Friday, November 7, 2014

Image = The Theory of Everything is EVERYTHING…

I’m not going to say a lot about The Theory of Everything and how amazing Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones are in it because we are going to hear A LOT about that in the coming months.  Suffice to say, it’s a gorgeous movie (maybe even perfect) and they both deliver exceptional performances.  I would be very surprised if Mr. Redmayne doesn’t nab the Oscar for this role.  Simply attempting the physicality of Stephen Hawking was daunting enough, and Theory was shot out of sequence so Redmayne had to capture any given period in Hawking’s physical deterioration on any given shooting day.  He reportedly kept a chart and the result is nothing short of astounding.  If, by some cosmic blunder Redmayne doesn't win this year, he's 32 and looks about 16, which is a huge asset for an actor, so he'll be fine.

This film is not a typical biopic.  It’s less about Hawking’s scientific achievements on their own and more about how the love of a devoted woman fueled those achievements.   I love films about a triumph of the human spirit over devastating circumstances, but usually in those stories the person finds an inner strength on their own.  In this story, Stephen is given a brilliant mind and then a body that doesn’t cooperate, so he needs a champion in order to go on.

I expected Theory to be wonderful because it was distributed by Focus Features, who has produced and distributed many of the greatest independent films of all time.  Here’s a short list: Dallas Buyers Club, Brokeback Mountain, Away We Go, Beginners, Lost in Translation, Talk to Me, Atonement, Milk.  In the past 2 years, Focus has changed its focus and here’s a great article about that.  I am all for expanding their reach to films like Fifty Shades of Grey if that adds money to their the coffers to continue distributing extraordinary indies like The Theory of Everything.   

Friday, October 17, 2014

Image = 'Tis the Season for Great Indies

I am more excited about this current season of films than I have been in a very long time.  It’s a wonderfully unusual year because it is chock full of indies with no big studio period saga in sight.  My how times have changed since the ‘80s…

It is also most definitely the year of the actor. 

Most of the buzz that has already come from festivals like Toronto & Venice is about films that feature a strong male lead – and there are many.  The one that I am most looking most forward to is Birdman – opening today.  I have always felt that Michael Keaton was incredibly underrated as an actor and Riggan in Birdman could be the role that changes this forever.

I’ve already seen St. Vincent, which is wonderful and I would be shocked if Bill Murray is not recognized for his multi-layered performance.

I can’t say that I am actually looking forward to seeing Foxcatcher (although I will most definitely see it!) because I know it will be dark & disturbing, but I am looking forward to hearing Steve Carell’s name A LOT during awards season.

On more than one viewing, I couldn't make it through the trailer for The Theory of Everything without sobbing and I am a sucker for a love story.  It looks like a gorgeous, heartbreaking tribute to a genius and Eddie Redmayne is a shoo-in just for the physicality of the performance.

It’s always good to play “gay for pay” and that’s what Benedict Cumberbatch does in The Imitation Game – yes a period piece, but still an indie.

And Whiplash could very well change the career & Hollywood status of already deeply respected character actor JK Simmons.

There may also be a few roles in very small films that get recognized.  Bill Hader is subtly great doing drama for the first time in The Skeleton Twins and Jenny Slate is one of my favorite performances of the year in Obvious ChildPlease don’t let me down, Independent Spirit Awards!

And it’s not technically an indie (or a small film) but I hope no one forgets about The Fault in Our Stars, one of the best written films I have EVER seen and a breakout performance by Ansel Elgort.  

The one & only film that has acclaim for an actress so far is Wild and Reese Witherspoon is already an Oscar winner so it’s tough to get too excited about that.  One film that may change this is Into the Woods.

But it’s all about the boys this year, which is fitting since the season kicked off with a little film called Boyhood.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

Image = The Unfathomable Loss of Robin Williams or, What's Wrong with this Picture?

What can I say about Robin Williams that hasn’t already been said this week?  Probably nothing unique...  So I’ll just say what’s true.  I adored Robin, he was one of the most uniquely talented people ever and he is irreplaceable.  Best known as a comedian, however Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King and The Birdcage are all on my Top 100 Favorite Films list – and only one is a comedy.

