(PG-13) • 98 minutes • On-screen here from 12/13/13 to 1/9/14
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Synopsis: Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, PHILOMENA focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee, mother to a boy conceived out of wedlock – something her Irish-Catholic community didn’t have the highest opinion of – and given away for adoption in the United States. In following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into the son’s whereabouts. After starting a family years later in England and, for the most part, moving on with her life, Lee meets Sixsmith, a BBC reporter with whom she decides to discover her long-lost son.
Dallas Buyers Club
(R) • 117 minutes • On-screen here from 11/22/13 to 12/12/13
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto
Synopsis: The story of Texas electrician Ron Woodroof and his battle with the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, and his search for alternative treatments that helped established a way in which fellow HIV-positive people could join for access to his supplies.
12 Years a Slave
(R) • 133 minutes • On-screen here from 11/8/13 to 11/21/13 & from 2/21/14 to 3/6/14
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o
Synopsis: Based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life.
(PG-13) • 129 minutes • On-screen here from 11/1/13 to 11/7/13
Director: Shane Salermo
Featuring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Martin Sheen, Gore Vidal, Judd Apatow
Synopsis: This film features interviews with 150 subjects including Salinger’s friends, colleagues and members of his inner circle who have never spoken on the record before as well as film footage, photographs and other material that has never been seen.
Instructions Not Included
(PG-13) • 122 minutes • On-screen here from 10/25/13 to 10/31/13
Director: Eugenio Derbez
Starring: Eugenio Derbez, Karla Souza, Jessica Lindsey.
Synopsis: Valentin is Acapulco’s resident playboy, until a former fling leaves a baby on his doorstep and takes off without a trace. Leaving Mexico for Los Angeles to find the baby’s mother, Valentin ends up finding a new home for himself and his newfound daughter, Maggie. An unlikely father figure, Valentin raises Maggie for six years, while also establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s top stuntmen to pay the bills, with Maggie acting as his on-set coach. As Valentin raises Maggie, she forces him to grow up too. But their unique and offbeat family is threatened when Maggie’s birth mom shows up out of the blue, and Valentin realizes he’s in danger of losing his daughter – and his best friend.
(PG-13) • 93 minutes • On-screen here from 10/4/13 to 10/24/13
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette
Synopsis: A divorced and single parent, Eva spends her days enjoying work as a masseuse but dreading her daughter’s impending departure for college. She meets Albert – a sweet, funny and like-minded man also facing an empty nest. As their romance quickly blossoms, Eva befriends Marianne, her new massage client. Marianne is a beautiful poet who seems “almost perfect” except for one prominent quality: she rags on her ex-husband way too much. Suddenly, Eva finds herself doubting her own relationship with Albert as she learns the truth about Marianne’s ex.
The World’s End
(R) • 109 minutes • On-screen here from 9/27/13 to 10/3/13
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman
Synopsis: 20 years after attempting an epic pub crawl, five childhood friends reunite when one of them becomes hell bent on trying the drinking marathon again. They are convinced to stage an encore by mate Gary King, a 40-year old man trapped at the cigarette end of his teens, who drags his reluctant pals to their home town and once again attempts to reach the fabled pub, The World’s End. As they attempt to reconcile the past and present, they realize the real struggle is for the future, not just theirs but humankind’s. Reaching The World’s End is the least of their worries.
The Spectacular Now
(R) • 95 minutes • On-screen here from 9/20/13 to 9/26/13
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Synopsis: The Spectacular Now is an amazing film that features a who’s who of upcoming actors. Miles Teller was brilliant in Rabbit Hole and also had to take over the Chris Penn part of Willard in the remake of Footloose. Shailene Woodley was absolutely amazing as George Clooney’s older (and rebellious) daughter in The Descendents, and Brie Larson won a ton of kudos in the TV show, The United States of Tara. Here is the opening and closing paragraphs from Roger Ebert, describing this film (and one of his final reviews):
Here is a lovely film about two high school seniors who look, speak and feel like real 18-year-old middle-American human beings. Do you have any idea how rare that is? They aren’t crippled by irony. They aren’t speeded up into cartoons. Their sex lives aren’t insulted by scenes that treat them cheaply. The story requires them to make love, but it doesn’t insist we see her tits. Sutter and Aimee are smart, but they make dumb mistakes. They’re more confident on the outside than on the inside. They’re very serious about life, although Sutter, the boy, makes an effort to conceal that.
What an affecting film this is. It respects its characters and doesn’t use them for its own shabby purposes. How deeply we care about them. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are so there. Being young is a solemn business when you really care about someone. Teller has a touch of John Cusack in his “Say Anything” period. Woodley is beautiful in a real person sort if way, studying him with concern, and then that warm smile. We have gone through senior year with these two. We have known them. We have been them.
(PG-13) • (97 minutes) • On screen here from 9/13/13 to 9/19/13
Director: Jerusha Hess
Starring: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour
Synopsis: Austenland is a romantic comedy about 30-something, single Jane Hayes, a seemingly normal young woman with a secret: her obsession with Mr. Darcy-as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice-is ruining her love life; no real man can compare. But when she decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined.
(PG-13) • (98 minutes) • On-screen here from 8/23/13 to 9/12/13
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard, Alec Baldwin, Louis CK
Synopsis: Jasmine French used to be on the top of the heap as a New York socialite, but now is returning to her estranged sister in San Francisco utterly ruined. As Jasmine struggles with her haunting memories of a privileged past bearing dark realities she ignored, she tries to recover in her present. Unfortunately, it all proves a losing battle as Jasmine’s narcissistic hangups and their consequences begin to overwhelm her. In doing so, her old pretensions and new deceits begin to foul up everyone’s lives, especially her own.
Much Ado About Nothing
(PG-13) • 107 minutes • On-screen here from 8/16/13 to 8/22/13
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion
Synopsis: Shakespeare’s classic comedy is given a contemporary spin in this film. Shot in just 12 days (and using the original text), the story of sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick offers a dark, sexy and occasionally absurd view of the intricate game that is love.
The Way Way Back
(PG-13) • 103 minutes • On-screen here from 7/26/13 to 8/15/13
Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph
Synopsis:14-year-old Duncan’s summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and his daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park.
