Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Okay, so the story's been told a thousand times - the chance-meeting of two down-on-their-luck losers, with time ticking away for both, will they or will they not, "so let's meet here tomorrow at noon" - and then she waits, but he doesn't show; oh my gosh, he's in the hospital - has no way of contacting her ... out the next day, he goes to where she works, finds out she's left for the day, in her writing class - he knows where that is - they meet again ... will they or will they not?

Sure, it's the stuff of a common cinematic story, but, oh boy, is this one well done!

Sort of like watching Emeril and Bobby Flay go at it - Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (with whom I've always been in love since her brilliant performance as Harriet Pringle in "Fortunes of War" - which I've just ordered on Netflix)) are a wonder to watch. They can dance with one another - I was utterly fascinated to watch how powerfully they embodied their characters - the tiniest twitch around the mouth, the eyes to the side, the smiles, the longing, the searching, the hoping - this is acting at its best!

In one of the best moments ever in film, Kate (Thompson), a Brit, tries to explain to Harvey (Hoffman) what a "stiff upper lip is" - she can do it, he can't (he's American) - this reminded me of another delicious in filmdom when Robbin Williams tries to teach Nathan Lane how to walk like a man. These small moments are what make great films.

Anyway, I bow before Thompson and Hoffman - they are masters of their craft.

And the story got to me ... I was cheering for them, and when Harvey is dashing about London from the hospital the previous night, on his way to catch Kate before her class is finished, I'm saying, aloud, "Come on, hurry up!" The story had me, and that's what I like, and that's why I give this delightful gem of a movie my best recommendation.

I went with two serious critics - my wife and my son, and we all agreed, this was a great film driven by two incredible actors.

Around them, smaller roles so well done:

Eileen Atkins plays Kate's widowed and slightly neurotic mother who's constantly calling her cell phone.

Liane Balaban is Harvey's daughter who's getting married in London (she works there, and that's why Harvey is there), but Harvey is divorced from her mother, Kate (Kathy Baker), now happily married to Brian, a tall, good looking man (everything Harvey isn't) played so well by James Brolin.

Harvey's daughter has asked her step-father to give her away. The anguish and hurt, the brave attempt to cover it, captured so well by Hoffman - I could feel it in my bones. I hurt for him.

Finally, through a variety of mis-steps, missed flights back to the state, and the encouragement of Kate, Harvey attends the reception, and when the step-father stands to toast the couple, Harvey clinks on his glass and says, "They asked for the father of the bride" - Brian agrees (and so do with grace - only a very good actor could bring this little moment off), and Hoffman delivers one of the finest monologues I've heard - it moved me deeply - in that moment, Hoffman is everyone's father, and every father is Hoffman.

One of the delightful elements - Thompson, in heels, is quite a bit taller than Hoffman - clearly, an odd couple, but the chemistry is glorious to watch. At the end, walking down the street ... oh well, I won't tell you that - but a wonderful moment - one of a thousand little things that made this a crown film - filled with diamonds, everyone of them shining.

Under the brilliant direction of Joel Hopkins, also the writer.

Cinematography (John de Borman) was incredible - so many shots, utterly dramatic - one moment of Harvey's despair in a public restroom - leaning against the wall, next to his mirror reflection - I'll not forget that moment. And music to fill the ear and the heart!

Go see it NOW!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I don't think so.

Good try, but this one didn't make it.

I went with high expectations for an adventure - but the whole thing fell flat for me. How to say: a movie in search of a story, or a story in search of a purpose.

An interesting concept: silver-tongued readers can bring characters out of a book and put others back in. I liked the possibility, but does the film deliver?

As the story unfolds, Mo "silver-tongued" Folchart (Brendan Fraser) refuses to read to his daughter (Eliza Bennett), having once read to her years earlier, only to read a few bad guys into this world and his wife into the book called "Inkheart," of which there are now only a few left in the whole world. It seems Capricorn, the badest of the bad, is destroying all other copies so there will never be a chance for a silver-tongue to read him back into the book - he enjoys his life here; after all, he has a castle, and who wouldn't like that.

Mr. Folchart, with his older daughter now, spends his time looking for another copy in the hopes of returning his wife. The daughter, by the way, has no clue - she believes her mother abandoned them. Mr. Folchart has never told her the truth, believing that his daughter would never believe him.

