“Hitchcock” falls prey to its unfocused narrative intentions. Based on Stephen Rebello’s popular book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” there were a dozen roads screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) could have gone down toward shedding light on Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking process at the height of his creative powers. Sadly, McLaughlin chooses the least dramatic one.
The context is well laid out. The 1959 press are hungry for Hitchcock’s blood after his success with “North by Northwest.” Press conferences allow the media to pepper the revered director about why he doesn’t retire while he’s ahead of the game. You can taste their jealousy. Hitchcock takes up the challenge, taking out a loan against his family home to produce “Psycho,” a nasty little tabloid story about a Texas serial killer named Ed Gein. Hitchcock’s loyal wife and assistant Alma (Helen Mirren) eventually comes around to agreeing with her husband that making “Psycho” is the right thing to do. Perhaps she has an ulterior motive.
The story shifts away from the making of one of the scariest films in history to a would-be adulterous affair between Alma and her screenwriter friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Whitfield goes to great lengths to establish a private retreat where he and Alma can be alone to co-write a script together. Houston’s miscasting in the role is beside the point. With the table set for the impeccably cast James D’Arcy to chew scenery as Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates, the audience gets a bait-and-switch gambit. The emphasis shifts to a moment of jealous pique that comes when Hitchcock suspects Alma of cheating.
Although Anthony Hopkins inhabits the corpulent master of suspense with an admirable command of Hitch’s savory enunciation, he never gets the jump on Hitchcock’s droll sense of macabre humor. We buy Hopkins incarnation of Alfred Hitchcock only up to a point. Nonetheless, it’s great fun watching Hopkins tap his well appointed arsenal of acting techniques.
Like Louis Bunuel, the master of surrealist cinema, Alfred Hitchcock was an unrequited fetishist who procured erotic satisfaction by proxy. Only by filming his idyllic ice queen platinum blonde actresses in various states of violently charged sensual situations could he achieve his artistic vision. Even if the audience didn’t consciously recognize they were peaking into the subconscious of what used to be called a “perverted” mentality, the effect added considerable depth of subtext to the movie at hand. It would have been a no-brainer to take “Hitchcock” behind the scenes of the myriad of specific choices Alfred Hitchcock made to prepare and film “Psycho.” Instead, we get a soap opera substitute.
Rated PG-13. 98 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Boys Don't Cry — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Kimberly Pierce’s remarkable 1999 filmic version of Brandon Teena’s final days is a scalding indictment of the conscious intolerance that runs through America’s Midwest and South. The film is also a celebration of youthful romantic desire. In the role that launched her career, Hillary Swank plays Lincoln, Nebraska-born Brandon Teena (née Teena Renae Brandon). With short hair, a chiseled jawline, and handsome charm, the “transgendered” Teena experiments with the fine art of passing as a boy. A rolled up sock or artificial penis and scrotum fill Brandon’s underwear. A tightly wrapped Ace bandage flattens her chest. Threats of violence by local boys, and run-ins with the law due to forged checks and shoplifting, make Brandon’s escape from Lincoln a necessity. The 21-year-old Brandon sublimates his sexual identity crisis by reinventing himself in the Falls City region of Richardson, Nebraska.
In this culturally desolate location, Pierce places Brandon’s tragic story primarily in nighttime settings to give the film a sense of floating through a nocturnal atmosphere of rural routes. Brandon temporarily explores his romantic desires with a young single mother named Candace (Alicia Goranson), whom he meets at roadhouse bar. A fistfight with slur-slinging bar patrons ensues. The episode introduces Brandon to a couple of seemingly benevolent ex-cons, John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). It becomes clear that Brandon is out of his depth during a “bumper-skiing” contest in which Brandon stands on the bed of a fast moving pickup truck while holding onto a rope — rodeo-style. John and Tom are temporarily fooled by Brandon’s ruse, but they won’t remain deluded for long.
The film soars during Brandon’s passionate sexual encounters with the true object of his romantic yearnings, Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny). A moonlit tryst between Brandon and Lana on a blanket in an open field directly addresses Brandon’s capacity for lovemaking. The exquisitely erotic sequence surges into a musically embellished transition with a bong-toking car ride where Brandon sits in blissed-out ecstasy between Candace and Lana while another girl drives. Liberation exists.