(PG-13) • 93 minutes • On-screen here from 7/12/13 to 8/14/13
Directed: Paul Andrew Williams
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston, Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave
Synopsis: He’s a quiet curmudgeon and she’s a saint who likes to sing. With such a reliable formula, all you need is a few tears to moisten the mix, and you’ve got a neat little ramekin of genre pudding.
No need to fuss. Unfinished Song is easy to swallow and entirely void of awkward lumps. It even nourishes the soul at some base level thanks to the superlative performances from the highly laurelled cast.
Sitting at the heart of this creamy human custard are Arthur (Terence Stamp) and Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), a couple that’s survived decades of marriage and endless bickering because Marion could always see the beauty in her stern-faced hubby’s heart.
Where others could see only rage and bitterness, Marion clearly saw the tender-hearted boy buried deep beneath the layers of rocky contempt. It’s because of Marion that Arthur even has a relationship with his son James (Christopher Eccleston) and his granddaughter Jennifer (Orla Hill), but when Marion’s cancer returns for a grand finale, Arthur faces absolute alienation from the land of the living.
The only lifeline left is the choral group that Marion saw as her second family. Led by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), the choir sings upbeat rock songs and tender ballads that pull sexy-laden language into the lungs of octogenarians.
Imagine a fictionalized version of Young@Heart, the 2007 documentary about a real-life group of old folks who bring their unique blend of brassy wisdom and hard-knocks vocals to the public as a bona fide touring act, spliced together with bits of Beginners and Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The ever-regal Redgrave is our portal into the drama because we like her immediately. Conjuring a sweet glow that erases her intimidating professional stature, Redgrave lets her body crumple into a wheelchair. She looks like a frail flower, so delicate that the slightest touch will send her petals tumbling.
By contrast, Arthur has a visage cast from something metallic. His sunken cheeks have the look of hammered iron and his heart seems forged from steel, yet every time he’s around his true love he softens like taffy.
We’ve seen this kind of magic before in movies, most recently in the Canadian drama Still Mine, featuring James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold, and not long before that, in Michael Haneke’s Amour.
Watching two older people convincingly in love brings the whole meaning of the word into clear focus in ways a youthful romance simply cannot because we’re not distracted by the sexual component.
All we see is trust, commitment and profound respect.
When Stamp casts his steely gaze in his wife’s direction, he’s like a little dog outside the store that perks up when he sees his owner re-emerge. Christopher Eccleston’s strong, no-nonsense face comes to the rescue as he plays the misunderstood son who gave up on a relationship with his father long ago.
A single father with a young daughter, James realized he was only damaging himself in pursuing a bond with a broken man, so he gave up and left it to his mother to keep the family in one piece.
Without her, the family splinters, leaving James, his daughter and Arthur on separate paths. Only a miracle could bring them back together, and what better form for it to assume than a pretty song written by Cyndi Lauper.
That may sound facetious, but True Colours is a great tune, and it’s delivered without treacle. Even the denouement, which appeared to be in a romantic comedy death spiral, is given enough respect to remain somewhat real.
The proof is Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia, Quantum of Solace) who plays the pretty vocal coach: Despite her model face, she’s allowed to be a regular character, void of romantic interests.
These are not monolithic achievements in cinema, but they do count for something in the slow parade of summer movie flotsam, allowing Unfinished Song to hit a sweet note of sincerity.
The Bling Ring
(R) • 90 minutes • On-screen here from 6/28/13 to 7/11/13
Director: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Katie Chang, Israel Broussar, Emma Watson
Synopsis: The film is based on a very contemporary true-life phenomenon: the so-called “Bling Ring”, a gang of teen burglars from wealthy homes in Hollywood who were obsessed with celebs. By using the web, Google Maps, and checking celebrities’ Facebook updates and Twitter feeds (and fanatically updating their own in parallel), they could figure out which of them were out of town and where they lived, and knew instinctively which ones were stupid enough to leave their houses without proper security. This basically meant Paris Hilton, whose place was hit many times.
On a spree in 2009 – immortalised in a Vanity Fair article on which this film is based – they got away with millions of dollars’ worth of clothes and jewellery, but the real point was fetishising the celebs. And Coppola shows that people like Lindsay Lohan are themselves guilty of theft. Once convicted, the bling ring wind up in prison with their victims: stealing and shoplifting are general symptoms of the same dysfunction and compulsive disorder, the need to be famous.
Katie Chang plays blingringleader Rebecca, while Israel Broussard plays her submissive lieutenant and platonic BF, Marc; our own Emma Watsonplays fellow burglar and fashion obsessive Nicki, sister of Sam, played by Taissa Farmiga. Their mother Laurie (Leslie Mann) home schools them with chuckleheaded New Age theories, secular group prayers, and show’n’tell teaching sessions on why Angelina Jolie is a role model.
Another kind of movie – entitled, perhaps, The Sociopath Set – would have made the burglars turn on each other, and specifically curdled the relationship between Rebecca and Marc. Not here, and even the hint of betrayal in Rebecca’s final departure for Las Vegas is not laboured. But there is something oddly plausible about the lack of a conventional dramatic falling-out-among-thieves. It’s as if they are too stunned, too vacant, too weirded out by their success to react normally. The intonations of “Eeuw” and “I know, right?” govern their thought processes.
The movie’s approach to celebrity is disorientating. The ring show up at a club where there are real-life cameo appearances from stars playing themselves – Kirsten Dunst and, yes, Paris Hilton herself. (Wouldn’t they all, Paris and Kirsten included, turn round and gape at Emma Watson?) It’s a bit self-conscious, but it interestingly collapses the distinction between fact and fiction; it puts you inside the unwholesome opium den of celeb-worship, and when the gang infiltrate Hilton’s bizarre home, a Tutankhamun’s tomb of kitsch, there is a real frisson. Did Coppola use the real thing?
(R) • 108 minutes • On-screen here from 6/21/13 to 6/27/13
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Synopsis: Forget Iron Man 3, the most important threequel of the year is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third installment in the talky, walky film series he’s written with the actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Supposedly this is the end of the series, making the project a trilogy, but there’s wonderfully nothing finite about the film.. The two lives in this film are more concrete and established than they are in Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, but the same sense of ambiguity that made the previous two films such fluid and tantalizing delights is fully present in Before Midnight. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, all wizards of simplicity and naturalness, have made something that’s sublimely honest and direct, and yet never heavy, or overstated. Though a little bluer and angrier than the previous two movies, Before Midnight is still just as charming, as appealing and ultimately enriching. It lends some much needed grace to the trilogy form.
