herself. Ledgard won’t stand for that and rushes in to save her, patching up a body that’s the centerpiece in an intoxicating, lush mystery.
There are several genres nimbly folded into The Skin I Live In, which might also be described as an existential mystery, a melodramatic thriller, a medical horror film or just a polymorphous extravaganza. In other words, it’s an Almodóvar movie with all the attendant gifts that implies: lapidary technique, calculated perversity, intelligent wit. There’s also beauty and spectacle, of course, especially as embodied by Vera, who usually wears a body stocking with gloves and booties, and knows exactly what she looks like. Watch how she watches Ledgard watching her, a relay of looks that evokes John Berger’s observation: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Were we born this way or made? Mr. Almodóvar has his ideas, which he playfully explores with each labyrinthine turn.
The story is impossible — and weird, dark, funny and fractured, even jagged. It opens on a cityscape and the dateline “Toledo 2012” (as in Spain, not Ohio), the first indication that we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a shivery intimation of a futureworld, but it’s followed by a nod to “Citizen Kane” as the camera glides past a gate and into an isolated mansion. There Vera lives in a bright, locked room with a Spartan-modernist ambience, where she does little else except watch nature TV, practice yoga, scribble on the walls and create little busts inspired by the biomorphic forms of Louise Bourgeois. Ledgard calls her his patient, though she would rightly call herself his prisoner, as well as the object of his obsession.
How Vera got in that room and why are only two of the many mysteries in The Skin I Live In. Mr. Almodóvar seeds the narrative with assorted teasing clues, quickly draping a shadow across half a face, for instance, a bifurcation that suggests both a divided self and a yin-yang symbol. Mostly, he plunges you straight into a story that moves, restlessly, at times imperceptibly, between the present and past. As in Vertigo (another of this film’s touchstones), the past and present exist in a loop, at least for a man obsessed. Eventually, the galvanizing points on that time continuum come into focus, including an accident that badly burned Ledgard’s wife, prompting his search for a new type of skin.
It takes time to get a handle on the story (and even then, your grip may not be secure), though it’s instantly clear that something is jumping beneath the surface here, threatening to burst forth. Vera’s plight and the temporal shifts help create an air of unease and barely controlled chaos, an unsettling vibe that becomes spooky when Ledgard puts on a white lab coat and begins doing strange things with blood. Mr. Almodóvar doesn’t paint the screen red, at least not right away. Instead he daubs it on, the crimson easing in by way of the curtains Ledgard lectures in front of and in the droplets he perfectly places on glass plates. Later the blood will splash across a white bed in a frenzy of violence, an Abstract Expressionist splatter.
There are times in The Skin I Live In when it feels as if the whole thing will fly into pieces, as complication is piled onto complication, and new characters and intrigues are introduced amid horror, melodrama and slapstick. “You’re insane!” a colleague tells Ledgard, who doesn’t look terribly surprised by the news. Later, a rapist, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), in a tiger suit rings the doorbell, and one fateful night Ledgard’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), meets a young man, Vicente (Jan Cornet). Despite all these moving, spinning parts, Mr. Almodóvar’s control remains virtuosic and the film hangs together completely, secured by Vera and Ledgard and a relationship that’s a Pandora’s box from which identity, gender, sex and desire spring.
Mr. Banderas and Ms. Anaya are excellent, though neither has been directed to seduce like some of the director’s past memorable characters. (A spikily human, funny Marisa Paredes, as Ledgard’s fanatically loyal housekeeper, Marilia, supplies plenty of warmth.) For good story reasons, Vera is largely opaque, while Ledgard remains at arm’s length: She is a question that he’s asked but at first can’t answer.
There’s a vital toughness, in particular, to Mr. Banderas, as this likable if often misused actor goes dark without compromising his character with softness or light. It’s a gutsy turn, and while your eyes are often, reasonably, on Ms. Anaya, it’s a pleasure to experience a performance from Mr. Banderas that peels away his persona and burrows under the skin.
(PG-13) • 121 minutes • On-screen here from 11/18/11 to 12/8/11
Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Martin Sheen. Emilio Estevez
Synopsis: One thing you quickly realize when you sit down to watch The Way: Martin Sheen is a very compelling actor. Another thing you realize more slowly as the film goes along: His oldest son, Emilio Estevez, is a very sensitive director.
Mr. Estevez is both writer and director of this film, and also turns up in a small role, but he gives the spotlight to his father, who makes quite a lot out of a low-key story that could easily have degenerated into mush. Mr. Sheen plays an ophthalmologist named Tom, whose only son, Daniel (Mr. Estevez), dies in severe weather in the Pyrenees while trying to walk the Way of St. James (also known as the Camino de Santiago), a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles that ends in northwest Spain at a cathedral where the Apostle James is said to be buried.
Tom goes to retrieve his son’s body and ends up walking the pilgrimage himself, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way. Mr. Sheen gives a lovely performance as the no-nonsense doctor, and he gets wonderful support from actors playing fellow travelers who befriend Tom: Yorick van Wageningen as a verbose Dutchman, Deborah Kara Unger as an acid-tongued woman trying to quit smoking, and James Nesbitt as an Irishman with writer’s block.
This is not an “inspirational film” in the usual, syrupy sense; none of these people are overtly finding God on this trek. The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship. He lets these four fine actors convey that true personal transformations are not announced with fanfare, but happen internally.
(R) • 120 minutes • On-screen here from 11/11/11 to 11/17/11
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Synopsis: Make no mistake – Take Shelter is the film that will mark Michael Shannon out as one of the finest actors of his generation. The star of TV’s Boardwalk Empire – who has shined while lending support in the likes of Bad Lieutenant and Revolutionary Road – takes centre stage in this powerful examination of dreams and visions and the effect that anxiety can have on one’s sanity.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, who starts the film in pretty good shape. He has a roof over his head, a loving wife, good friends and a solid job working for a local sand mining company. His only drama concerns his daughter recently losing her hearing, with the family waiting for his insurance to kick in to pay her medical bills.
“You’ve got a good life Curtis,” exclaims one of his friends, and that is very much the case, until the visions begin. They start as nightmares, with Curtis witnessing approaching tornadoes or becoming hypnotised by birds flying in strange patterns.
They become more serious when his dreams start to merge with reality, with Curtis attacked in his nightmare yet feeling the pain when awake.
He takes the dreams as a sign of the impending apocalypse, and so sets about building an expensive storm shelter in his back-yard. So far, so Field of Dreams, but rather than long-dead baseballs stars showing up to make everyone feel better about themselves, Take Shelter enters much darker territory.
His obsession threatens Curtis’s job and begins to tear his family apart, as the lines between fantasy and reality increasingly blur; the situation is yet further complicated by a revelation about his mother that causes Curtis to question everything that he is seeing and doing.
What follows is a gripping meditation on the nature of faith and dreams and the ways in which fear, paranoia and anger can take their toll on one’s mental health.
Director Jeff Nichols handles the challenging subject matter with great sensitivity, his script throwing up big questions without offering up easy answers, and his ambiguous concluding scene is sure to have audiences arguing long into the night.
The visuals are stunning, with the dream sequences as beautiful as they are terrifying, while the sound design and score is also excellent; sparse early on yet building into something genuinely moving that perfectly matches the images onscreen.
Jessica Chastain delivers an affecting performance as Curtis’s long-suffering wife, the most sympathetic character in the movie.
But Take Shelter is Michael Shannon’s film, and during the film’s frequent long and unbroken takes – many of which are trained on his face – he’s never been better. Shannon is the kind of actor who can say pages of dialogue with merely a look, and the power and intensity with which he plays Curtis should see him in the running when they start handing out acting awards at the turn of the year.
A haunting film that combines beautiful imagery with big, important themes, Take Shelter is genre moviemaking that genuinely has something to say, and the result is an unforgettable celluloid experience that will stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
(R) • 115 minutes • On-screen here from 10/28/11 to 11/10/11
Director: Rene Feret
Starring: Marc Bebe, Rene Feret
Synopsis: An extremely enjoyable period drama that speculatively fills in the gaps in the ignored life of a sidelined sibling, this independent French production achieves miracles on a reportedly tiny production budget. It paints a detailed portrait of a musician’s life in pre-revolutionary France and drenches it in a soundtrack that brings thrillingly to life what might have been.
Maria Anna Mozart (director Feret’s daughter, Marie), whose family nickname was Nannerl, was the elder sister of the more famous Wolfgang.