Co-writing with Andy Bienen, Kimberly Pierce anchors the narrative with the theme of following your dreams regardless of the circumstances stacked against you. The filmmakers choose not to bog the film down with factual backstory elements of Brandon’s youth, which involved abandonment and sexual abuse by his uncle. They recognize that there's a limit to the amount of cruelty an audience can stand. Brandon’s confidence of self-identity enables him to live—however briefly—as a fully expressed person with a wellspring of loving emotion.
The Iron Lady
Phyllida Lloyd Plays it Safe
By Cole Smithey
Between Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic and director Phyllida Lloyd's ill-told life story of Margaret Thatcher, it might seem on the surface there's a concerted effort to lionize two of the Right's most reprehensible examples of absolute power corrupting absolutely. On closer inspection however, each of the films reveal latent hypocrisies in their political subjects. Both movies feature iconic performances from enormously talented actors giving their all to embody tragically flawed political figures. Meryl Streep makes somewhat more of a big-screen splash than Leonardo DiCaprio given that Margaret Thatcher was a higher profile public figure. Her every gesture and facial expression comes across with an astounding degree of authenticity, thanks in part to some terrific prosthetic assistance by the film’s highly skilled make-up department.
Phyllida Lloyd last directed Streep in the 2008 musical “Mamma Mia.” Here, she depends on a less than solid script by British playwright Abi Morgan, the same woman screenwriter responsible for 2011’s most overrated film “Shame.” Morgan shapes the backward gazing biopic from the perspective of a decrepit Thatcher suffering from severe bouts of dementia that allow for flashback reveries that frequently slip into a realm of the absurd.
Suspended within its retired subject's senile vantage point, that constantly converses with hallucinations of her deceased husband (played by Jim Broadbent in full tweet-tweet-arf-arf mode), "The Iron Lady" quietly equates Margaret Thatcher's distorted mental state with that of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. The obvious deduction is that she wasn’t entirely in charge of her mental faculties when she served as Prime Minister--aka “Britain’s Fighting Lady.” The film inadvertently gives a persuasive sense of how hated Margaret Thatcher was by British citizens, and by the IRA who repeatedly attempted to assassinate her. Protesters assail her in public, and bomb blasts follow her. Unfortunately, for fear of dipping its toe into politics, the filmmakers dodge Thatcher’s public policies. Still, an emphasis on Thatcher's heavy-handed military response in the Falklands rightly paints her as a warmonger. The film goes to great lengths to present Margaret Thatcher as a hardened woman battling for her place in a man’s world with the closet weapon at hand—stubbornness. It doesn’t however make mention of crucial aspects of her formative experiences as a research chemist or as a barrister.
It's easy to come away from the movie with an idea that Margaret Thatcher was at best a penny-wise-and-pound foolish woman guilty of turning on her own kind; she was the daughter to a family of grocers. At worst, Margaret Thatcher contributed to the world's current economic collapse with a cunning brand of daring cruelty that defies logic and reason. Not even Meryl Streep is capable of making Margaret Thatcher a likeable human being in spite of the film’s doting attention to the character’s frail human dilemma. While "The Iron Lady" doesn't give Britain’s former Prime Minister anywhere near the historical justice of Elvis Costello's contemptuous ode to the Iron Lady, "Tramp the Dirt Down," it does remind us of one of the primary contributors to the world's economic crisis. History will not be kind to Margaret Thatcher.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Structural flaws that include inexplicable time flips, and so much voice-over narration that you feel like you're watching an audio book version of a movie, all but derail Clint Eastwood's otherwise thoughtful biopic of one of America's more problematic historical figures. J. Edgar Hoover was a man who demanded respect more than commanded it. Leonardo DeCaprio brings his usual 120% of performance energy to his portrayal of the obsessive bureaucratic head of the FBI from the early days of its inception through the turbulent times of Richard Nixon’s failed administration. His Herculean efforts present the most compelling aspect of the film. Problems with Dusting Lance Black’s overreaching screenplay are compounded by a lackluster desaturated color palate born of fluorescent light and sleeping pills. Eastwood’s regular production designer James J. Murakami does the film no favors by giving it the same drab color scheme as he applied to “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Changeling.” However faithful to the poorly lit beige and brown corridors of power that Hoover frequented, the effect functions as a droning visual device that wears out its welcome.