Eighteen years ago we were introduced to Celine and Jesse, who spent their first meeting as young dreamers wandering around the streets of Vienna. Then nine years later, saddled with relationships and career issues, they reconnected in Paris and, in one of the most deliciously ambiguous endings in movie history, seemed to succumb to their old chemistry. It’s strange to think that at that point they’d only spent two days of their lives together, because now, another nine years later, they are in a committed, long-term relationship. They have twin daughters (Jesse also has a son, whom we meet in the film’s wonderful, quietly heartbreaking first scene) and have built all the messy details of a life together. We’re of course curious to hear how they’ve spent the last almost-decade, but the film blessedly doles out exposition and back story in only the most subtle and credible ways. Mostly we are privy only to the shorthand vernacular of the relationship, unexplained references and glancing mentions referring to much bigger stories hidden in the past. Jesse and Celine’s philosophical interests have changed — from expounding on the future inSunrise, to blearily dissecting the present in Sunset, to bickering about the past in Midnight — but their ease with one another, the sparkle of two people who are great at talking to one another, remains just the same.
The setting this time around is the Southern Peloponnese, specifically a small coastal town near Kalamata. Jesse, Celine, and family are the guests of an older English writer, who lives on a rocky old estate that has a half-salon, half-commune feel. An intelligent, earthy, and international crowd, the film’s other characters feel like people Woody Allen would create were he to move to the Berkshires and chill out for a few years. Which isn’t to say that they’re wooden or unlikable, far from it. They synch up perfectly with theBefore rhythm, and it’s interesting to hear from some other people for the first time in this series, which is largely set up as a binary system.
After a lovely, rambling dinner scene, though, Jesse and Celine are alone again, walking to a nearby hotel where their friends have booked them a room for the night as something of a going away present. And so we’re back with Hawke and Delpy walking and talking, talking and walking, an activity they have not lost the talent for in their forties. But because there is history now, context, the conversation is less general than it once was; we are dealing with specific foibles and fears, little arguments bubble up here and there but then dribble away. Hawke and Delpy have created an astoundingly believable relationship here, one that has all the grain and texture of the real thing. Jesse is still his charming self, but he’s gotten a little tired, the old hunger for big definitions, the grasping for larger truths, has waned a bit. He’s now more concerned with his interior life — worries about his son, who lives with his mother in Chicago, dominate in this brief glimpse. Meanwhile Celine, always the more pragmatic and even aloof half, has gotten just the slightest bit sour, there’s a fatalism lurking in a lot of what she says. That may sound like a depressing combination, he subdued and she hardened, and it is a little, but only in the way that all aging can be, well, a little sad, or a little disappointing.
The great thing about the Before films is that they’re not really about any one thing in particular, but the loose themes of Midnight include, yes, aging, but also the nature of compromise, how it strengthens a bond while also creating little resentments which can fester and corrode over time. Jesse and Celine are reasonably content with their lives, but is contentment enough? That’s the question hovering over the film from the very beginning, filling the summery air with just the tiniest bit of tension. Hawke and Delpy perfectly play all the beats of an underlying conflict making its way to the light, and Linklater simply stands back and lets them. Before Midnight is sun-splashed and gorgeous, but the filmmaking is also refreshingly spare. Through long takes, Linklater gives scenes room to breathe, contracting and expanding as the dialogue requires. It’s such a joy to just watch these people talk, because they’re in an environment tailor-made for just that.
(R) • 94 minutes • On-screen here from 6/7/13 to 6/20/13
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
Synopsis: There’s a perfectly good explanation for the pic’s title, but to give it away would spoil the last in a series of organic surprises that constitute Frances Ha. This modest monochromatic lark doesn’t present a story — or even a traditional sequence of scenes — so much as it offers spirited glimpses into the never-predictable life of Frances, a 27-year-old dancer still navigating the topsy-turvy post-collegiate ordeal of reconciling crazy boyfriends, flaky roommates and crushing career disappointments. That same period has fueled at least two decades of self-reflexive storytelling, from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan to Lena Dunham’s Girls (to name two New York examples), and here brings a revitalized Baumbach back to his snappy Kicking and Screaming roots.
Neither Frances nor best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) ever picture themselves getting married. As it is, the two tentatively coupled straight white girls are quite content cohabiting in Brooklyn and living “like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” But when Sophie decides to move to her dream Tribeca apartment with another friend, Frances is left to find a new place for herself — a fitting metaphor for the big-picture transition the barely independent young lady is facing in her life at large.
According to Gerwig, in the year 2012, 27 happens to be that critical age when not-yet-adults cross the “shadow line” into maturity — a notion the well-read actress lifted from a Bildungsroman by Joseph Conrad. She and Baumbach, in designing their plausibly messy heroine, illustrate the malleability of Frances’ yet-unformed identity by shadowing her through at least half a dozen different residences.
Though Gerwig toyed with a similarly rocky adjustment in rebound comedy Lola Versus, this livelier and more fully rounded character study benefits from the perspective a slightly older-and-wiser director brings. Along with producer Scott Rudin, Baumbach has been one of the biggest industry champions for the mumblecore set, and here, he collaborates with Gerwig (whom he first directed in Greenberg) on the vital detail so many of those DIY projects lack: a script.
Otherwise, Frances Ha feels in sync with the raggedy yet sincere semi-autobiographical films surfacing these days at Sundance, SXSW and other U.S. fests. But Baumbach pushes beyond sincerity in search of truth, drawing from such stylistic forebears as the French New Wave, Woody Allen and Andy Warhol’s Factory films to capture a reality that has eluded him on his more polished dramedies. Here, it helps that he has not only chosen a lead who’s likable in spite of her flaws, but also opted to shoot this relatively inexpensive production in black and white, thereby making it that much easier for auds to consider the pic’s potentially mundane situations through the lens of Art.
As the allegedly “undateable” Frances drifts from one apartment to the next — staying with a pair of rich-kid creatives (Michael Zegan and Adam Driver) one month, flying home to Sacramento the next, and even allowing for a spontaneous weekend trip to Paris — she encounters other personalities that allow the film to more fully reveal hers. Frances Ha isn’t a plot picture, but a portrait, after all. Where other performers act, Gerwig manages to just be, making her precisely the right young star to carry such a genial glimpse at a character who doesn’t even seem to realize she’s trying to find herself.