The young genius idolised her, with good reason: she was a prodigious musical talent herself and, as this film opens, is the headline act in a travelling show in which their father Leopold shows off his kids in the royal courts.
The film superbly evokes the life of the travelling player and the performance parent: arduous and expensive travel on an uncertain income playing for capricious aristocrats who don’t know the difference between tricksy showmanship and genuine skill.
But the plot thickens as Nannerl, approaching marriageable age, is banned by her father from both performance and composition, unladylike activities that might deter desirable suitors.
Quite how the story develops is best not divulged here, though it is worth remarking that the film’s major speculations, whatever their dramatic logic, have no historical basis.
Commendably it becomes an interesting rumination on the restrictions imposed on women, without ever adopting a stridently or even overtly feminist position.
Unlike, say, Sofia Coppola’s tedious Marie Antoinette, it does not raise a knowing 21st-century eyebrow at an 18th-century problem: rather it accepts the characters as creatures of their age.
Nannerl befriends one of Louis XV’s children (Lisa Feret, another family member) and the cleverly constructed story that develops, complete with cross-dressing pretences, is a neat reference to the operatic conventions Wolfgang would perfect.
Sadly not a note survives of the music that Nannerl almost certainly composed, but a speculative score by Marie-Jeanne Serero fancifully fills in the gaps.
This is a film that classical music lovers will adore and many more will and should enjoy.
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil
(R) • 89 minutes • On-screen here 10/21/11, 10/22/11, 10/28/11 & 10/29/11
Director: Eli Craig
Starring: Tyler Labine, Stanley Tudyk, Katrina Bowden
Synopsis: Two lovable West Virginian hillbillies, are headed to their “fixer-upper” vacation cabin to drink some beer, do some fishin’, and have a good time. But when they run into a group of preppy college kids who assume from their looks that they must be in-bred, chainsaw wielding killers, Tucker & Dale’s vacation takes a bloody & hilarious turn for the worse.
(R) • 124 minutes • On-screen here from 10/21/11 to 10/27/11
Director: John Sayles
Starring: Joel Torre, Chris Cooper, Garret Dillahunt
Synopsis: “We’re [screwed] from both sides,” a Filipino villager says with both disgust and equanimity in John Sayles’ trenchant historical new movie Amigo. A preeminent independent American filmmaker of the past three decades, Sayles looks at the private anguish and moral difficulty of a smaller indigenous culture caught in the vicious crossfire of larger “civilizations.”
Captured with his typical felicity for character, mood and historical breadth, Sayles stages his new work against the American armed forces occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. “Amigo” is one of his-large scale ensemble pieces, such as City of Hope, synthesized with the impact of the past on the present, such as Lone Star. Sayles originated the material as a novel, but while conducting research, he became captivated by the story’s cinematic potential.
A typically freewheeling work from Sayles, Amigo is an original work that wields his fascination with personalities and history to a rambling and chaotic exploration of caste, class and color. The novelistic origins of the project are still evident on the screen, most clearly in the free flow of dialects and languages. The movie moves, not always confidently, between English, Spanish and Tagalog.
Sayles’ new film pivots on the elemental conflict of indigenous people, caught between the political and military imperatives of an occupying force and a guerilla revolution.
As the opening Spanish-language voice over pointedly alludes, the American conquest of the Philippines (1898-1901) expanded out of the American military campaign against Spanish interests in Cuba.
Sayles sets his story in 1900, after military operations between the two nations largely subsided following the Paris Treaty. The Americans established a favorable government in power, an event that helped inflame a nascent insurgency led by the revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo in the countryside.
The title of Amigo, which dramatizes the conflict, refers to Rafael Dacanay (Joel Torre), and the patronizing nickname members of an American Army unit accord the local village leader, the so-called head-man. The spoils of the war have come home with a vengeance. His son has disobeyed him and fled for the countryside, presumably to join a band of insurrectionists, led by his estranged brother Simón (Ronnie Lazaro).
One of the final remnants of the Spanish presence is the priest, or friar, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who was imprisoned by the guerillas but with the arrival of the Army unit, he is set free. The movie plays off the cruel irony of the Americans now tasked with “saving,” or “protecting” the local garrison from the bandit revolutionaries that stage hit-and-run attacks before repatriating into the rain-soaked forests and interior of the rice-growing area.
Rafael must play both sides against the middle. The power and strength of the film emerges through the dense, multi-threaded story and the multiplicity of voices that Sayles weaves into a curious and involving arabesque. The American soldiers, for instance, are neither mercenaries nor saints; some of them are wizened old hands from Indian pacification programs in the West, while others are callow and dangerously out of depth cavalry and infantryman.
The occupying force is Lieutenant Ike Compton (Garrett Dillahunt), a compassionate, though steely, voice of reason trying to maneuver around the more craven, animalistic directions of his superior officer, Col. Hardacre (Sayles regular Chris Cooper). “I have to live with these people,” Compton says. “No, Lieutenant, you have to make war on these people,” the colonel responds.
Like Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (which also premiered at the Toronto Film Fest) it is possible to read into this film as an allegory, a thinly veiled commentary on Iraq. Most historians agree that anti-insurgency Philippine campaign was founded on a belief of extreme “persuasion,” and was brutal and explicit anti-agrarian. And those policies would influence the strategic hamlet theories in Vietnam and eventually in Iraq.
Amigo rarely feels compromised, much less conventional. Sayles uses humor and the action of the soldiers, especially their near endless capacity for getting drunk or acquiring the worst kind of sexually transmitted diseases, to create a more a multifaceted group portrait. It’s exactly that conflict between the male group and the individual priority that deepens and fleshes out the drama.
Working in digital video for the first time, Sayles finds a liquid style that frees him up and enables him to do what he does best, create fully inhabitable individuals. When the action does come, it is nasty, fierce and unpleasant.
“Amigo” has none of the romantic revolutionary appeal of war or death. It is bloody and unremitting, and often even cowardly. Indeed, by the ironic coda, nobody escapes it.
(R) • 100 minutes • On-screen here from 10/14/11 to 10/20/11
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Synopsis: A mysterious man who has multiple jobs as a garage mechanic, a Hollywood stuntman and a getaway driver seems to be trying to escape his shady past as he falls for his neighbor – whose husband is in prison and who’s looking after her child alone. Meanwhile, his garage mechanic boss is trying to set up a race team using gangland money, which implicates our driver as he is to be used as the race team’s main driver. Our hero gets more than he bargained for when he meets the man who is married to the woman he loves.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
(PG-13) • 120 minutes • On-screen here from 10/7/11 to 10/13/11
Director: Wayne Wang
Starring: Bingbin Li, Gianna Jun, Hugh Jackman
Synopsis: Lisa See’s critically acclaimed novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan comes to life in award-winning director Wayne Wang’s latest film about the power of strong female friendships over time. Wang, who directed the famous ’90s Asian American film The Joy Luck Club, tells a similar tale of female empowerment and resilience to overcome adversity, meet society’s standards, and cope with rigid cultural norms. The story takes place in 19th century China, where girls had their feet bound and spent the rest of their lives in seclusion. To communicate with one another, they created a new language or secret code called Nu Shu, women’s writing. They painted their messages on fans and sewed them on handkerchiefs. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, seven-year-old girls Snow Flower and Lily are matched as Laotong or “Old Sames” sisters bound together for eternity. They write Nu Shu between the folds of a white silk fan to express their feelings and talk to each other. In a parallel time in present day Shanghai, the Laotong descendants Nina and Sophia struggle to maintain their friendship as they deal with the demands of their careers, relationships, and an evolving society. Through the life lessons embroidered in the white silk fan of their ancestors, the two women begin to learn the power of strong female bonds over the years—or in this case, centuries. Asia’s two well-respected actresses Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun star in this poignant tale of female companionship.
(R) • 112 minutes • On-screen here from 9/30/11 to 10/6/11
Director: John Madden
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson
Synopsis: Even the best secret agents carry a debt from a past mission. Rachel Singer must now face up to hers…
Filmed on location in Tel Aviv, the U.K., and Budapest, the espionage thriller The Debt is directed by Academy Award nominee John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). The screenplay, by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, is adapted from the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov [The Debt]. At the 2011 Beaune International Thriller Film Festival, The Debt was honored with the Special Police [Jury] Prize.