The film's primary storytelling device puts Hoover dictating a fictionalized version of his life story to a turnstile group of writers completing his biography. Flashback sequences compete with forward moving events in a dueling narrative context that eventually reneges on some of its key thematic points. We get that J. Edgar Hoover was a closet homosexual bullied by his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived until her death. Judging from the film, there's no question that much of Hoover's political career ambition and anti-radical political stance grew out of a desperate attempt to repress sexual desires he was never able to fulfill even if he had ample opportunity in his more than willing gay accomplice permanently by side. Armie Hammer gives a nuanced portrayal as Hoover's right-hand Clyde Tolson who rarely ever missed dining for lunch and dinner with his domineering boss during their decades-long partnership. While the film touches on Hoover's infamous proclivity for cross-dressing, and his list of career-making achievements, the episodes are contained in bubbles of exposition weighted down by a need to compartmentalize messy aspects of a complex personality. “J. Edgar” is a flawed but worthy biopic seemingly constrained by a lack of access to its enigmatic subject’s well-kept secrets. Evidently there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the lying hypocrite named J. Edgar Hoover who successfully posed as a patriot as so many politicians before and after him have done.
Rated R. 137 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
My Week With Marilyn - NYFF 2011
Michelle Williams delivers an Oscar-worthy performance playing screen siren Marilyn Monroe. The vehicle is director Simon Curtis's thoughtful adaptation of Colin Clark's diaries. At the age of 23 Clark worked as third assistant director to Laurence Olivier for his 1956 romantic comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl." The film came between "Bus Stop" (1956) and the all-time classic screwball comedy "Some Like it Hot" (1959). Eddie Redmayne movingly portrays Colin, the star-struck young Brit who momentarily wins the heart of the most sensual creature on the planet while serving as Marilyn’s hand-picked liaison to the British theatrical world she encroaches upon with the aid of her acting coach Paula Strasberg.
Michelle Williams effortlessly evokes the tragic icon's fragile layers of insecurity and hopeless romanticism that cause her to slip into fits of manic depression. Williams's mesmerizing set piece performance of songs such as a climatic rendition of "That Old Black Magic" transports the film into a territory of erotic euphoria that Monroe stirred in the hearts and libidos of men. Equally effective is a charming dance number Williams reenacts from the film within the film. Williams's magical transformation into Marilyn Monroe is uncanny; you never question it for a moment. We witness the distinction between Norma Jeane Mortenson and Monroe's carefully developed alter ego as differing shades of emotional water color.
Eddie Redmayne is the film's secret weapon. Because the story is told from Colin's point of view, we share his character's hormonally charged excitement about "working" with Marilyn Monroe. Like Marilyn, Redmayne's Colin is himself a bundle of contradictions. He's tenaciously ambitious, and yet is still struggling to overcome his innate shyness. He's not yet in his skin.
The temporary presence of Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) as Marilyn's husband of three weeks does little to stunt her erratic behavior when cameras aren't rolling or flashing. Kenneth Branagh is saddled with the thankless task of playing Laurence Olivier who, as the film-within-the-film’s director couldn't care less about Monroe's commitment to method acting even if its results are undeniable. A supporting character arc comes through his character’s gaining respect for the American actress he not-so-secretly hopes to bed. Branagh's portrayal of the man who famously served as England's greatest actor for several decades is at cross purposes with Williams's necessarily posed and poised performance. You don't get the sense that Branagh is in any way emulating Olivier, but is rather interpreting the character for himself. Branagh’s approach is a sound one because it removes any sense of competition with Michelle Williams to fulfill her character in the most physically accurate and emotionally truthful way.
Although the movie has its weak spots--Julia Ormond gives a one-note portrayal of Vivian Leigh, and Zoe Wanamaker veers toward caricature as Paula Strasberg--Michelle Williams delivers a deftly multi-dimensional character study built on truthfulness and soul. “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t just a gem; it’s a diamond.
Rated R. 101 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Dangerous Method (NYFF 2011)
Christopher Hampton's stage play "The Talking Cure" provides the cerebral basis for David Cronenberg to dive into the largely overlooked story of Sabina Spielrein and her influence on the fathers of modern psychoanalysis--Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Sabina (played with astonishing authority by Keira Knightley) is a Russian Jewish mental patient brought to Jung's Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich in 1904. Sabina’s "hysteria" impedes her speech as she contorts her face, neck, and head in violent spasms. Outwardly, she seems obviously quite insane. Michael Fassbender's Jung is able to calmly look beyond Sabina's off-putting physical demeanor in the interest of curing her. Jung is determined to use Sabina as a premier test patient for Freud's revolutionary conversational therapy which he mistakenly calls "psychanalysis."