(PG-13) • 130 minutes • On-screen here from 5/31/13 to 6/6/13
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Synopsis: Jeff Nichols’s exhilarating third movie, Mud, concerns two 14-year-old boys growing up in a small town beside the Mississippi in the director’s native south central state of Arkansas, and it’s impossible while watching it not to think about Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway’s claim for its essential position in the experience of growing up close to the American landscape. It also brings to mind Hemingway’s own detailed, tactile descriptions of fishing, sailing, hunting and living close to nature in the wild. There’s another great novel about growing up, understanding and misunderstanding the world that Mud inevitably evokes. That’s Great Expectations and Pip’s relationship with fugitive convict Magwitch.
Nichols’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who set off on an adventure down river to find an old boat, surrealistically stranded high in a tree on a deserted island. They come across a handsome, charismatic man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he too lays claim to the boat. When it transpires he’s on the run for what he claims to be a justified homicide down in Texas, the boys enter into a pact to provide him with food and help him restore the craft as a means of escape. Ellis acts out of an innate sense of decency, sympathy and a need for friendship. Neckbone’s motives are initially cynical and mercenary, though he gradually warms to the outsider.
(R) • 120 minutes • On-screen here from 5/24/13 to 5/30/13
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson
Synopsis: He might have had a rockier patch in the mid-’00s — no one saw his delightful fable Millions, and sci-fi “Sunshine” was both a commercial disappointment and the most difficult shoot of his career — but things couldn’t have gone much better for Danny Boyle in the last few years. Slumdog Millionaire was a global hit and an Oscar sensation, winning a golden statue for Boyle himself, while follow-up 127 Hours was equally well-received, and picked up another Best Picture nod. Furthermore, he oversaw the triumphant opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, a glorious, inventive and moving pageant that cemented his status as a beloved national hero. So where could he possibly go from there?
Well, he made Trance, a twisty, mind-bending thriller (actually shot before the Olympics, but edited afterwards) that sees Boyle return to the darker crime fare of his first film Shallow Grave, while melding it with the bright, kinetic style of his recent films, ending up with a picture that, if it’s not quite Boyle’s very best, is probably his most satisfying and coherent since Trainspotting.
Based on a reasonably obscure UK TV drama by This Life writer Joe Ahearne, and penned by Shallow Grave and Trainspotting scribe John Hodge, in his first collaboration with Boyle since The Beach, it opens as Simon (James McAvoy) walks the audience through the emergency in-case-of-robbery procedures at the auction house at which he works. There’s a reason that Simon knows them so well, it turns out: deep in gambling debts, he’s teamed up with thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) to pinch a Goya painting, “Witches In The Air,” worth close to £30 million.
It should have gone off without a hitch, but Simon and Franck fight during the heist, with Simon ending up shotgun-whipped and unconscious. Franck gets away with the loot, only to discover that Simon had already pulled a fast one on him, hiding the painting away for himself. But while he’s come out of his coma, Simon’s brain injury means he has no memory of where he left it, so Franck enlists the help of a hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who claims she can unlock the secrets buried deep in Simon’s mind. But is Elizabeth everything she seems? Could she have her own agenda at work?
We couldn’t possibly say any more, as part of the joy of Trance is discovering its many twists and turns for yourself, and if you’ve managed to avoid the trailers so far, we recommend you keep it that way until you catch up with the film. In its basic set-up — the battle for loot between a trio of protagonists, not all of whom, or indeed any of whom, are entirely sympathetic — it’s immediately reminiscent of Shallow Grave, and to some degree, it does feel like a return to the filmmaker’s 1990s roots, the film proving to be his purest genre exercise for a decade, with a playfulness and tricksiness to the material that feels like pure Boyle. That said, though, he’s not the same director that we first encountered nearly two decades back, and the vibrant, hyper-kinetic look (once again courtesy of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) of his last couple of films remains intact.
But somehow it’s a more natural fit here than it was in ‘Slumdog’ or “127 Hours” — that so much of the film revolves around the mind, or the tricks it can play, means Boyle’s style feels more earned. We heard a few comparisons to “Inception” knocking around as we left the theater, and they’re not unfair ones, the plot hinging on the unlocking of Simon’s psyche, and the secrets that it holds within. But if anything, it all feels a little more plausible and authentic than in Nolan’s film; the style might be more jittery, but it seems more fitting to the damaged synapses and dark recesses of its protagonist’s brain. It helps that Hodge’s script — which is terrific as a whole, his ability to stick the landing making the film feel more complete than the less satisfying endings of Boyle’s genre collaborations with Alex Garland — has clearly done its homework on the hypnotherapy side of things.
And yet the film’s not merely content with being a twisty psycho-thriller. Boyle and Hodge expertly tweak and tinker with your sympathies, and the characters you initially peg as heroes and villains may not be in the same place by the time things wrap up
And it’s just one example of the added texture that elevates Trance above your average crime caper. Boyle layers the art that backgrounds the film into the visuals, while also refracting his characters through glass or reflection for much of the film, emphasizing their inscrutability and hidden motivations. And the tremendous, sometimes ear-splittingly loud score from Underworld’s Rick Smith (a regular Boyle collaborator) is true to the film’s title, making it feel as much a rave as a movie.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
(R) • 130 minutes • On-screen here from 5/17/13 to 5/23/13
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Rizwan Ahmed, Live Schrieber, Kate Hudson, Keifer Sutherland
Synopsis: Mira Nair’s thoughtful drama takes a different angle from Zero Dark Thirty on the geopolitical fall-out from 9/11. Whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s picture described a manhunt, this is more about the search for a man’s soul.
Riz Ahmed convinces as Changez, the well-born son of a Punjab poet who comes to America and is “catapulted into privilege” – an Ivy League education, then a prestigious job as a company downsizer on Wall Street. It all changes after the Twin Towers go down, when being a Muslim in the paranoid aftermath is a cause for suspicion – strip-searched at customs, mistakenly arrested, abused. So much for the Land of the Free.
The story is recounted in flashback by Changez, now an academic back in Lahore, to an American journalist (Live Schreiber) on the trail of a kidnapped professor. How deeply is this reluctant fundamentalist implicated in anti-American insurgency?