Along the way, they meet a character he long ago read into this world, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) who's been looking for him lo these many years, hoping that Silver-tongue might read him back into the book, to return him to his family. Bettany, by the way, sports an Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) "Lord of the Rings" scraggly hair look, but without the fire. A rather lackluster effort, as far as this writer is concerned.

And then Mo's feisty and wealthy aunt, played marvelously by Helen Mirren - what a delight to watch and hear - every action, every line, delivered with a convincing effect - she's really good, playing a role in a film hardly worth her abilities. As for the story, she saves the day, discovering that she's inherited her father's silver tongue.

And then the bad guys, the leader of which is played exceedingly well by Andy Serkis. The bad guys - are they really bad, or mostly a bunch of bumbling dummies? Not sure the story knew where to go with them. The story reaches it climax in the bad guys' town - a mix of medieval dress and setting, but with guns and cars, as well. It takes a great deal of directorial (Iaian Softley) skill to mix metaphors, if you will; for me, it didn't quite make it.

The whole thing seemed lackluster, with clearly inadequate acting on Fraser's part. What with his "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and now this, he's got to find something else to do. Either he's not a good actor, or he's lost interest in this kind of fantastic, blue screen, stuff.

Even the special effects - sort of okay, but these days, it takes a lot to impress a jaded special effects junkie.

Eliza Bennett holds great promise; she was another who gave her role depth and passion. It was fun watching her, and I especially appreciate the skill with which she delivered her lines. She has a marvelous face - a maturity in the midst of innocence.

All around Fraser, good actors, but they can't carry him, nor can they carry the film. Sorry to be so tough on him - I've always like him, but these last two efforts do nothing for his career. I think he's capable of a whole lot more, but where's the script for him? I liked him very much in "The Quiet American," but there's been nothing similar for him since.

After Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, fantasy/adventure tales have a lot to live up to. In spite of an interesting story with promise, this film doesn't make it.

Stay home - catch it on TV or Netflix.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Reader

What a fine story ... I can't imagine how anyone can craft such characters and such a plot.

Now, I've not read the book, but how I enjoyed the movie.

It took awhile ... at first, what is this? As the young Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). From the get-to, you know that something is wrong, though tragic is the better word. Hanna is searching for something, and the young man is drawn into her sorrow.

The acting is superb on all counts. David Kross brings to life the angst and the lust of a 15-year old boy, both innocent and madly in love.

Kate Winslet - incredible. Her face is the face of sorrow and hidden depths. A story that needs to be told, but can only be hinted at.

As they lay entwined in one another's arms, she has him read to her, one book after the other, bringing tears to her eyes at times.

And then, one day, she's gone, and that's the last of it until Micheal, now a law student, attends a trial of concentration camp guards charged with the death of 300 Jews allowed to burn to death in a church on fire, the result of Allied bombs.

The law students and their professor attend the trial, and there sits Hanna, along with others, charged with the heinous crime.

When questioned, she's totally innocent - "They were under our guard. We couldn't let them out. What would have happened?"

When the judge reviews the written documents, he asks her if she wrote the report. He asks for a sample of her handwriting, a table and pencil put in front of her. She looks at it, and says, "It's not necessary; I wrote the report."

Her secret? She can neither read nor write, and though a simple confession of that fact could have saved her, years of hiding it, years of shame about it, compel her to maintain the secret, and she alone is given a life-time sentence. The others, only a few years.

For Micheal Berg, it all falls into place - and for the audience as well ... in some tragic fashion, was her love for the boy some means of atonement? As it turns out, she made prisoners do the same - read to her. Is she a monster? Is she a tormented soul? Somewhere in between?

Michael Berg goes to the prison to tell her that he knows her secret, but at the last minute, walks away. He could have entered what he knew, but he didn't. So begins another secret! His.

After a failed marriage in the midst of his own law career (now older, played by an amazing Ralph Fiennes), he reaches out to her - he sends her tapes - he reads to her, book after book, and in time, she begins the arduous process of learning how to read and write. It's quite extraordinary how this unfolds in the movie.

But I've already told you too much, though I've left a good deal for you to see on your own.

Don't miss this powerful film under the direction of Stephen Daldry.

Monday, January 12, 2009


A two-part film by director, Steven Soderbergh, detailing the revolutionary life and death of Ernesto Che Guevara ... brilliantly filmed by Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews).

Part One, the Cuban revolution ... at 1:00 PM

Part Two, Che's effort to export the Revolution to Bolivia ... 4:00 PM ... both at the Landmark on Pico. It was a full day, to say the least.