Cronenberg’s film glides effortlessly across years as Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to discuss psychoanalysis and enjoin in a friendship fraught with lurking tension. The filmmaker masterfully controls the soundscape to underpin shifts of physical, emotional, and intellectual import. Howard Shore's delicate music is never allowed to intrude on a scene. Ugliness becomes beautiful; beauty becomes divine. Jung and Freud share a special bond of academic endeavor exposed by their candid conversations about dreams. Jung shares his nighttime reveries for Freud to openly dissect. Freud knowingly holds the upper hand over his interpretive apprentice. Jung privately questions Freud’s insistence that sex is the crucial element to all mental dysfunction, even though his own experience with rehabilitating Sabina points to just such a conclusion. His refusal to fall in line with Freud’s strident approach puts a wedge in their relationship enabled by the patient they are fated to share.
Jung assists the perceptive and unguarded Sabina in her pursuit to become a psychoanalyst in spite of her debilitating behaviors that include an obsession with masturbation. Through Freud’s cat’s-paw influence Jung enters into an adulterous BDSM affair with Sabina after visiting one of Freud’s patients, a fellow psychiatrist named Otto Gross (exuberantly played by Vincent Cassel). Gross dismisses all social limitations in favor of a purely hedonistic lifestyle that includes a steady diet of sexual activity with staff and patients at the lush Vienna psychiatric facility whose walls only temporally contain him. The nihilistic Gross supplies Jung with all the selfish rationalization he requires to ignore his wife Emma (Sarah Gordon) and children in favor of the heretofore virginal Sabina.
“A Dangerous Method” is a fertile character study and history lesson that tenaciously explores the personal conflicts of ego and id between Jung and Freud. The film also pays generous homage to the woman whose outré sexual desires enabled her to turn Freud’s theories around. Freud went so far as to entrust Sabina with several of his patients for her to treat. As an actors’ showcase, the film is stunning. David Cronenberg has matured into a director of immeasurable confidence and gracefulness. He maintains his trademark fearlessness toward sexual obsessions and their potentially cataclysmic effects. Like Otto Gross he is incapable of “passing by an oasis without stopping to drink.”
Rated R. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Lacking in purpose and logic "Toast" is an upside-down biopic from start to finish. British food writer Nigel Slater's memoir "Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger" provides the unbalanced recipe for television director SJ Clarkson to turn into a mumbling coming-of-age narrative.
Nine-year-old Nigel (Oscar Kennedy) grows up in England's West Midlands during the '60s with a pair of misfit parents who would make most kids run away from home. Nigel's asthmatic Mum (Victoria Hamilton) can't boil water; she hates vegetables. Dad (Ken Stott) treats Nigel with a disdain typically reserved for tax collectors. He occasionally gets violent. Nigel loves food, or at least the idea of food. In bed at night he pours over gourmet magazines as if they were girlie mags. Just when Mum is coming around to encouraging Nigel's budding kitchen efforts she shuffles off her mortal coil, allowing Dad to hire Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), a low class maid with a knack for whipping up culinary masterpieces. Given Nigel's passion for learning to cook, you might imagine he would befriend the housekeeper his father is destined to marry. Mrs. Potter could certainly teach the kitchen neophyte a thing or three. Instead, Nigel tries endlessly to one-up Mrs. Potter by making dishes to please his father's nonexistent palate for anything that doesn't come out of a can.
Freddie Highmore takes over as the teenaged Nigel whose gay tendencies are kept at a backburner simmer. When the moment comes that he makes his move on another boy, it practically comes out of left field. As a movie about sexual discovery, the toaster never gets plugged in. Highmore's performance leaves much to be desired. He acts as if he's doing punishment service for his agent.
The film's simultaneously best and worst element is Helena Bonham Carter. Carter's Mrs. Potter is the most interesting and likable character in the whole film. But the audience is pitted against her by Nigel's illogical hatred of the one person who could and would help him in his quest to become a skilled chef. Most ironic is that Nigel Slater didn't even grow up to become a chef. Instead he became an author and broadcaster. No inkling of that trajectory is explained in a biopic that rings false on every note.