The story begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (played by Academy Award winner Helen Mirren) and Stephan (two-time Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson) about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds of the upcoming Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). All three have been venerated for decades by Israel because of the secret mission that they embarked on for their country back in 1965-1966, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Jessica Chastain [The Tree of Life, The Help], Marton Csokas [The Lord of the Rings,Dream House], and Sam Worthington [Avatar, Clash of the Titans]) tracked down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), the feared Surgeon of Birkenau, in East Berlin. While Rachel found herself grappling with romantic feelings during the mission, the net around Vogel was tightened by using her as bait.
At great risk, and at considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished – or was it? The suspense builds in and across two different time periods, with startling action and surprising revelations that compel Rachel to take matters into her own hands.
(PG-13) • 92 minutes • On-screen here from 9/30/11 to 10/6/11
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother
Synopsis: Another Earth is quietly and movingly out of this world, and Brit Marling is going to be a huge star. You heard it here first!
Director Mike Cahill has woven sci-fi imaginings and quantum physics theories of parallel universes into a provocative meditation on the prospect of rewriting your life history. It is no simple task to spin such abstract notions into smart (versus cheesy) entertainment, but there is such a strong creative voice stirring in Cahill’s first feature that it’s easy to forgive the shortcomings.
The film stars the ethereal young actress Brit Marling, who co-wrote and co-produced with Cahill, and the rock-solid William Mapother (Ethan on Lost). They are strangers whose lives are upended by tragedy on a night seemingly filled with endless possibilities brought about by the discovery of a replica of Earth, dubbed Earth 2, in our skies. What-ifs abound — what if there’s another you, what would you say if you met your other self?
The shoulders carrying the weight of these worlds belong to Rhoda (Marling), a high school senior whose MIT future goes up in flames after a horrific mistake sends her to jail, and John (Mapother), a noted composer whose life goes into a terrible tailspin after an unbearable loss. The major scientific and philosophic implications of Earth 2 are debated by TV talking heads, and there are brief narrative threads offered by a scientist the filmmaker met while working on the film, that serve to answer the kind of questions one would have if something like this actually happened. Locked in their own parallel universe are Rhoda and John, trying to make sense of their damaged existence.
By melding that collision of events, the filmmakers use the ordinary to examine the extraordinary, forcing the central characters to contemplate how a choice can change a life, the way regret reshapes a future, why redemption rarely comes easy and whether a second chance in any world is worth the risk. The intimate telling puts Another Earth in the tradition of humanistic sci-fi movies like John Carpenter’s Starman and John Sayles Brother From Another Planet.
Set in the New Haven, Conn., area and moving between Rhoda’s un-mussed suburban neighborhood, John’s isolated rural house and the windswept Atlantic beaches that seem chilly year-round, the script takes us quickly from that fateful night to a present day four years later. Rhoda is out of jail, her dreams of becoming an astrophysicist now shelved for a janitorial job at her old high school. In fact, cleaning up messes — both literally and metaphorically — is her new obsession. John, meanwhile, is the living embodiment of a mess — drinking away the nights and days with piles of clothes, papers and dishes growing as his house and career deteriorates.
The heart of the film hangs on both the everyday and otherworldly. What will happen when Rhoda turns up at John’s door with a free trial offer from the Maid in Haven cleaning service, yet another level of her self-imposed penance, and will she win the essay contest for a life-altering spot on the space shuttle bound for Earth 2?
Employing the lean look found in his documentary work, particularly 2004’s artfully done Boxers and Ballerinas, the director creates a stripped-down portraiture style that gives his actors plenty of room to breathe. Both Marling and Mapother breathe deeply as they swing between isolation and intimacy.
(R) • 112 minutes • On-screen here from 9/23/11 to 9/29/11
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Monica Belluci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn
Synopsis: Inspired by true events, Kathy (Rachel Weisz) is an American police officer who takes a job working as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Her expectations of helping to rebuild a devastated country are dashed when she uncovers a dangerous reality of corruption, cover-up and intrigue amid a world of private contractors and multinational diplomatic doubletalk.
(PG-13) • 111 minutes • On-screen here from 9/9/11 to 9/22/11
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Neils Arestrup, Aidan Quinn
Synopsis: One of the darkest moments in French history occurred in 1942 Paris when French officials rounded up over 10,000 Jews and placed them in local camps. Eventually over 8,000 were sent off to German concentration camps. As 10-year old Sarah and her family are being arrested, she hides her younger brother in a closet. After realizing she will not be allowed to go home, Sarah does whatever she can to get back to her brother. In 2009, a journalist named Julia is on assignment to write a story on the deported Jews in 1942. When she moves into her father-in-law’s childhood apartment, she realizes it once belonged to the Strazynski family, and their daughter Sarah.
(R) • 96 minutes • On-screen here from 8/26/11 to 9/8/11
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan
Synopsis: Look up “Taking the piss” in an urban dictionary and you’ll probably see a picture of Sergeant Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a cop who’s neither by the book nor full-on corrupt. He’s also a pain in the butt to FBI agent Everett (Don Cheadle), who comes to Ireland to investigate a drug trafficking operation’s movement of $500 million in cocaine—an emphasis on “street value” that Boyle thinks is crap.
The buzz: You want a movie with attitude? The Guard has it to spare thanks to the script by director John Michael McDonagh, brother of in Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh. And if you need an actor to play a salty Irishman who can still convincingly demonstrate love for his dying mother as he’s busting her balls, Gleeson’s definitely your guy.
The verdict: The Guard gains reality points for unfolding at the slow pace of crime and police work, but that’s also why the movie never fully takes off. Doesn’t matter. Boyle’s a badass fountain of snappy lines (one favorite, as he walks into the station: “Big map. People pointing. Must be important.”). The Guard does nothing if not prove that a crime flick usually succeeds when led by two great actors playing strong characters.
(R) • 107 minutes • On-screen here from 8/19/11 – 8/25/11
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Synopsis: Comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have appeared together before, playing loose versions of themselves in Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and they recap the gambit in The Trip, an even funnier Winterbottom escapade.
Steve (Coogan) is a disgruntled actor who has been asked to review upscale restaurants for The Observer during an improvised drive through northern England’s Lake District and Yorkshire Dales. When his girlfriend cancels at the last minute, he reluctantly takes along his friend Rob (Brydon), who is happily married though not so happily employed.
Ever the actor – or, to be more precise, mimic – Rob regales Steve on the road with some of the funniest impersonations I’ve ever heard. Rob doesn’t just do Michael Caine, for example – he does Caine at differering stages in his career, from Alfie to The Dark Knight. He also does a mean Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, and Woody Allen. And Steve nearly matches him shot for shot.
What’s especially funny is that many of these jags occur in tony restaurants where scrumptious, high-end dishes, which they barely notice, are lovingly placed before them. They’re not boors, exactly, just oblivious. The odyssey goes on a bit too long, and I suppose a taste for extra dry British comedy is a requirement, but this “Trip” is well worth one.
The Tree of Life
(R) • 138 minutes • On-screen here from 7/28/11 to 8/11/11
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Synopsis: The most special special effect in Terrence Malick’s ultimate, unrelenting, devout cinematic achievement occurs at its outset: a valuable jewel-like dalliance of light and dark, color and blackness. It lingers, morphs, disappears and then returns to us at key moments.
I cannot help but open this piece by considering these apparitions. They happen so importantly. Why are they there? Why do these extremely experimental seconds, in an EXTREMELY experimental film, impose themselves on us so insistently?
They are, in my opinion, the sparks of memory first and imagination second. Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, concerns itself partially with these twin subjects. What is memory? How true is it? What does it do to us? How does it affect us, forever and ever? How do those who help us create these memories face up to their responsibilities? Where to we come from? Where are we going? What do we wonder life was like before we got here? And what do we imagine it’ll be like after we’re gone (the subject of The Tree of Life’s last, longing, beachside moments)? How do we deal with our brains’–our hearts’–own imperfections? Or are they imperfections at all? Malick continually asks questions like these. He is cinema’s premier, bald-faced philosopher–not a new moniker, for him–and his freshest movie, with its 30-year conception, is the proof.