Nair, adapting from the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, draws a terrific performance from Ahmed as the divided hero, mild-mannered then warier by degrees. The story cleverly plots the way his allegiance shifts from capitalism to militancy, hinting that he might be exchanging one sort of fundamentalism for another.
One exceptional scene dramatises a crucial encounter between Changez and the head of a doomed publishing house, played, brilliantly, by Turkish theatre legend Haluk Bilginer. Not all of it is so compelling.
Kate Hudson as a troubled rich girl with a sideline in photo art , proves she can hold her own in more weighty material. Nair keeps an honourable, even-handed line in this moral fable, and delivers her best work since Monsoon Wedding.
(PG-13) • 103 minutes • On-screen here from 5/10/13 to 5/16/13
Director: Wayne Blair
Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy
Synopsis: A potent combination of rousing music, appealing performances and an uplifting story renders this film-festival favorite nearly impossible to resist.
While Australian director Wayne Blair’s film can feel simplistic, somehow that adds to the overall charm. Ditto for the energetic newcomers who make up The Sapphires, an appealing Motown-inspired girl group.
Adapted from a 2005 play by Tony Briggs, the story is based loosely on Briggs’ Aboriginal family, specifically his mother and three aunts.
Initially, three sisters enter an outback talent contest, singing lilting country-Western harmonies and outshining the competition. A bigoted judge ignores their talents. But the event proves pivotal. It’s there that they connect with Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a scruffy keyboard player, and forge an association that will change all of their lives. Transplanted Irishman Dave encourages the girls to abandon their lovelorn country tunes in favor of exuberant, hip-shaking soul music.
“Ninety percent of all recorded music is (crap),” he tells the girls drolly. “The other 10 percent is soul.”
This spirited tale is set in 1968, when indigenous Australians were facing a similar fight for civil rights as black Americans.
The girls answer an ad to perform for U.S. troops in Vietnam and are accompanied overseas by Dave, who becomes their manager. The Sapphires don white go-go boots and sing their hearts out. They wow the servicemen with their terrific R&B covers and learn lessons about family, friendship, love and war.
The Company You Keep
(R) • 125 minutes • On-screen from 4/26/13 to 5/9/13
Director: Robert Redford
Starring: Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Shia LeBouf, Sam Elliot, Nick Nolte
Synopsis: The past is a puzzle that resurfaces in bits and pieces for Robert Redford in “The Company You Keep.”
The political potboiler’s producer, director and star still leans left, but in telling this fable about 1970s radicals grown older and wiser, Redford’s gotten nostalgic.
The movie marks Redford’s first time back in front of the camera since 2007’s “Lions for Lambs,” his preachy take on the government’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. No doubt the character of former radical Jim Grant, a role that calls for an equal share of heart, quiet heroics and politics, influenced his decision to act again.
The director put his leading man in good company. Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci and Sam Elliott all deliver nice moments, most of them playing former activists. A new generation of talent balances and broadens the film, including “Another Earth’s” breakout star Brit Marling and “Up in the Air’s” Oscar-nominated Anna Kendrick.
But it is Shia LaBeouf who is the film’s standout. LaBeouf’s dogged reporter, Ben Shepard, uncovers the secrets that put Grant on the run and is equally problematic for the FBI. He is continually one step ahead of the team led by a frustrated Cornelius (Terrence Howard).
Shepard’s relentless push for the truth becomes the spine of the film, and in it there are reminders of a younger Redford playing his own crusading journalist with Dustin Hoffman in 1976’s “All the President’s Men.” LaBeouf’s performance goes a long way in showing that the actor doesn’t need Transformers to carry a film.
The movie opens 30 years after the extremes of the 1970s when a handful of former Weather Underground members find themselves on the run again from their anti-Vietnam protesting past. It is their crises of conscience as much as an FBI manhunt that drives the action, though those second thoughts have a way of slowing things down.
“The Company You Keep” is a shrewder, more satisfying piece of filmmaking than we’ve seen from Redford in a while. Writer Lem Dobbs has given the filmmaker a lean and agile script, which keeps the pace brisk and significantly pares the polemics in adapting the Neil Gordon novel for the screen.
The event that put Jim Grant and three others on the FBI most-wanted list was a Michigan bank robbery in which a guard was killed. Much like L.A.’s own real-life version triggered by the 1999 arrest of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson, “Company” begins with the capture of Sharon Solarz (Sarandon). The mastermind of the robbery, she has spent the intervening years living a quiet life and raising a family.
As photos of Solarz — then and now — overtake the TV news cycle and splash across front pages, Grant finds himself pulled into the fray. Since the ’70s, he’s been living in Albany, N.Y., under an assumed identity, paying his dues as a public interest attorney and devoted single father. When he turns down the Solarz case, local Albany Sun Times beat reporter Shepard doesn’t understand why. Shepard won’t stop digging, and soon Grant is on the move.
While news footage helps set the context with shots of Vietnam, Kent State and the fictional robbery, Grant’s encounters become a way to reflect on and rehash what “they” did — both the government and the Weather Underground.
Given the actors involved, it makes for a series of showy moments: Sarandon brings a weary patience to a handcuffed Solarz as she explains why she wanted to turn herself in. Nolte as Donal, an aging radical, waxes poetic about the old days while he makes sure his lumber business stays profitable. Jenkins wears cynicism as comfortably as a tweed jacket as college professor Jed Lewis.
All roads lead to Michigan, where the bank robbery took place, and to the final fugitive, Mimi Lurie. Christie gives Mimi the kind of counterculture steel of an unrepentant radical that works well against the impossible request Grant is making of her. There is a real poignancy to the scenes between Christie and Redford playing former firebrands and lovers.
The Place Beyond the Pines
(R) • 140 minutes • On-screen here from 4/12/13 to 4/25/13
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper
Synopsis: Gosling plays Luke, a motorbike stuntman, riding the Cage of Death at carnivals across New York state. Off the bike he’s quiet, soulful, good with kids. He wears a distinctive leather jacket, has a grizzled mechanic as his confidant and drives to relax and forget.
Luke learns he has a son by his ex, Romina (Eva Mendes) and, keen to play poppa, decides to provide for them by robbing banks in spectacularly violent style. Gosling’s voice is his usual bashfully sexy mumble until the first heist. Then it revs off into the stratosphere. “You’re my little doggy!”, he squeals at one unfortunate cashier, before leaping on the bike and whizzing the money back to mom.