Not Rated. 91 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Camille Claudel - Classic Film Pick
Co-writer/director Bruno Nuytten's filmic adaptation of 19th century female sculptor Camille Claudel's difficult life is an epic biopic. Aided by Isabelle Adjani's unforgettably fearless portrayal of the gifted sculptor, who was already a fully formed artist when she studied under Auguste Rodin, the film captures the milieu of French sculpture at its height. There's a passionately tactile connection to the medium of clay, stone, and marble that we witness being worked into stunning works of art. The sounds of hammers hitting chisels and cloth sanding plaster lends a rhythmic undercurrent. Camille's personal relationship with the peasant whom she uses as her regular model provides a bearing for who she is. Her brother Paul (Laurent Grévill) grounds her as a person understood most by the men in her family, but rejected by her mother and sister.
Nuytten (the director of the classic "Jean de Florette") brings scope to the story in the way he utilizes French settings in the contexts of seasonal changes, all the while examining the human forms that excite the artists. When Rodin and Claudel position a nude model together for the first time it comes as a pure moment of artistic creation. The model poses on a turntable that exposes every crease and crevice of her carefully poised body. The effect is urgently erotic, yet passively resigned to an area of passive exhibitionism.
Gérard Depardieu's flawless performances as the egotistical Auguste Rodin is crucial to providing the romantic fire that burns between Rodin and Claudel. He is a cunning manipulator of passion. The couple's unwieldy romance burns out under pressures contributed to as much by Camille's drowning desire to possess him as by Rodin's jealous wife. Also, Rodin is too established in his duties to the art world to allow any woman to fetter his ideals of liberty and entitlement.
Threads of familial, political, social, artistic, economic, and psychological issues weave through the film. To comprehend the impact of Camille Claudel's artistic achievements is to share in a spiraling struggle with insanity that consumes her before our eyes. Isabelle Adjani co-produced the film. Adjani's intimate affinity for Camille Claudel encompasses a depth of empathy that goes deeper even than what we see on the screen. Her simultaneous sense of forcefulness and delicacy represent a rare quality of truthfulness.
Ip Man 2
Serpico - Classic Film Pick
The great Sidney Lumet was a New York City director through and through. By the time he made "Serpico" in 1973 (his 20th film) in 1973 he had performed on the Broadway stage as a child actor, directed Ooff -Broadway plays, and won enormous acclaim for his debut film "12 Angry Men" in (1957). Justice was an ongoing theme for Lumet. Films like such as "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," and "The Verdict" are significant touchstones. Famously as an actor's director, Lumet was also one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century. He made, making more than 50 films during his career.
"Serpico" finds features Al Pacino's impeccabley embodying portrayal of honest New York City undercover cop Frank Serpico, a real-life hero whose experiences withcrusade against widespread police department corruption eventually led to him beinggot him shot in the face by his fellow officers. Pacino employs to the fullest every aspect detail of period costume, prop, and make-up design in developing his character's morphing psychology. The His tour de force performance as a tireless idealist is as close to perfect as you will ever see. Screenwriter Waldo Salt's contributions to the film's naturalistic dialogue is constantly on display. Part intensive character study and part corrective social medicine, the story obsessively follows Serpico as he anxiously attempts to bring about a full- scale investigation into the corruption that baits him at every police precinct he transfers to. He gets receives impotent assistance from "good -guy" police detective Bob Blair (played by Tony Roberts). whose Blair's escalating efforts to help only put Serpico under the bright florescent light of his many enemies. "Serpico" is a candid and gritty police exposée film that juxtaposes systematic police graft with the personal toll it takes on the man who attempts to blow the lid on the crooked activities that surround him.
Released just a few months after Alex Gibney's Jack Abramoff documentary, director George Hickenlooper's feature version of the same tale of corruption shellacs rather than shackles its GOP super-lobbyist anti-hero. Kevin Spacey's portrayal of Abramoff fails. This isn't not due to any lack of solid choices on the actor's part. He is the victim of improper casting. Spacey nails his character's enormous ego and ambitiousness but can't capture Abramoff's oily desperation. Other casting errors include Barry Pepper as Abramoff's right-hand man, and John Lovitz in a minor role. Even as a crash course in Jack Abramoff's numerous sins, "Casino Jack" is too flippant with its subject matter. The film's apologist bent simply doesn't sit right. This movie feels as though it glamors a corrupt man working in a corrupt system. The audience is supposed to comment on what a terrible person Abramoff is, leave the theater, then go about their business forgetting that the lobbyist system in Washington goes on unchecked. The Jack Abramoff we see here is a super hero of narcissism. His identity goes hand-in-glove with the aspirational Republicanism that defines the Fox-News-fed masses voting against their own best interests to support the greedy rich they imagine they might one day become themselves. Like its subject, "Casino Jack" is too slick for its own good. If you want to get to know Jack Abramoff, the documentary "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" is the place to start—and end.