The picture is told in insistent whispers–in the utterings of its main character’s mother (Jessica Chastain, who wisely imparts “Unless you love, your life will flash by”). They are also told with the murmurs of her first son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who confesses “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” And The Tree of Life reaches fruition in the recollections of that son’s grown self, played in a brief appearance by Sean Penn, who concedes to a higher power with “Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door.” Unlike Malick’s last two works, The Thin Red Line and The New World, the narration is limited to these three characters. The main dramatic character, Mr. O’Brien (played impeccably by Brad Pitt), is not given any narrative points. This is because this is not the type of person he is. He says what he thinks, when he thinks it. He suffers because of this. Whispers, and confessions, are not his style; confrontation and aggression are his trade. And he’s not going to own up to anyone about any sort of shortcomings he might have, except in one special instance (the film’s TRUE, shattering climax, which comes equipped with one of the most moving hugs in cinematic history).
I hear many things being bandied about regarding The Tree of Life’s resemblance to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m sure this comes from the stellar sequence, 30 minutes into the film, that maps out the entire history of life on this globe we inhabit, backed by only a low rumble (one way in which this film diverges from 2001 is that, in these scenes, the constructs of man, musical or otherwise, are vague). These are unspeakably extravagant segments, sampled more from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi than anything else, though still solely the product of Malick’s inquiring brain. His filmic thoughts are, however, resolutely unlike anything mainstream audiences of narrative cinematic storytelling have been treated to since Kubrick’s 1968 film. I’d guarantee 99% of the audience watching the film with you when you see it have never experienced anything like it. That includes you, and me, too, really. Most viewers will be angry at the ultimate conclusion to Malick’s film, because it doesn’t conform to a paying customer’s plotline/revelation payoff. But these disappointed ones will be regretful, or perhaps doubly angry, with their reactions or with the film itself 20 years down the line. So the comparisons to the similarly singular, divisive, fantastic 2001 are just. This is a movie for the ages.
The Tree of Life’s much-talked-about dinosaurs do indeed make an appearance (“The movie has DINOSAURS in it?” the internet collectively queried). It’s brief, but a lot of genuinely human emotion is punched into this mirage. One lizard’s careful, empathetic gestures have an integral impact on another, whose life depends upon this fellow creature’s next move. The scene takes place at a riverside that certainly, with higher waters flowing over once polished rocks, matches a riverside we see millions of years later, as McCracken delivers a stolen piece of female night ware down a rushing river tide. The scene–one that shakes Jack to his center–delineates how small our most significant concerns are to the universe at large.
In fact, the film is also partially about our smallness as a species. To reduce The Tree of Life to a pat thesis statement seems rather conservative, but the film is certainly still dallies with how insignificant we all are in the scheme of things; the stunning shots of 50s-era children playfully romping amongst the clouds of poisonous DDT are tremendously ebullient, even though we now know those chemicals are lethal (the film does seem to me to have an ecological bent). But so what? This, too, shall pass. There’s a moment in the film’s first hour in which I could feel it breaking me–breaking my addiction to plot and dialogue. It’ll break you, too, unless you’re too addicted to give it all up. Still, there’s such a monumental lack of direct discourse in The Tree of Life’s first hour that it makes us happy–when the exchanges finally come between Pitt’s father and his sons–that humans have any impact at all on the Earth. Or that the Earth has any impact at all on humans.
There are more joyful moments in Malick’s movie…like the scene where the toddler Jack first meets his baby brother, R.L. The boy’s startled, fascinated reaction to his new sibling rings resolutely truthful, as does his angry outburst at being his mother’s new second best (there’s a third brother that barely gets noticed, as third children often do). The closest I ever came to weeping in absolute ecstasy like I did at the Wagner-scored end (and beginning) of The New World–something I cannot expect EVERY film to achieve–came when the trailer music (Desplat? The Masters?) swelled and the kids finally get to run about in wild abandon while their father is away on business. This rapturous scene made me realize acutely what joy these boys felt they’d been missing out on all along (though I suspect Jack still desired to see his father–with that determined, lip-pursed look on his face–playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on a gorgeously wooden-keyed pipe organ). I also like how the young Jack makes amends after constantly testing and besting his younger brother (Laramie Eppler, who looks remarkably like a baby Brad Pitt). Eppler’s uncanny resemblance to his screen father transmits an important, gentle signal as to what Jack imagines their pop must have been like as a boy. And I think this has a powerful effect on how he decides to treat him from then on.
But I have to wonder: not seeing what happened to the third child, and knowing what happened to the second (he dies early in the film, at age 19, possibly as a result of the Vietnam War, though nothing is ever mentioned of this; likewise, nothing is ever mentioned of the “yer, sir” father’s likely military-peppered past)…given all of this, I wonder: did the father’s strict upbringing insure Jack’s success in a solidly cold, impermeable, steel-and-glass world? Did it likewise insure an even gentler R.L.’s death by his own or by another person’s hand? (The early telegram that devastates Chastain’s mother clues me in that R.L.’s death occurred in combat; the military informed families of combat deaths by letter or telegram up until the first years of the Vietnam conflict.) Or is it the mother’s forgiving, nature-loving freedom that led to her children’s inability to deal with the planet’s harshness? Regardless of who’s responsible, is it Jack’s very success among the unfeeling skyscrapers that chaperones him into reveries about the origins of the world, and to thereby question what kind of man he’s become? A sign that Jack’s turning into his father: He’s clearly incommunicable with his wife/girlfriend, who’s briefly seen bedside, early in the picture, wondering what the hell’s going on with him. (I find it moving that this woman bears a strong resemblance to a girl the young Jack is seen following home from school in the wake of his first romantic feelings; this lass stares into the camera at one point, way into the film’s running time, as if to say “Remember me?”)
I cannot, now, deconstruct all the water and window imagery (of which there is much that seems to connote a flow of feeling and thought), the unreliable maze of memory, the impossible fragmenting of Earth life, the searing splats of emotion, the kaleidoscopic sparks of hazy inspiration contained in The Tree of Life. These are things that should be left for future conjecture, after the movie can be seen again and again as it deserves to be. It should be enough to say that, while this is a difficult picture to ponder for an audience who cannot possibly be expecting anything like it, The Tree of Life is necessary viewing for all those who love movies at a soul level. And isn’t it absolutely divine, in a summer filled with films that can’t nearly compete with such subject matter, that more thoughtful moviegoers can be left with something on screen that challenges us so? The mere thought of The Tree of Life’s magnanimous grandeur makes me glad I still live on such a friendly but unsympathetic planet. Personally, the struggle to live drives me crazy, more often than not. But this film makes life itself easier to bear. I hope, but do not expect, that you will feel the same upon seeing it.
(R) • 104 minutes • On-screen here from 7/15/11 to 7/28/11
Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer
Synopsis: A smart screenplay and captivating visual devices deliver genuine emotions in Beginners, a highly personal exploration into the mysteries of love by filmmaker, artist and graphic designer Mike Mills (Thumbsucker). The story is about a man who, like Mills, only learns his father is gay upon the death of his mother. The father comes out to live an aggressively gay and joyous lifestyle ever so briefly before dying of cancer a few years later.
As he tries to make sense of his parents’ lives and his own reaction to growing up in a household where feelings were stifled and then to his father making himself over so late in life, Mills takes you on a tender, funny-sad journey into the messiness that is love.
Any marketing campaign will have to emphasize that Beginners is not about being gay or straight but rather about the emotional risks one must hazard for love. The story, all along, is about the son, not the father. The father’s new life is an eye-opener not because of his sexuality but because of his willingness to take risks for love.
Ewan McGregor plays 38-year-old Oliver with sadness and bewilderment. His parents’ marriage was not loveless but possessed a settled complacency that wrung any passion out of love. This is Oliver’s only model for love. In past relationships, he has followed this model right up to the point where he leaves or lets love fall apart.
His father Hal, played by an energetic, twinkle-eyed Christopher Plummer, suddenly presents him with a new model. In what little time he will have left, the father tries to show the son how valuable each passing moment of life truly is, but time runs out before the lesson is fully absorbed.
Now, having inherited his dad’s Jack Russell The Triper and much confusion, he meets a French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds), who is only in Los Angeles for a while. She shakes Oliver out of his sadness — he falls in love, in fact — but which model will he follow, the father he grew up with or older man who so baffled him? To make matters worse, Anna too is prone to find ways out of love.
The film takes place in no fixed point in time. The present, past and distant past in scenes between young Oliver and his frustrated mother come in the order Mills thinks will best chart his alter ego’s journey. Like the filmmaker, Oliver is a graphic artist so his doodles, sketches and even graffiti illustrate the character’s growing self-awareness. So do his conversations with the dog, although the dog’s dialogue must, of course, be delivered through subtitles.