It’s raucously good fun, this histrionic opening – packed out with chase scenes through the trees, boiling on the white hot chemistry between real-life couple Gosling and Mendes, as increasingly unhinged Luke forces Romina to try and make their relationship work.
Then, with little indication, Cianfrance pulls back on the throttle and turns off into a serious drama. The bright glare of a genre piece is swapped for the muted tones of his last collaboration with Gosling, Blue Valentine. We’re introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who uses his campaign against crooks like the Moto-bike robber to launch a political career. His story mirrors Luke’s in some ways – he has a wife (Rose Byrne) and a young son to look after and he wants to act, not talk – but Avery is a much less fun than crazy, cranky Luke. Cianfrance spends the rest of the film clicking through the gears – political thriller, cop procedural, revenge drama.
On The Road
(R) • 124 minutes • On-screen here from 4/5/13 to 4/11/13
Director: Walter Salles
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams
Synopsis: “The only people that interest me,” Sal says in voiceover, with Mr. Riley scatting out the famous words by Neal Cassady, “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing…but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night.”
More literary adaptation than biopic, the movie uses the fiction alter egos Kerouac created for the novel. Bookended by two goodbyes, the story spans 1947 to 1951, the year after Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City, came out. “I first met Neal not long after my father died,” Sal says, delivering the scroll’s opening words, “I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk.” Sal meets Dean, a k a Cassady (Garrett Hedlund), through Carlo Marx, a k a Ginsberg, who’s played with energy and heavy glasses, by the pretty, deeply un-Ginsbergian British actor Tom Sturridge. Dean, as is his habit, throws open the door to Sal and Carlo while completely naked, his teenaged honeypot, Marylou (Kristen Stewart, fine and untwitchy), still warming the rumpled bed.
From there it’s on the road and off as the beatific boys, with Marylou sometimes riding shotgun, discover America and themselves or try to anyway as the jazz wails and throbs amid insert shots of books by Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. Everything looks authentic or at least painstakingly researched, from the jazz clubs where Sal and Dean sweat and grind alongside the African-American clientele to the stores that hug the sides of the highways. The cinematographer Eric Gautier has done brilliant work elsewhere and doesn’t seem capable of taking a bad shot. But everything tends to look too pretty here — the scenery, sets and costumes included, especially for the rougher byways and more perilous interludes, like the Benzedrine nights that feel more opiated than hopped up.
Viggo Mortensen makes things jump with his sepulchral growl as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), and Elisabeth Moss and Amy Adams pump juice into sidelined wives.
(G) • 75 minutes •On-screen here from 3/29/13 to 4/4/13
Director: Roberta Grossman
Featuring: Harry Belafonte, Connie Stevens, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Bob Dylan and many more
Synopsis: It’s to music what the bagel is to food – a Jewish staple that has transcended its origins and become a worldwide hit. Bob Dylan sang it. Elvis, too. And that’s only the beginning when it comes to Hava Nagila. Follow the infectious party song on its fascinating journey from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the cul-de?sacs of America in this hilarious and surprisingly deep film. Featuring interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell, Leonard Nimoy, Regina Spektor and more, Hava Nagila (The Movie) takes viewers from Ukraine and Israel to the Catskills, Greenwich Village, Hollywood – and even Bollywood – using the song as a springboard to explore Jewish history and identity and to spotlight the cross-cultural connections that can only be achieved through music.
(Last feature projected from 35mm film here)
(PG-13) • 98 minutes • On-screen here from 3/1/13 to 3/28/13
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connelly
Synopsis: Quartet is a warmly comic take on a motley crew of aging adults who are not quite ready to go into that good night. Instead, they choose to rage, comically and mostly endearingly, against the dying of the light. In the case of Quartet, our primary characters, along with most of the supporting cast, are retired classical musicians and opera singers, comfortably and uncomfortably inhabiting Beecham House, a relatively posh retirement home for retired classical music performers and stars.
As one might expect, this largely elderly cast runs the behavioral gamut from the outrageous to the doddering, with most clustered tastefully in the middle of the range. That’s exemplified by the “quartet” of opera singers who soon prove to be this film’s primary focus: the irrepressible Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly); the more intellectual and serious Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay); and the airy spirit also known as Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) who flits, sometimes alarmingly, in and out of current reality.
Oh, we’ve only listed a trio of opera singers. The big event, early in the film, is the arrival of mega-star soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). She’s a reluctant arrival to the home, but her fellow singers and antagonists welcome her regal self with genuine warmth. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that Reginald was briefly her husband. Their breakup was not a pleasant one, and their uncomfortable, unexpected reunion is something of a geriatric double take reminiscent of Rick’s and Ilsa’s memorable reunion at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
As various musical sideshows trot along in background (slowly), the main part of the story focuses on the initial trio’s desperate attempts to get Jean to rejoin them to sing their famous Verdi ensemble (the famous quartet from Rigoletto) as part of the home’s desperately needed annual fundraising concert. Jean’s reticence, along with the lingering, though gentlemanly bitterness of Reginald, and the occasional mental disappearances of Cecily turn the whole affair into an unexpected cliffhanger.
Clearly, this is not a film that’s intended for young men or women who, these days, generally prefer sweaty, naked bodies, mass quantities of exploding buildings or starships, or, better, both when it comes to film going. Quartet is a film that proceeds more like a quietly sleek, elegant PBS British import. Character is key, details are relevant, and all things proceed at a stately pace that might seem a touch out of place in the age of blogs, podcasts, Tweets, and instant YouTube videos.
We live in an age of impulse which is not always a good thing, as some aspects of life are better played when they’re subject to at least a modest amount of thought and deliberation—a lesson both Reginald and Jean have come to learn and one which, alas, often only comes with age.
And that’s just the point of this slow-moving but surprisingly warm older-adult problem comedy. Clothes, settings, manners and mannerisms all communicate something, and details that accrue slowly are nonetheless the details that matter, often carrying the story forward without the need for dialogue.
The real surprise here is that new director Dustin Hoffman gets this whole thing so right. An American, he clearly understands the British perspective of this film and rolls with it, allowing his characters to be themselves. And in so doing, he adds to the film a knowing realism that makes both characters and situations very special indeed.
But then, as if this isn’t enough, the subject matter of the vehicle is spiced up to an unusual degree by setting the scene not amidst a raucous bunch of former rock stars, but instead around a cadre of imperious yet witty and learned divas and divos from the opera world. Both terms have been appropriated by pop culture these days, but wrong-headedly..