Rated R. 122 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The King's Speech
Just as Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" makes you wonder how a single physical act can be expanded into an entire feature film, Tom Hooper's limited narrative source material provokes the imagination. In both cases, the answer to the query is the same. In each the lead actor conjures up an inner world so full of back-story and unfulfilled dreams that the audience is beguiled. British everyman Colin Firth plays Prince Albert. After his capricious brother Edward VII (Guy Pierce) abdicates, the royal heir questions his ability to take the throne because he suffers from such a debilitating stammer. Still living under a childhood trauma inflicted upon him by his father, Albert is introduced by his adoring wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to an actor-turned-self-trained speech therapist from Australia. Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue is a man of pure intent. He breaks through Albert's issues with an uncompromising approach that instills in him the confidence he needs to lead his nation as King George VI. Coming on the heels of "The Damned United," this latest effort by Tom Hooper displays a similar deftness at examining the gears of the British character as it toils under a burden of enormous responsibility. The bond of trust that develops between Lionel and the future monarch he calls "Bertie" is the film's greatest reward. Everything here is about nuance. Learning how to be heard never seemed so hard-earned.
Rated R. 111 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
This condensed two-and-half-hour version of director Olivier Assayas's three-part miniseries, about one of the most notorious terrorists of the 20th century is so engrossing that it just may send you out in search of the non-abridged five-and-a-half-hours. More of a fact-based espionage thriller than a biopic, "Carlos" fits comfortably alongside similar cinematic attempts to grapple with controversial revolutionaries, as with Stephen Soderbergh's Ché Guevara epic "Ché." Assayas's adept handling of period style and social subtext is highly apparent with a sense of informed whimsy that comes across in his choice of '70s and '80s punk and synth music. When the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" comes blasting through a car radio it has a profound effect on the film's pedal-to-the-metal attitude. Assayas charts the transformation of Venezuelan activist Ilich Ramirez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez) into his terrorist identity as Carlos, following his pro-Palestinian actions in Jordan, London, and Paris. The nail-biting centerpiece is Carlos's 1975-led seizure of OPEC headquarters, when he and his team of six militants held over sixty ministers and delegates as hostages. Édgar Ramírez's fleshy portrayal of the enigmatic Carlos is a mesmerizing high-wire act of incredible precision. As much as the film's dramatic liberties might seem to canonize a terrorist the British press dubbed "the Jackal," "Carlos" is a character study that fairly depicts warts and all. The film provides a glimpse into the global forces at play which created a power vacuum that a unique man was able to exploit for a surprisingly long period of time. Carlos's egotism, fatalism, and hypocritical desires are dissected with an surgeon's scalpel. The overall subtext explains that Carlos was a relatively inexperienced amateur compared to the corporate powers that hold more hostages and make much steeper demands. Don't miss "Carlos."
Not Rated. 165 mins. (A) (Five - out of five/no halves)
A dramatically contained biopic family picture, "Secretariat" places its emphasis on the relationship between Virginia family woman Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) and the gifted thoroughbred she guides to phenomenal racing success in the early '70s. Decisively crafted as a PG-rated entertainment, as opposed to the PG-13 rated "Seabisquit" (2003), the film allows for showcase performances from the ever-dependable Lane, and from John Malkovich as famed veteran horse trainer Lucien Laurin. Expertly choreographed horserace sequences capture the excitement and precision of Secretariat's renowned runs at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. "Secretariat" is a polished family movie that admirably stays on point. Anyone who enjoys watching horses will get a kick out the beautifully photographed race sequences. As formulaic as it is, solid family films like "Secretariat" are few and far between.
Rated PG. 116 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Rated PG. 116 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Social Network - New York Film Festival 2010
Excitable boy-tech-geeks won't be able to contain themselves from outbursts of clapping, laughter, and bladder leaks at David Fincher's fast-paced drama about Mark Zuckerberg's meteoric rise via his creation of Facebook. A large dose of irony derives from Mark Zuckerberg's highly publicized dismissal of the quasi-biopic as more a piece of fiction than fact. Napster co-founder Sean Parker (dynamically played by Justin Timberlake) comes across as a much bigger genius-idiot-douchebag than Zuckerberg does in the film. Jesse Eisenberg does a better job than expected of filling Zuckerberg's identity with an acid-tongued, fast-twitch cyberpunk attitude that wilts every lesser intellect around him.