The whole enterprise flirts with boredom - endless slogging through the jungle - moving at a snail's pace - punctuated by a few moments of military action, but this is not about the fighting, it's about the man, his incredible energy and vision and his slow-motion plunge into death in the Bolivian jungles.

This is a bio-pic ... though I nodded off a few times, I found myself entranced - the story is told, and told well. I wanted to see what was going to happen next!

This is not an actor-driven film, though Benicio Del Toro portrays Che with convincing style. All of the acting is well-done, but the tone is "documentary" - unsteady camera work, the interspersing of black and white "news real" footage - some actual from the Cuban Revolution, but the New York City appearance of Che at the UN, had the grainy quality of archive footage. I really liked this element.

The only moment that seemed a bit strange to me - mega-star Matt Damon (Fr. Schwartz) has a brief role - fine as it goes, but I wish Soderbergh had stayed with lesser lights. This cameo didn't seem to fit.

It was fun to see Lou Diamond Phillips ... haven't seen enough of him lately. He brings a quiet intensity to his role - that of a Bolivian Communist, Mario Monje, who's caught between the party and the Revolution, initially helping Che, then, perhaps, betraying him.

Dialog is spare, utilitarian - the impression is clear: this isn't about words; it's about commitment, a willingness to give everything for the sake of the poor. Though a philosopher, Che is a revolutionary - it's action, not words, that count. But often with a few well-chosen words, Che inspires and disciplines his fighters, giving them some primordial - vision for what could be, and the willingness to pay the requisite price.

The slow pace also is the message: Che's effort in the Bolivian jungles was a slow march to death. The mystery explored is why the Revolution succeeded in Cuba but failed in Bolivia. A different time, a unique set of conditions, a United States ready to assist Bolivia when the US did so much less in Cuba? Who knows for sure.

The other mystery, I suppose, is Che himself. Why did he leave Cuba? Apparently the settled life was not for him. His was the life of the jungle, the armed struggle against oppressive regimes. Married and with children - no jungle liaisons with beautiful women, Che is all business, or shall I say, all Revolution. I wonder how his family felt. How have they fared since? What's up with his children?

Makeup does a fine job here - as we watch Che grow older, weak with hunger and beset with a nagging asthma that often leaves him gasping for breath. Controlled with medication, but in the last months of the Bolivian effort, having quickly fled the advance of government troops, his medication was left behind. Like everything else in those final months, it all went wrong.

Will a film like this enjoy commercial success?

Hard to say, but it's surely a contribution exploring the life of a world-recognized icon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Revolutionary Road

A tour de force of sadness ... this is a tough film, yet one of the finest films I've seen. Hats off to Sam Mendes for bringing this powerful story to the silver screen. And thanks to Paramount Vantage (and others) for this incredible achievement.

Set in the Connecticut suburbs of the mid-fifties, we watch a young, up-and-coming, family make their way into life, and into chaos.

Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler and their two children are living the American Dream, or is it a nightmare?

At the heart of the story, a conflict - between dreams and reality.

When I counsel, I often use the A-B Game - where A is our reality and B is our dream. What we all know is this: reality is complex and filled with bits and pieces we could never have foreseen. Whereas a day-dream is clear and happy - that's the nature of a day-dream. It's always better than what we have, and what we have pales in comparison to the meanderings of our imagination. When we play the A-B Game, reality always looses!

Paris in springtime, or scrambled eggs in Connecticut. Hands down, Paris wins.

At what point is a dream worth it?

And, at what point should we seek our dreams in our reality? Just how bad is our reality anyway?

If the story has a point, it's this: a dream held unreasonably can kill! But ... and that's the point as well ... should we just chuck our reality, if we can (and they could), and go full-tilt for Paris? Maybe. Maybe not!

Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) - the perfect family. He's employed in the same company for which his dad worked. He's a young executive, but he doens't want to be there. He really doesn't know what he wants to do. Mrs. Wheeler's the quintessential Fifties housewife - a great dinner scene - all the recipes of the Fifties, including a pineapple with goodies affixed by toothpick - someone did their homework. The cars, the decor - it's all the Fifties, in all of its glory, and stifling horror!

The office environment in which he works - the men rule; the women serve. The neighborhood - where pretense and image are everything. We're happy, aren't we?

The Wheelers both yearn for something neither of them understand.

So they hatch a plan - we have enough money along with selling the house, and we can move to Paris, to fined ourselves and what it is that we need to be and do. But Mr. Wheeler doesn't really know what he wants. But that's okay. Mrs. Wheeler will go to work for the State Deparment - the pay is good, and Mr. Wheeler can think and write, and find out what he wants.