Both of these elements, the exceedingly human and oddly rags-to-riches upper-crust condescension, as modified by the perspective of old age, is really what makes this film tick, along with the wonderful snatches of operatic and instrumental music, of course.
The atmospherics, the music, and the heightened stage presence of this film are mightily assisted by a quartet of actors who, while creaking a bit at the joints, as will we all eventually, bring the wisdom, sensibilities, and raw feelings of a lifetime on the stage and silver screen to the pinnacle of art.
Tom Courtenay, whom we last recall seeing, sadly (for us), as the brittle, driven Strelnikov in the 1965 cinema epic, Dr. Zhivago, here plays that revolutionary’s more thoughtful opposite in his role as Reginald. Courtenay’s Reggie has never truly recovered from the shock of his sudden abandonment by Jean not long after they married.
Kind, yet principled, he’s walled this off in his psyche in order to remain a functioning human being, but the rawness of his feelings are triggered once again by Jean’s surprise arrival, and he’s forced to cope with the huge emotions that erupt—ones he thought he’d contained so long ago. It’s a marvelously mature and nuanced portrayal of what can happen to a genuinely good guy when he’s punished for his good behavior.
As his opposite, his former wife and tormenter, Jean, Maggie Smith turns in what could very well be one of her best performances in a very long career of best performances. On one hand, Smith’s Jean has lost none of her haughty edge. But, as she moves into the film’s main narrative, she seems, finally, to have been touched by the kind of genuine sorrow and regret that come as a surprise to her.
Encountering Reginald once again, she becomes almost inarticulate with regard to her true emotions. Clearly, she now recognizes that walking out on a man who genuinely loved her without pre-conditions was a major life-mistake. Is it too late to apologize, as best she can? It’s a good question, only partially resolved as the film comes to a close—but we do have hope.
Playing against Reginald and Jean, Wilfred and Cecily may seem somewhat lesser characters, but they are not. Billy Connolly’s Wilfred is still every bit the divo and never misses an opportunity to offer a scathing criticism here or a correction to the conductor or the singer there. That said, he’s loaded with wit, irony, and better yet, in old age his humor has become more self-deprecating as he comes to realize his bossiness, fussiness, and cutting edge have become rather ridiculous.
Quite his opposite is Pauline Collins’ fragile Cecily, aka Sissy. She’s charming and delightful in company, is the most genuinely compassionate and outgoing of the four, always attempting to reconcile the opposites. But she also checks in and out of reality at the most inopportune times—often at moments of psychological stress. In so doing, she approaches the tragic, yet also brings out the suppressed humanity of the other three, particularly the blustery Wilfred whose compassion toward her is as unexpected as it is genuine.
(Oscar winner for best foreign language film )
(PG-13) • 127 minutes • On-screen here from 2/15/13 to 2/28/13
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and isabelle Huppert
Synopsis: Michael Haneke’s new film in the Cannes competition is everything that could have been expected from him and more: a moving, terrifying and uncompromising drama of extraordinary intimacy and intelligence. Amour asks the question of what will, in Larkin’s words, survive of us – and what the word means as we approach the end of our lives. Haneke begins the movie with a flash-forward sequence which impresses on our minds and retinas a devastating memento mori motif, governing how we react to everything that succeeds it.
Riva give breathtaking performances as Georges and Anne, retired music teachers in their 80s, living in a handsomely furnished, book-lined Paris apartment with a baby grand piano. They are happy, affectionate, loving; active and content. We see them attending the performance by one of Anne’s former pupils, and are delighted with his success. But one day, Anne suffers the first of a series of strokes which paralyse one arm, making playing the piano impossible, accompanied by progressive dementia. Trintignant’s face is etched not merely with the cares of age but dismay and fear: the person whom he loved and loves is beginning to vanish before his eyes. As Anne’s life ebbs away, so does her identity: is their love itself beginning to be dismantled? The movie reminded me of Proust’s remark about the end of life being a mystery akin to actors laying down a role played for so long that it had become part of who they are.
Having promised the terrified Anne that he would never put her in a home or hospital, Georges is placed under the increasing, insupportable strain caring for her at home. And this in turn colours his difficult relationship with his grown-up musician daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and her new husband Geoff (William Shimell) for whose British mannerisms Anne has never greatly cared.
Perhaps the most horrifying parts of the film are the first, tiny indications that something is wrong. Anne awakens in the middle of the night and stares into space — and then assures the baffled Georges that nothing is wrong. The next morning at breakfast, she becomes as still as a statue, her beautiful, mild face as serene as a death mask. When Anne awakens a minute later, with no clue as to why Georges is suddenly so agitated, Riva superbly conveys her sudden, unmentionable thought: is my husband losing his mind? (Watching this sequence, I was reminded of the awful moment in Haneke’s early film The Seventh Continent, in which a small child suddenly and mystifyingly declares that she is blind.)
Haneke shows how in this situation, the family home becomes a barricaded, besieged place and the lives and cares of the outsiders – friends, even close family – are unwelcome and almost meaningless. Their star pupil Alexandre (played by musician Alexandre Tharaud) pays them a well-intentioned but misjudged visit which succeeds only in underlining for Anne the loss of her health, status and music. With courage and good humour, Georges tackles the demanding new choreography of getting his Anne in and out of her wheelchair, on and off the lavatory. While Anne is still lucid, there is deeply moving gentleness and humour in their relationship. He recounts to Anne the grim absurdity of attending the funeral of one of their friends, in which the Beatles’ Yesterday was played. (Perhaps he should have been grateful it wasn’t All You Need Is Love.) But Anne’s light begins to fade.
In Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, the discipline of the piano and music were questioned as something cruel, a submission to power. Now music is seen as a token of something different, less bizarre and confrontational, but perhaps no less disquieting. Georges and Anne have no religious beliefs, and their music and refined cultural life might have been expected to provide secular consolation. But do they? Perhaps they are simply something else to be taken away, the ability to play and appreciate music simply erode with the physical faculties. Georges and Anne are thrown back, almost primevally, on each other.
This is film-making at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight. Haneke’s mastery and supremacy have resounded here in Cannes like an orchestral chord.