The movie kicks off with Zuckerberg on a stormy date with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), during which he confronts, condescends, accuses, and changes subjects like an ADD/OCD speed junkie on a roll. After Erica gives Zuckerberg his walking papers, he rushes back to his Harvard dorm room to get drunk and blog about Erica's intimate failings. He also takes time out to throw together a which-girl-is-hotter comparison site that allows every frat house scumbag to tacitly humiliate their female classmates by way of attractiveness voting. One hour and twenty thousand viewers later, the site crashes Harvard's mainframe and makes Zuckerberg a household name on campus. Harvard rowing crew twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss approach the code-writing genius about helping them build a Harvard social network site. Zuckerberg agrees, only to blow them off for the next six-weeks while he cooks up his own networking site with the help of his best friend and newly-appointed CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Aaron Sorkin's dazzling script toggles between knee-slapping law office depositions with Zuckerberg and the litigious Winklevoss twins who want to sue him, and flashback sequences that tell the whole story. Context and tone are everything in a pitch-perfect drama anchored in the mishandled friendship between the cold-blooded Zuckerberg and his disrespected business partner Eduardo.
Rated PG-13. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
Director Wilson Yip's first of a two-part biopic about the kung fu grandmaster who taught Bruce Lee, is a well put-together period action film that features a star-making performance from Donnie Yen as the title character. The story takes place in the southern Chinese town of Foshan during the '30s when the region is famous for its martial arts schools. A master of the Wing Chun style of kung fu, Ip Man (Yen) is an independently wealthy yet humble family man whose reputation as a true master of his art precedes him although he does not teach. A private competition against a ruthless Northern martial arts master named Jin, ensures Ip Man's esteemed reputation after Jin has vanquished every martial arts teacher in Foshan. The 1937 invasion by the Japanese army leaves Ip and his family destitute and working at the mercy of their oppressors. When his martial arts skills come to the attention of Japanese Colonel Mr. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), Ip Man must defend his country in a wholly unexpected way. Under the powerful guidance of choreographer Sammo Hung's, Yen effortlessly fulfills his character with a depth of emotion and wellspring of physical agility and speed. The astonishing fight scenes are some of the most exciting ever filmed in a martial arts movie that raises the bar for the genre. For any martial arts fan, "Ip Man" is mandatory viewing.
Rated R. 108 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Due to its unflattering depiction of Lennon's mother "Nowhere Boy" is not an early-life biopic of John Lennon that could have been made when he was alive. This is a soft-peddled look at the circumstances that led an ambitious lad from Liverpool to international stardom. Artist-turned-director Sam Taylor-Wood takes advantage of licensing limitations that prevent the use of Beatles songs to delineate Lennon's troubled relationship with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) after she turned over her five-year-old son to the care of her sister Mimi (well played by Kristin Scott Thomas) and Mimi's gregarious husband George (David Threlfall). George's untimely death leaves a hole in the teenaged Lennon's life that he proceeds to fill with girls and rockabilly music, which he steals from local record shops. Hungry for contact with his mother, the young Lennon (Aaron Johnson) practically stalks the receptive Julia, who lives in a nearby suburb with her boyfriend and her two other children. John cuts school to spend time with his quirky mother, who teaches him to play the banjo. An uncomfortably intimate relationship develops between the mother and son that carries clear incestuous overtones. Yet the dramatic thrust of the picture rests on its third-act revelation of how and why Julia abandoned her son at such an early age. "Nowhere Boy" comes to musical life when John meets a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell), and the three form the band that would eventually become the Beatles. Aaron Johnson gives a solid portrayal of the rock 'n' roll legend even if he doesn't manage to expand on the character beyond the scripted page.