Indeed Beginners plays with all sorts of cinematic conventions from a silent-movie first meeting between Oliver and Anna — she has laryngitis so she communicates with gestures and a note pad — to sketches and slide shows Oliver arranges to illustrate his mental process in working out the nature of life and love.
All the movie’s playfulness rubs off on the actors. Scenes crackle with life. The chemistry among all the actors is The Tripfic. In some scenes, you can just feel the characters hold back and then release a flood of emotions as they tiptoe through the treacherous terrain of unexpected feelings.
The film makes good use of unfamiliar L.A. locations around the Silver Lake and Griffith Park areas. The music, credited to several people, often comes simply from a piano, a bit of whimsy mixed with melancholy, while Kasper Tuxen’s cinematography and Shane Valentino’s production design capture the constantly shifting moods of this tale about people who are just beginning to understand love.
Midnight In Paris
(PG-13) • 94 minutes • On-screen here from 6/10/11 to 7/14/11
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston
Synopsis: Gil and Inez travel to Paris as a tag-along vacation on her parents’ business trip. Gil is a successful Hollywood writer but is struggling on his first novel. He falls in love with the city and thinks they should move there after they get married, but Inez does not share his romantic notions of the city or the idea that the 1920s was the golden age. When Inez goes off dancing with her friends, Gil takes a walk at midnight and discovers what could be the ultimate source of inspiration for writing. Gil’s daily walks at midnight in Paris could take him closer to the heart of the city but further from the woman he’s about to marry.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
(G) • 90 minutes • On-screen here from 6/3/11 to 6/9/11
Director: Werner Herzog
Synopsis: What a gift Werner Herzog offers with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an inside look at the astonishing Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc — and in 3-D too. In southern France, about 400 miles from Paris, the limestone cave contains a wealth of early paintings, perhaps from as long ago as 32,000 years. Here, amid gleaming stalactites and stalagmites and a carpet of animal bones, beautiful images of horses gallop on walls alongside bison and a ghostly menagerie of cave lions, cave bears and woolly mammoths. Multiple red palm pwrints of an early artist adorn one wall, as if to announce the birth of the first auteur.
Surely there were other, previous artists — those who first picked up a bit of charcoal, say, and scraped it on a stone — but the Chauvet paintings are among the earliest known. The cave was discovered in December 1994 by three French cavers, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Following an air current coming from the cliff, they dug and crawled their way into the cave, which had been sealed tight for some 20,000 years. After finally making their way to an enormous chamber, Ms. Deschamps held up her lamp and, seeing an image of a mammoth, cried out, “They were here,” a glorious moment of discovery that closed the distance between our lost human past and our present.
The French government soon took custody of the cave, and ordinary visitors were barred to protect it, as Mr. Herzog explains in his distinctive voice-over, from the kind of damage done to other prehistoric caverns. Being not remotely ordinary, he persuaded the government to allow him and a tiny crew to join the researchers who visit the cave to plumb its secrets. A late-act revelation in the movie that a Chauvet attraction is in the works suggests that tourist dollars might explain why he was allowed in. The cave is already a regional attraction (there is an exhibition nearby), and certainly the movie is a fabulous bit of advertising that may even help France’s bid to have Chauvet designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
Whatever the reason, it’s a blast to be inside the cave, to see these images, within 3-D grabbing reach. As the smooth-handed director of photography Peter Zeitlinger wields the camera, Mr. Herzog walks and even crawls for your viewing pleasure. He’s an agreeable, sometimes characteristically funny guide, whether showing you the paintings or talking with the men and women who study them. As evident from his other documentaries, like Encounters at the End of the World, set in Antarctica, he also has a talent for tapping into the poetry of the human soul, finding people who range freely in this world and others, like the circus performer turned anthropologist here who night after night dreamed of lions after visiting the cave.
Much like this anthropologist and Ms. Deschamps, the explorer who cried out, “They were here” on seeing a painted mammoth, many of the researchers in the documentary seem deeply moved by the cave. In some ways they are communing with the dead, summoning up the eternally lost. For his part, Mr. Herzog uses the paintings to riff on the origin of art, at one point connecting overlapping images of horses — some of which, with their open mouths, convey a sense of movement — to cinema itself. At times he drifts away from the cave, tagging along, for instance, with a perfumer who tries to sniff out caves and isn’t half as interesting as those anthropologists who dream of, and happily live with, these uncommon ghosts.
In archaeology circles there has been debate on whether the earliest Chauvet paintings date from 32,000 to 30,000 BP (or “before present,” in the charming parlance of archaeology) or are actually somewhat younger. Whatever the case, even one of the critics of the earlier dating, a German archaeologist, Christian Züchner, has agreed on their beauty, enthusing in one 2001 paper that, “Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!” Mr. Herzog doesn’t address the conflict, which partly turns on whether the radiocarbon dating was sufficient, but then again, he isn’t a journalist. As the wistful title of the documentary indicates, he moves in a realm beyond empiricism, in a world of dreams and stories.
Werner Herzog (real name Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child.
He started traveling on foot from the age of 14. He made his first phone call at the age of 17. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films and made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than fifty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas.
Werner Herzog (real name Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child.
He started traveling on foot from the age of 14. He made his first phone call at the age of 17. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films and made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than fifty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas.
POM Wonderful Presents
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
(PG-13) • 90 minutes • On-screen here from 5/24/11 to 6/2/11
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Starring: JJ Abrams, Peter Berg, Paul Brennan, Noam Chomsky, Jimmy Kimmel, Morgan Spurlock, Quentin Tarantino
Synopsis: One day Spurlock came upon a grand idea expanding upon something a friend of his said – why not make a film about said film that is literally in and of itself. Beginning with advertising agencies then placement companies they ultimately started calling the corporations themselves before anyone would finally bite. Here’s a film that is fully paid for by sponsors and about finding said sponsors while also trying to find the winning endorser who’s name will be prominently featured about the film’s title: Presented by Brand X.
At first it seems like a no win situation but eventually the sponsors begin to line up including but not limited to: Sheetz and Mini Cooper. In a really funny segment Quentin Tarantino gets brought in to explain how he’s always turned down. Supposedly, the opening scenes of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were to take place within a Denny’s. So while it may seem far fetched for someone to try to make a film solely produced and paid for by sponsors, some filmmakers can’t even get sponsors that are already written into their scripts.
Breaking the fourth wall beyond anything you’ve seen before, you watch the film honestly waiting for a camera to walk onstage any moment. While playing up the conventions of standard documentary filmmaking, the film fuels upon itself bursting with hilarious jabs and stings at how sly and how in your face brand integration truly can be. Spiced up with hilarious commercials that pop up once in awhile featuring the films own sponsors, the tone is kept light and hilarious while the whole thing winds up feeling almost more like a real life spoof.
Featuring everything from being presented by PoM Wonderful to other sponsors including JetBlue, Hyatt Hotels and Mane ‘N Tail’s continued refusal to participate, at one point we learn that for the film to be considered successful, one thing it needs is to make approximately 600,000,000 impressions; let The Greatest Movie Ever Sold impressions commence!
(NR) • 78 minutes • On-screen here from 5/20/11 to 5/26/11
Director: Tom Shadyac
Starring: Tome Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky
Synopsis: That weary guy reaching the top of a mountain peak to consult with a wise man about the meaning of life has long been a staple cartoon in The New Yorker and Playboy. I Am, a surprising philosophical inquiry-cum-documentary from, of all people, Tom Shadyac, is a 21st century equivalent of that cartoon, though despite his funnyman credentials, Shadyac intends no joke.
In the movie, the filmmaker closely associated with the careers of Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Steve Carell in such respective films as Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor and Bruce Almighty consults with top scientists, historians, spiritual leaders and philosophers in a quest for enlightenment that proves … well, all right, let’s use the word, most enlightening. The film starts off as a curio by a Hollywood insider but winds up making an awful lot of sense — with a few caveats. That combination might mean an energetic box office for I Am in specialty venues and certainly a wonderful afterlife in television and home entertainment.
Everything stems from a very bad day of bicycling. In 2007, Shadyac, basking in the glory of a substantial career as a canny purveyor of film comedies, took a The Tripble spill from his bike. The initial injuries were bad enough, but he developed something called post concussion syndrome, which basically means the original concussion doesn’t go away. The horrible pain, mood swings and sensitivity to movement and light can lead to suicide.