(R) • 120 minutes • On-screen here from 2/1/13 to 2/14/13
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Synopsis: This was the best film I saw during the London Film Festival: a triumphant combination of thrills and comedy. Ben Affleck’s movie tells an amazing but true story set against the context of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days from November 1979 to January 1981, after a group of Islamist militants invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Unknown to us all at the time, six Americans found sanctuary in the Canadian embassy.
A plot was hatched to smuggle them out of Iran, disguised as Canadian film-makers researching locations for a tacky rip-off of Star Wars — named Argo.
It is a matter of some controversy how much of the escape was planned by the Canadian ambassador (played in the movie by Victor Garber) and how much was the brainchild of CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck), but for cinematic purposes we see events mainly through the eyes of the latter.
The story that unfolds is always gripping and often funny, especially when a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist (John Goodman) become involved and cast a cynical eye over the scam.
In a way, the film is about the technique of movie-making, the spinning of stories that will persuade the audience they’re true.
Affleck hasn’t always tried very hard as an actor, but with his third picture behind the camera he shows — as he did with Gone Baby Gone and The Town — that he’s the most talented actor-turned-director since Clint Eastwood.
Hyde Park on the Hudson
(R) • 128 minutes • On-screen here from 1/14/13 to 1/31/13
Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West
Synopsis: Bill Murray as FDR? It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once he settles into the role of the 32nd president, the idiosyncratic comic actor does a wonderfully jaunty job of it in Hyde Park on Hudson, a seriocomic look at an eventful weekend at the chief executive’s country estate as well as at his unusual domestic arrangement.
With Britain’s King George VI playing an important part in the proceedings as a house guest, audiences will be no doubt be encouraged to think of this classy, mildly ribald slice of biographical arcania as this season’s The King’s Speech, bolstered by the fact that both leaders had to deal with physical impairments. Reflecting a time when the intimate secrets of our leaders could truly be securely kept from the public, this Focus Features holiday release seems eminently promotable as a refined treat that’s nonetheless palatable to a wide audience.
Although decorously staged and tidily written in the manner of many films and television shows about the historical high and mighty, this contribution to 20th century costume drama ventures waist-deep into vaguely queasy territory by exploring, however gingerly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s multiple menage that was either hidden, or ignored, in plain sight under the roof he shared with his wife and mother.
Screenwriter Richard Nelson, who wrote the 1993 film of Ethan Frome and won a Tony as author of the book for the musical James Joyce’s The Dead, doesn’t consistently find the precise register in which to address the president’s indiscretions, especially in the narration of the latest addition to the little brood, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. A plain, intelligent spinster (47 years old in real life at the time) and a sixth cousin to FDR, whom she hasn’t seen in years, Daisy is surprised to be summoned to Springwood, the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. In due course, she confides that, “I helped him forget the weight of the world,” which is one way of passing along the news that she is expected to pleasure the polio-stricken president on occasion, something his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams, wonderful), is long since over and done with.
Whether this was actually the role of the real Daisy, who is self-effacingly played with prim dignity and a tinge of bitterness by Laura Linney, remains questionable even today. But for dramatic purposes, she here joins another middle-aged confidante, Roosevelt’s secretary and possible intimate, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), as well as Eleanor and her circle, whom FDR cheerfully calls “she-men.” In any event, it’s a bright and lively group the boss has assembled around him to keep things running, help him relax and, psychologically, ensure that he’ll always be the center of attention.
Before long, Daisy’s position in the compactly conceived scenario recedes to give way to the main event, the royal visit to Hyde Park at the invitation of Roosevelt. Immortalized two years ago by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and impersonated last year in Madonna’s ill-fated W.E. by Damien Thomas, George VI is winningly played this time around by Samuel West in a sympathetic, very likable turn. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, is essayed by Olivia Colman to a degree as a butt of comedy, a disapproving prune with an eagle eye for shortcomings in the accommodations and horrified, but truly horrified, by the presence of hot dogs on the menu for a picnic.
Although the date of the royal tour, the first in history by a British monarch to the former colony, is never specified onscreen (it actually took place during the second week of June 1939, at the behest of Roosevelt as an extension of the king’s scheduled visit to Canada), the specter of war casts a noticeable shadow over the splendid sunny days. With the heads of state setting the pace, nearly everyone drinks and smokes up a storm, and the characters’ diverse forms of eccentricity lend the work an oddly but appealingly off-center quality under Roger Michell’s astute and fluid directorial hand.
But the film would remain just a bonbon or a mildly diverting lark were it not for its moving central section. After the others have retired, the president invites the king to join him in his study. Cheekily asking the monarch to push him into the room in his wheelchair, Roosevelt liberally dispenses the liquor as he shrewdly guides the conversation in a way that not only cements a personal friendship but builds a useful political bridge and ratchets up George’s morale in the bargain. “This goddamned stutter,” the king laments at one moment. “What stutter?” asks FDR, before letting slip, “This goddamned polio.”
When the president adds that the American people never think about his useless legs, that the subject is never mentioned, it seems to do more for the king’s own confidence than the totality of Lionel Logue’s speech therapy. And when Roosevelt lauds the king and engages him so directly man-to-man, one gets the distinct impression that George possibly never before has received what felt like genuine, as opposed to rote, praise — that he has been accustomed to only criticism or silent disdain. A revelatory exchange between men of comparable global stature but glaringly different experience and character, the whole episode is beautifully written, directed and performed.
With the dreaded hot dog repast, complete with entertainment by Indians, having been survived, the royals bid farewell. Daisy, who’s about had enough, slips away more discreetly. Ultimately, the FDR-Daisy story is the film’s weakest element, in that the abiding mutual fondness and sense of confidentiality they allegedly share always seems overshadowed by the aversion Daisy feels to the whole arrangement. That Daisy is given pride of place in the story by her framing narration doesn’t entirely square with her position of secondary dramatic interest and importance.
After all, the show is Murray’s. Not as large or physically dominant as the president, Murray nonetheless grows into the role, One feels that, despite a world full of troubles, the man is at home and at ease here, so accustomed to being in control that he never needs to act imperiously or throw his weight around. Numerous accommodations have been made to his disability — his car has been modified so that he can drive it entirely with his hands and it even has a dispenser that disgorges his cigarettes already lit — but he neither feels sorry for himself nor expects special consideration. Murray captures FDR’s wily side without overdoing it and brings the man alive with humor, alertness, intelligence and a sense of confident composure that seem entirely appropriate. The performance is both credible and very entertaining.