Rated R. 98 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Coco Chanel is depicted as a heartless home wrecker in director Jan Kounen's pointless biopic drama. Moreover, this weak effort is rendered unnecessary by Audrey Tautou's memorable portrayal as the famed French icon in last year's "Coco." In 1913 Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) presents his unconventional score, featuring Nijinsky dancing to Diaghalev's ingeniously modern choreography, for the avant-garde ballet "The Rite of Spring" to an enraged Parisian crowd . From her seat in the audience Coco Chanel (played by a miscast Anna Mouglalis) does not share the crowd's displeasureInstead, she becomes Stravinsky's ardent financial backer . Several years later Coco invites the gifted composer, his ailing wife (Yelena Morozova), and their four children to stay at her spacious villa so he can compose in peace. Coco's ulterior motives come to the fore when she and Stravinsky enter into a torrid dalliance that drives away Stravinsky's wife and children. A stench of cruelty sticks to the filmmakers' questionable intentions, as well as to the callous actions of the dueling artistic protagonists.
Rated R. 118 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
Inhabiting the body and soul of legendary pub rocker Ian Dury, human chameleon Andy Serkis single-handedly muscles this by-the-book biopic into the realm of something special. Director Mat Whitecross ("The Road to Guantánamo") accentuates the punk rock aesthetic the polio-stricken singer created as his primary defense mechanism against an uncaring world. Although the film leaves out Dury's famous touring relationship with the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, it does allow for plenty of lively stage antics, with Serkis singing spot-on versions of Dury's infectious songs backed by members of Dury's actual band, the Blockheads. As an introduction to the life and times of one of Britain's more colorful punk entertainers, the film firmly captures Dury's intimate connection to England's music hall tradition. Moreover, Serkis's passionate embodiment of Ian Dury as a love-starved man with considerable physical and emotional baggage brings the audience into an intimate understanding of how Dury was able to redirect his struggles into musical success. Indeed, it was Ian Dury who gave the world the famous phrase, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," from the song of the same title. Bright graphics and cool animated segues help mask some of the film's more rough-hewn production aspects, but Andy Serkis's brilliant performance keeps the energy overflowing.
Rated PG. 115 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Based on Cherrie Currie's poorly written memoir "Neon Angel: The Cherrie Currie Story," about her crash-and-burn experiences as a member of producer Kim Fowley's manufactured all-girl rock band, "The Runaways" is a textbook case of guilty pleasure. Dakota Fanning delivers her best work to date as Cherrie, the band's bisexual lead singer, while Kristen Stewart channels tomboy guitarist Joan Jett. But Michael Shannon steals the show as famously eccentric and foul-mouthed rock 'n' roll impresario Kim Fowley. Scenes of Fowley taunting the girls with dog poo, insults and dirty names to extract the in-your-face performance for which the band became famous, are riveting. Sadly, Shannon's massacred characterization gets swept under the carpet when the band goes on tour, ostensibly because he never wanted to leave Los Angeles in order to play chaperone to "Dog Meat." Debut filmmaker Floria Sigismondi is keen on telescoping meta meaning from the micro details of the band's '70s-era rock lifestyle. Deep lesbian kisses, avid drug abuse, and irresponsible parents play into a Dionysian hand dealt by androgynous rock gods David Bowie and Iggy Pop, whose music figures prominently in the film's glam-heavy soundtrack. Joan Jett and record producer Kenny Laguna executive produced this coming-of-age reverie of a very different time in American culture.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Watch the Video Review Here
The Last Station
Last Station" is the kind of dramatically bound historic material that
could soar on Broadway with the cast, but not the script, of its film
version. And yet, writer/director Michael Hoffman's film adaptation of
Jay Parini's novel doesn't effectively rally the strength of its
accomplished actors. The inimitable Christopher Plummer plays Leo
Tolstoy, who is in the midst of a bitter dispute with his wife of
48-years, Sofya (Helen Mirren) over his plans to bequeath his vast
wealth and utopian Yasnaya Polyana estate to a socialist idealist named
Chertov (Paul Giamati). The year is 1910, and in the interest of
keeping idolaters close by Tolstoy takes on avid follower Valentin
(James McAvoy) as a new personal secretary. Disinterested in intruding
on family squables as they pertain to his secretary position, Valentin
expends his energies with a sexually liberated Tolstoyan named Masha
(Kerry Condon). Masha's crash-course in non-romantic love blinds
Valentin, and the audience, from the full impact of Sofya's plight
which needed much more narrative attention than the filmmakers afford.
Here is a story murdered by a subplot. Whenever the action abandons
Tolstoy and Sofya, it's as if the film regresses into a teen love
story. But whenever Plummer and Mirren share the screen, the film pops
and twinkles with drama. By the time Tolstoy arrives at the Astapovo
train station where he took his last breath, the story seems better
titled "Train in Vain.
Rated R. 100 mins. (C+) (Two Stars)