Gradually, relief did come, but this brush with death caused him to re-evaluate everything in his life and make this doc. With a crew of four people, Shadyac approaches any number of sagacious individuals, the most famous of whom are probably Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky and Dr. Howard Zinn. He asks two questions: What’s wrong with our world? And what can we do about it?
Docs have been coming down on humanity so hard in recent years — from An Inconvenient Truth to the latest Oscar winner, Inside Job — that it’s refreshing to bask in a bit of optimism coming from a nonfictional film.
Indeed, what can be more optimistic than Shadyac filming himself back on his bicycle racing down the Malibu canyons? Of course, he is wearing a helmet.
(pg-13) • 122 minutes • On-screen here from 5/13/11 to 5/19/11
Director: Robert Redford
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Tom Wilkinson
Synopsis: As actor, filmmaker and founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford has long prized storytelling over sensation. Redford doesn’t star in The Conspirator, but as the film’s director he eases with hypnotic skill into this largely untold tale of American justice in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The conspirator in question is Mary Surratt (a stoic, superb Robin Wright), the only woman charged in the murder of Lincoln. Mary owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others, including her son John (Johnny Simmons), met to plot the president’s murder. Was Mary, also the mother of Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), guilty as well? The movie provides no definitive answer. Neither did Mary, who went to the gallows pleading her innocence but refusing to rat on her son, the only conspirator to escape the authorities.
Redford, working from a provocative script by first-timer James Solomon, deftly weaves a tapestry of the forces at play in a torn country. Kevin Kline excels as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s friend and secretary of war. Like Bush after 9/11, Stanton wanted a rush to justice. Mary was tried in a military court. Her attorney, Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), reluctantly takes the case at the insistence of Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (the peerless Tom Wilkinson).
The film pivots on McAvoy’s powerfully implosive performance as a man trying to grow beyond his own prejudices. His scenes with Wright, under Redford’s nuanced guidance, give this film its timely resonance and its grieving heart
(R) • 106 minutes • On-screen here from 5/6/11 to 5/12/11
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale
Synopsis: Small time New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the hero of Win Win, has economic downturn stress. His client load is dwindling. At the modest building that serves as his law office, the furnace has been making mysterious clanging noises, and Mike is often on his knees, plunging the malfunctioning toilet. The high school wrestling team he coaches, without compensation, is hopelessly bad. Meanwhile at home a tree needs to come down, two young daughters require feeding and his sharp-eyed wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) isn’t likely to let him forget any of his responsibilities.
None of this sounds like a situation you’d call winning, but it’s apparent from the first frames of this edgy but warm film that writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) intended the irony. He shows Mike out jogging on a woodsy path, chugging along in his sweats — a plump guy trying — when two sleek runners pass him by and quickly leave him in the dust. Mike stops and huffs and the film’s title is stamped onto the screen in giant bold yellow letters. It’s the first laugh we have at Mike’s expense. (See the best performances of the year.)
He remains a steadily sympathetic character though, even when he commits the appalling ethical breach that drives the plot. Mike’s elderly client Leo (a taciturn but touching Burt Young) is in the early stages of dementia. His ne’er do well daughter hasn’t responded to any of the court’s correspondence and the state is about to make Leo its ward and put him a rest home, something he can afford but doesn’t want. Mike saves the day with an offer to be Leo’s guardian, a job that pays $1508 a month. Except that instead of caring for Leo at his home, Mike immediately deposits the old man in the nursing home, shamelessly using his client’s dementia to convince him it was the court’s decision.
Based on the casting alone, we have little doubt that this “free” money is going to exact its psychic toll on Mike; Giamatti, with his basset hound eyes, has a face built for suffering. But McCarthy’s puts the screws to his leading man in an unexpectedly poignant way. Leo’s teenaged grandson turns up on the steps of that now abandoned home. Kyle (Alex Shaffer) has a huge bruise on his cheek, a chronically low affect and bleached blonde hair that causes Jackie to dub him Eminem. She’s not sure of what to make of Kyle, and neither is Mike, but they let him stay in their basement for a few days, at least until his drug-addicted mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) can be found. When it turns out she’s in rehab, Kyle’s visit is extended.
The less said of Cindy the better — her true nature should be left for viewers to discover on their own — but I must gush about Lynskey, a New Zealand native who got her start opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures in 1994. She’s never had that big breakthrough moment but she has become one of the most reliably intriguing supporting actresses in film. In 2009 she had small parts in Away We Go, The Informant! and Up in the Air and although I loathed the first and had mixed feelings about the second, she was wonderful in all three. In Win Win she gives a very different kind of performance and is even better. (See the top 10 Sundance Hits.)
Shaffer, with his oddly small features and impenetrable flatness in his eyes, is also uncannily well cast. There’s something about a low affect that more typically expressive people often find frightening — that blankness of emotion can feel like facing a black hole — and you can understand Jackie’s urge to lock Kyle in the basement at night. Is he just a kid in need, or someone too damaged to be trustworthy? There are no givens here, and we work out the answer at the same time as Jackie and Mike. Is the fact that Kyle turns out to have been a star wrestler back in Ohio a little convenient? Yes. So is the sudden addition of Mike’s best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale, who was so good in McCarthy’s first film, The Station Agent) to the team’s coaching staff.
McCarthy uses him for comic relief, particularly during the wrestling sequences. With all that grappling and groping, we need a color commentator to help us understand this lesser known, goofy-looking sport. Through Kyle, who turns it into a clumsy ballet, we begin to see it as a strangely endearing passion for a strangely endearing boy.
McCarthy deliberately keeps the scope of redemption small. He knows people aren’t easy to fix — some people do lousy things, some are just lousy for life — and that sometimes humbling oneself is the only way out of a bind. His writing reflects a wariness of human nature but he’s not cynical; indeed, the story wraps up with a tenderness that feels true but completely without mush. The irony of the title fades as Win Win wins you over.
-Mary Pols Time.com
(PG-13) • 120 minutes • On-screen here from 4/15/11 to 5/5/11
Director: Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Mia Waskikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins
Synopsis: In a bold new feature version of Jane Eyre, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) infuse a contemporary immediacy into Charlotte Brontë’s timeless, classic story. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) star in the iconic lead roles of the romantic drama, the heroine of which continues to inspire new generations of devoted readers and viewers.
In the 19th Century-set story, Jane Eyre (played by Ms. Wasikowska) suddenly flees Thornfield Hall, the vast and isolated estate where she works as a governess for Adèle Varens, a child under the custody of Thornfield’s brooding master, Edward Rochester (Mr. Fassbender). The imposing residence – and Rochester’s own imposing nature – have sorely tested her resilience. With nowhere else to go, she is extended a helping hand by clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell of Focus Features’ The Eagle) and his family. As she recuperates in the Rivers’ Moor House and looks back upon the tumultuous events that led to her escape, Jane wonders if the past is ever truly past…
Aged 10, the orphaned Jane (played by Amelia Clarkson) is mistreated and then cast out of her childhood home Gateshead by her cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed (Golden Globe Award winner Sally Hawkins). Consigned to the charity school Lowood, Jane encounters further harsh treatment but receives an education and meets Helen Burns (Freya Parks), a poor child who impresses Jane as a soulful and contented person. The two become firm friends. When Helen falls fatally ill, the loss devastates Jane, yet strengthens her resolve to stand up for herself and make the just choices in life.
As a teenager, Jane arrives at Thornfield. She is treated with kindness and respect by housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Academy Award winner Judi Dench). Jane’s interest is piqued by Rochester, who engages her in games of wit and storytelling, and divulges to her some of his innermost thoughts. But his dark moods are troubling to Jane, as are strange goings-on in the house – especially the off-limits attic. She dares to intuit a deep connection with Rochester, and she is not wrong; but once she uncovers the The Tripble secret that he had hoped to hide from her forever, she flees, finding a home with the Rivers family. When St. John Rivers makes Jane a surprising proposal, she realizes that she must return to Thornfield – to secure her own future and finally, to conquer what haunts both her and Rochester.