What a dream - it's shared with co-workers and neighbors, but Mr. Wheeler drags his feet.

And then, a promotion offered, and an unexpected development - suddenly the dream is in jeopardy.

The audience watches Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler do a slow-motion plunge into chaos.

So what's the dream?
What's the reality?
Where's the interface?
Who are we?
And what's it all about?

If you go, be prepared for a soul-searching experience. Go with some friends, exit quietly, head for a restaurant, grab a couple of stiff drinks and let the conversation begin.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Okay, I was mildly pleased, entertained, but this movie has yet to be made.

When it comes to comic book action and stylized imagery, "Sin City" remains the standard!

Spirit, played by Gabriel Macht, never quite gets off the page, so to speak. Lackluster? It takes considerable skill to play camp - for whatever reason, none of the cast are able to bring it off.

Script? Editing? Not sure ... but it left me flat!

What with all the good movies currently out, don't waste your time or your money, but if you're interested in the genre, it's worth it, if only to see how difficult it is to bring it off.

Glad I saw it - it's a film genre I really love, but this one needs to go back to the drawing board.


Based on true events (the film is an adaptation of Nechama Tec's Defiance: The Bielski Partisans), the untold story of three Polish brothers who, after the death of their parents at the hands of Nazis and Polish sympathizers, form a resistance movement and ultimately save 1200 Jews from the Nazi death camps. They survive by their wits in the forests of Belrussia, each of the brothers, a leader, but each in their own way, sometimes at cross-purposes.

Some of the reviews thus far have been critical of the script - a bit campy, too stylized. 

But I don't agree.

I found the script terribly moving, spare in its content - quick and desperate, and to the point. These are terribly hard times, and no one has either the time or the energy to engage in lengthy conversation. Several intellectuals join the camp, and their banter is more than enjoyable, but the brothers, having taken on the protection of the infirm, the elderly and children, bear an enormous responsiblity.

One of the themes is the question of violence - at one point, "They may hunt us like animals, but we'll not be animals."

As my son notes, "Edward Zwick [director] doesn't know how to make a bad movie."

Beautifully filmed in the forests, the imagery of the seasons stands in stark contrast to their desperate hunger and constant fear. How any of them made it is beyond me, but the iron-willed leadership of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) sees them through.

His leadership is challenged at times by his more violently inclined brother, Zuz, played so adeptly by Liev Schreiber, who, at one point, joins a Russian partisan brigade because he wants to fight. Welcomed as a "comrade," Zuz nonetheless faces a constant low-level Antisemitism - though contrary to "Party" policy, it's there - "Do Jews fight?" "This one does" and does so with ruthless abandon - is he trying to prove the point?

We watch the youngest brother - Asael (Jamie Bell) - come into his own as a leader - though of a more gentle and thoughtful kind than either of his brothers.

The camp is composed of all the usual suspects - the angry fighter who wants more food for the men who get it, whereas camp rules are simple: everyone eats the same amount, at the same time.

The intellectuals who talk about it; the sick the dying ... and "forest love." Life in its fullness - life as we all know it - a microcosm of humanity, and perhaps that's the real tragedy of it all - we are all so much alike, but how we can distance one another and then look at one another with hatred. The human mystery - the folly of our story.

At one point, they capture a young German soldier who pleads for his life. What shall they do? Before anyone can decide, he's beaten to death, and every stroke against him, in the name of someone they've lost - brothers and sisters, parents and children - all of their anger and sorrow taken out on a young soldier in bloody reprisal. This is the way it is in such moments of time when humanness is driven to the edge.

Two of the brothers survive and immigrate to New York, to live quietly, without fanfare, never wanting their story told. The youngest brother joins the Red Army on its westward drive and is dead within six months.

A glorious, noble, story that needs to be told.

As we watch Israel pound Gaza, I have to ask: At what point does past suffering no longer justify present brutality? Just a question that rattles around inside my mind.

The acting is terrific; it's fun to see Daniel Craig in this powerfully nuanced role - the same complexity, a slightly ironic distance, he brings to the Bond character. Craig's a fine actor.

They all are, and hats of Zwick for bringing this powerful, evocative, story to the screen.

Along with Valkyrie, primal stories of Western history - stories that deserve to be told again and again, re-examined from every perspective, for such stories can never be exhausted in meaning, nor the questions they prompt!