(NC-17) • 112 minutes • On-screen here from 4/8/11 to 4/14/11
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams
Synopsis: Some movies start at the beginning and go to the end. Some movies start at the end and work back to the beginning. Some start in the middle and bounce around in time.But Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine takes the daring step of starting at the end — a marriage on the downward slide to divorce — and then takes us back to the courtship and wedding. And it leaves out everything in between. Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine relies on the viewer to decide what took place to move this couple — Dean and Cindy — from one extreme to the other. They have a daughter at the end (whose arrival figures in their decision to get married) — and both are older, more harried, less capable of ignoring the rest of the world. How did they get there? It doesn’t matter. Cianfrance’s film is a marvel of raw, real acting that puts you right into the lives of two people — initially happy, ultimately unhappy — going into great detail about these characters while only sketching their stories. As we first see them, they are a tired and dissatisfied couple. Dean is sleeping in a recliner, though he downplays what it means to the couple’s young daughter, Frankie. Their day gets off to a bad start: The dog is missing. Their work lives obviously are causing tension. They can barely speak to each other. They leave Frankie with her grandfather and go off for a night in a motel that is meant to bring them back together. When Cindy is reminded of Bobby (Mike Vogel), her boyfriend before Dean, the film suddenly is jolted into the past. Cindy is still a college student, still involved with Bobby — though he’s a bully. And Dean is just a lonely guy working for a moving company. On separate tracks, they wind up at the same destination: a home for seniors where Dean is visiting an old man whose belongings he’s moved from New York and Cindy is visiting her grandmother.The contrast between the openness they had when they met and the closed-off emotions they display in the present is stark. It’s as if they are struggling to remember who they were and what drew them together. Then we see it and it all seems so effortless. Where did that ease go? Why did it disappear? That’s what Cianfrance leaves to the imagination, allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Certainly, some of the tensions — particularly between Dean and Cindy’s father — are already there. Dean’s easygoing joy seems so buoyant and infectious that it’s hard to imagine it ever leaving. Yet that’s the case in the scenes of the film’s present: Dean seems beaten, defeated by life or perhaps just by the fact that life has not gone his way. Cindy mostly seems angry and disappointed: Her life was supposed to be something else, though the flashbacks to their early days don’t reveal just what she thought it might become. Williams and Gosling are startlingly good here — unfettered, in touch with emotions that were obviously painful to access, in the moment in ways that make this seem more like a documentary than a feature film. Again, the word that comes to mind is raw — as in unfiltered, but also painfully scraped and unprotected. There’s nothing feel-good about Blue Valentine that the feel-bad parts can’t undermine.
Which doesn’t sound like praise, but it is. Blue Valentine is a crushing viewing experience and one that demands your attention. Marshall Fine – Huffington Post
(R) • 134 minutes • On-screen here from 4/1/11 to 4/14/11
Director: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Mark Addy, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman
Synopsis: There isn’t a moment in Barney’s Version that doesn’t feel like a labor of love. From the smallest details of romance or friendship to astute observations about hopefulness and self-delusion, everything is tended to, while drops of wit courtesy of Mordechai Richler’s 1997 source novel dance through it all. Don’t let it get away.
Adapted by Michael Konyves and directed by Richard J. Lewis (no, you’ve never heard of them, but you will), Barney’s Version recalls the luxurious literary adaptations of the 1970s and ’80s, rife with comic and tragic set pieces — often at the same time — and cast perfectly down to one-line walk-ons. If it falters slightly toward its conclusion, rushing things along and telescoping events for quick closure, remember the small moments that led up to it; they all resonate and linger.
Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a man at a perpetual crossroads. He’s first glimpsed in his mid-60s, a successful TV producer in Montreal, the very face of practiced schlumpiness.
Yet Barney is burdened by the stresses of his past: He’s been accused of murder in a nonfiction book recounting the death of his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman), some three decades earlier. He’s still in love with one of his ex-wives, and he’s haunted by memories.
Those start in Rome in 1974, when Barney was an expatriate would-be artiste hanging with his doomed first wife and Boogie’s Vespa-riding, literate crowd. Returning to Canada, he reluctantly takes a job in TV and marries a wealthy vulgarian (Minnie Driver), who looks down on Barney’s gruff, plainspoken policeman father (Dustin Hoffman, sweetly poignant).
But at his wedding reception — where Barney looks hilariously horrified as his bride bellows, “We’re m-a-a-rried!” — the woeful groom meets Miriam (luminous Rosamund Pike), a New York public radio broadcaster, and all bets are off. Miriam is almost too perfect, which merely guarantees that he’ll pursue her for years until their personal time lines connect, resulting in Barney’s third marriage, two children and one final, heartbreaking chance to screw things up. It may sound like a John Irving novel with a few Yiddishisms plopped in, but the cozy touches and the throwaway gestures that accumulate help to turn Barney’s Version into one of the year’s most satisfying films. Add to that Pike’s ethereal allure, Speedman’s charmingly dissolute turn, Hoffman’s consummate old-pro character work and the great Giamatti’s best performance, and you’ve got a version of a life not soon forgotten.
Joe Neumaier NY Daily News
(PG-13) • 129 minutes • On-screen here from 3/25/11 to 3/31/11
Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Imelda Staunton
Synopsis: Like Monet with another clump of water lilies, Mike Leigh has returned with a new family-and-friends group portrait, a movie in which the distant sob or throb of sadness is never entirely absent. With its immersive sweetness and gentleness, this is another utterly confident and unhurried ensemble picture from Leigh, containing his distinctively extended dialogue scenes of unpointed ordinariness, and a lowered narrative heartbeat to which you have to make a conscious effort to adjust. His last film, Happy-Go-Lucky, tilted the tone to the “sweet” end of the bittersweet spectrum; Another Year takes us in the opposite direction, and to my ear, the neo-Dickensian cartooniness of his language, perceptibly normalised in recent films, is here lessened still further.
Again, Leigh uses repertory casting: Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri – the joke is alluded to once, by someone else, with a giggle, and then forgotten. They are a happily married middle-aged couple content with their lives, fulfilled in their careers, serene at the thought of reasonably imminent retirement and jointly devoted to their allotment. Spanning one year, the movie follows the passing of the four seasons with the resulting crop of fruit and veg. Tom is a geologist and land surveyor, and Gerri is a counsellor; Imelda Staunton appears in a tantalisingly brief cameo as a patient suffering from insomnia and depression. They have a grownup son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who has evidently inherited his dad’s breezy, sarky, unreflective sense of humour, and whose still-unmarried condition concerns the parents not one whit.
Despite or perhaps because of their contentment, Tom and Gerri’s home has become a magnet for lost and damaged souls. Tom’s old mate Ken (Peter Wight) is an overweight boozer with unresolved issues, and then there is Mary, played by Lesley Manville, a secretary in the GP’s office where Gerri works. Mary is the character who kicks the narrative mechanism into gear. She is a lonely divorcee, superficially sparky and cheerful, but parasitically dependent on her friends, and putting a tragically unconvincing brave face on the awful way her personal life is turning out. (She is a Mr Hyde to the Dr Jekyll of Sally Hawkins’s Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky; like Poppy she takes up driving with far less happy results.) The hysteric quiver in Mary’s needy, wheedling laughter has a cry-for-help timbre, disturbing because at some level Mary needs someone to see through her pantomime. The neurotic music of Manville’s delivery creates a plaintive, tragic dissonance with the film’s actual musical soundtrack, a thoughtful melody with oboe and classical guitar featured prominently.
As the movie proceeds, the intensity of her affection for Gerri and Tom’s family – she has known them for decades – takes the drama in an increasingly painful direction, and yet the film’s note of anxiety remains muffled and subsurface until the drama is blindsided by the explicit, violent anger of a sequence late in the narrative: a funeral in Tom’s Lancashire hometown. This superbly moving section is managed and developed with masterly assurance. Its stab of rage is shocking and yet almost a cathartic relief, and an indication of the limits of niceness. Afterwards, the action returns to London, and Leigh shows how Gerri and Tom’s patience with Mary is running very low.
Since this film was shown at Cannes earlier this year, a division of opinion has emerged among audiences about its two lead characters, and I have found myself shuttling between these views. Some think they are simply what they seem: sane, nice people, and instead of being on the alert for irony, we could and should simply admire them. But there is an alternative view: namely, that Gerri and Tom are not all that admirable, but subtly complacent and self-satisfied, and we are misunderstanding the parasitism of their relationship with Mary. Could it be that it is Gerri and Tom who are addicted to the cosy feeling of superiority that poor mixed-up Mary and Ken give to them, while they sympathise, roll their eyes at each other and easily pour these poor souls drink after drink after drink? After all, it is Mary who is shown keeping Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) company, and bringing him out of himself. Tom and Gerri profess to adore Joe’s girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez), who actually shows herself to be a little two-faced. Leigh and his cast have created a network of relationships that is more complex than it first appears, yet even here the conclusion might simply be that Gerri and Tom are adults who treat their friends as adults, no matter how damaged they appear to be: adults who must make their own decisions. Or perhaps it is that there is a quantum-economy of happiness in any group of people: the happiness of some means unhappiness in others.
The power of this film creeps up on you by stealth; its dramatic idiom is admittedly mannered in the Leigh style but shy of caricature, and designed consistently to abrade the audience’s consciousness without irritating – fingertips down the blackboard, not fingernails. And, yes, still an acquired taste. But I found Another Year a deeply involving, intelligent, compassionate drama of the sort only Leigh can create. Peter Bradshaw Guardian UK
The Illusionist (L’illusioniste)
(PG) • 80 minutes • On-screen here from 3/18/11 to 3/24/11
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
Synopsis: This movie by the French film-maker Sylvain Chomet is an act of homage and an act of cinematic love: a classically conceived, hand-drawn animation based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, written in 1956: a manuscript evidently guarded for more than 50 years by his family, and particularly his daughter Sophie, until Chomet begged for permission to adapt it, with a new British setting. The result is utterly distinctive and beguiling, with its own language and grammar of innocence: gentle, affectionate, whimsical, but deeply felt and with an arrowhead of emotional pain. I think it will be admired and loved as much as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was 10 years ago.
The Illusionist is a semi-silent movie, with rudimentary, mumbled fragments of dialogue, about an old-fashioned variety-turn conjuror at the end of the 1950s, specialising in rabbits and hats, paper flowers and coins. He presents each creaky trick with a deadpan fastidious flourish and a raised forefinger, like a distracted sommelier in an empty restaurant.
Lack of work forces him to leave France for England, from where he heads north and acquires a companion, a girl from rural Scotland, who shares tatty theatrical digs with him as a daughter-figure – or is it that he is her “uncle”? – heartbreakingly dazzled by the dusty, faded showbiz glamour that everyone else finds so passe, or perhaps actually believing in the illusions themselves. It is in Edinburgh, where the movie winds up, that the illusionist becomes disillusioned, but brings off an authentic act of human magic.
Simply being an animation, and an old-style animation, is a great effect. The Illusionist is like a seance that brings to life scenes from the 1950s with eerie directness, in a way that glitzy digital animation or live-action period location work could somehow never do. Something in the unassuming simplicity of the composition allows the viewer to engage directly with the world being conjured up. This is, after all, a film for which the 1950s is the present-day. The visions of the old King’s Cross railway station in London, or the old boat-train, or Edinburgh with its lonely seaside-cry of seagulls, are all weirdly like a remembered dream of a fictional childhood. Everything is paradoxically, vividly present.And animation allows the Illusionist to be Tati himself, a decision which seems audacious, while being arguably at the same time inevitable. That unmistakable figure, all elbows, chin, nose and great unwieldy backside, suggests someone between middle-aged and old, and yet also like a gawky, maladroit teenager or hopeless boy. He looks heavy-set and yet agile and eccentrically graceful, as if persistently rising on tiptoe: the Tati-Illusionist has something of Hugh Dalton’s description of Charles de Gaulle: “A head like a pineapple and hips like a woman.”
Leaving his native France, an innocent abroad, he gets work coming on after one of the new super-cool pop groups, Billy Boy and the Britoons (do I sense a Gallic disdain for Anglo-Saxon youth culture in that name?). Chomet shows how excruciatingly obsolete our hero has become, waiting politely in the wings as Billy Boy and the band do encore after preening encore for screaming teens who are clearly going to loathe his quaint act. (Lulu is also on the bill, incidentally, but sadly we never see her on screen.)
Later, we glimpse a headline outside a newsagent to the effect that Billy Boy and the Britoons have been involved in a “scandal” and Chomet elegantly leaves it to us to wonder … a Mick Jagger scandal? A John Gielgud scandal? Billy Boy is still in work, though not a massive star.
The Illusionist gets an awful gig at some sub-Glyndebourne summer party, where a very drunk man in a kilt books him to play his pub in the Scottish Highlands, and it is here that the starstruck girl tags along, running away from home to join him in Edinburgh. The scenario is swathed in innocence. The girl’s family are evidently relaxed or fatalistic enough not to pursue her, and there is no question of the Illusionist’s intentions being anything other than honourable: he is tender and protective, buying new dresses for his protegee, and without either man or girl fully realising it, she begins, shyly, to blossom.
Piercingly well-observed details are everywhere: the tiling around a hissing old gas fire, the test card playing on the televisions in the shop window, a woman’s crucifix matching the cross on her Bible in the train compartment. Whole interior scenes will play solely to the sound of shoes and boots squeaking and creaking across floorboards. In case we thought the movie was too sugary, we see a gang of short-trousered boys booting an unconscious tramp. Yet when Chomet’s animated “camera” takes off for a swirling, overhead shot of a lovingly realised Edinburgh, the effect is dashing, breathtaking, even weirdly moving.
Admittedly, one has to adjust to the gentle, undemanding pace of this movie, which does not force its insights and meanings but allows them to meander into view, a pace which suddenly jolts into a higher gear when Chomet and Tati show us how The Illusionist loses his faith in his vocation. There is something shocking in the way he deliberately, angrily sabotages a trick with short and long pencils, thus upsetting and bewildering a little boy. But the real magic, the magic he has created, is happening behind his back, and under our noses. The Illusionist is an intricate jewel.
The King’s Speech
(Oscar® winner ~ Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay)
(R) • 118 minutes • On-screen here from 1/14/11 to 3/17/11
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi
Synopsis: Set in the tumultuous era of 1930s Britain, The King’s Speech tells the intriguing story of how King George VI (Colin Firth) rose to the throne while battling a debilitating speech impediment. It may sound trivial but imagine a national leader in any era where broadcast existed and think about how impossible their duties would be even if they were unelected. King George, also known as Bertie to his family, struggled with this his entire life as a result of restrictions put upon him by his royal family. Watching his attempts to speak publicly is absolutely painful and Firth sells it with facial expressions that evoke a man trapped inside his own mind without a voice. His loving wife Elizabeth, played by the always remarkable Helena Bonham Carter, refuses to let him give up when his pride begs him to stop seeking help, but when the film begins his prospect for being cured appears hopeless. After seeing every serious speech therapist in the country, Elizabeth attempts going to a more unorthodox source in the form of Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist/failed actor with strange methods and no actual credentials. Logue insists on only seeing his patients in the privacy of his basement office and prying into their personal lives like a psychologist in an attempt to get at the root of the problem. This naturally goes over poorly with the usually tight-lipped and secretive royal family but when Logue insists on being at their same level, Bertie and Elizabeth have no choice but to agree. More interestingly for those who might be a bit rusty on their British history, we get to witness the behind the scenes drama of the change of power that occurs after the death of King George V played by Michael Gambon. Bertie, as the younger son of the family was obviously not next in line to succeed his father but the wild lifestyle of his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), casts doubt on his ability to lead morally. Even when his father dies and David rises to become King Edward VIII, the pressure of the throne and the threat of war with Germany fail to bring him in line as he instead insists on marrying a divorced woman from Baltimore of all places. This traditionally unfathomable act eventually leads David to abandon the throne putting Bertie in the hot seat to lead his empire through the tough days of World War II and beyond. These behind-the-scenes glimpses are fascinating but the true heart of the movie lies in seeing how they play out in the relationship between Bertie and Logue as they struggle to cure his speech malady. Both of the men are capable of challenging the other in a variety of ways and in doing so become the best friend either of them has probably ever had. It’s an amazing dynamic to witness and both Firth and Rush are stunning together in the roles to a point that I think they both deserve Oscar attention. In fact, the entire cast is a veritable actors showcase with everyone giving brilliant work from the major roles on down to Timothy Spall‘s brief appearances as Winston Churchill. And as if the acting alone wasn’t good enough, the film is also crafted in stunning fashion with gorgeous sets, beautiful cinematography, and costumes that made me briefly consider doing drag as Helena Bonham Carter’s Queen Elizabeth for next Halloween. I certainly can’t speak for historical accuracy since I missed this time period by about 50 years, but it feels absolutely authentic and uses special effects to recreate the era in an impressive but non-overt way.