For years I felt that Robin Williams was an angel walking among us or somehow just too good for this earth.  Maybe I was right.  I wish I wasn’t because my heart is now broken.  This has been one of the worst weeks of my life.  A friend and I were comparing Robin’s death to what it must have been like when JFK died.  It feels unthinkable that such a beloved person is all of a sudden gone and the world is in mourning.

I have spent a lot of this week re-posting and re-tweeting both tributes and discussions about mental illness.  Although so incredibly sad, it has been fascinating through the lens of image.  It seems that people learning that Robin suffered from depression shatters our idea of the American dream.  The dream for many is to become rich and famous (or at least wealthy and well-known) and the belief is that all will be wonderful forever.  Money and success do not make people superhuman.  We are all susceptible to the same human foibles.  What is abundantly clear is that we need to get rid of the stigma surrounding addiction, mental illness, and depression in our culture.

But I still have questions.  What is wrong with the mental health system that Hollywood actors, with every resource at their disposal, go to rehab and then die soon after?  There is a very sad trend – Cory Monteith, Philip Seymour Hoffman – and now Robin Williams.  What is going on in these rehab facilities?  Is the rehab actually doing more harm than good?  We will never know exactly what happened to Robin but we definitely need to be more vocal & candid about the insidiousness of depression.  I have spent a lot of time being depressed in my life and I know what despair feels like.  It is quite unbearable and feels like it can never change.  And suicide seems like a great solution.  Today I feel better, but it takes a lot of effort and going forward, I am definitely more interested in quality versus quantity in term of how long I live.      
A classmate of mine chose to end her life after a long battle with cancer at the age of 40 through legal euthanasia.  She had also traveled the world, knew what it was like to be deeply loved and had great artistic fulfillment in her career.  I am a firm believer that if someone doesn’t want to be here anymore, that is their right.  But I am a hypocrite because selfishly – I would much rather have Robin Williams back for another 20 or 30 years. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Image = The Eternal Magic of Woody Allen

As a self-proclaimed Woody-phile, I look forward to a new Woody Allen film every summer. (And since he’s 78 ½ who knows how many more he will make? Although he is shooting the next one right now)...  Naysayers like to lament about the golden age of Woody, completely discounting anything he’s had to offer since the ‘80s. I strongly disagree. In fact, I assert that Magic in the Moonlight, opening today, is one of the most intelligent and articulate scripts the Wood-man has ever written.

The main character is the typical Woody-esque curmudgeon but the dialogue is so infused with British aristocratic jargon that it sounds much more elegant than usual AND it is still funny as hell. The film is also a beautiful period piece, with more color and elaborate costumes than Woody used to use in his early Upper East Side stories. The thing that I love the most is that Woody is still asking questions about faith and magic in the universe versus knowledge and science.

The entire company is led brilliantly by Colin Firth. His performance is pitch-perfect and he must be acknowledged for being Woody’s leading man without doing a Woody Allen impersonation. Bravo Mr. Firth! It is another engaging character I have seen Firth do in an always fantastic career.   

It will be interesting to see if this film gets the acclaim that Blue Jasmine did. It seems like a good formula: Woody plus seasoned lead actor from another country = greatness and acclaim. We shall see… 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Image = Philip Seymour Hoffman's Final Film

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died last February, Entertainment Weekly uncharacteristically published their next issue with a full page photo of PSH on the cover with the caption: Brilliant. Troubled. Tragic., and the article inside began with "This one hurts."  Out of all that was written about Hoffman that week, EW came closest to commiserating with my grief.  After 5 months I still find Hoffman’s death inconceivable and extraordinarily tragic.  It still hurts a lot.  It's difficult to write about the final film he completed, but I also feel like I need to. This may be the last opportunity I have to write about the greatest actor of the past 25 years …  I had to honor his extraordinary talent once again, as I did in February.

PSH & Anton Corbijn on set
A Most Wanted Man is a suspenseful thriller about a manhunt for an immigrant who may be a terrorist in the port city of Hamburg, Germany.  This is not a genre that I normally seek out, but I made an exception because it is PSH's final film to be released (I am NOT counting The Hunger Games) and it is very well done.  It has a great international supporting cast, including relative unknown Grigoriy Dobrygin and German stars Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl.  I was most impressed with Rachel McAdams, who plays a German bleeding heart lawyer surprisingly well and holds her own with the likes of Willem Dafoe and PSH.

Although I believe Phil could play anything, this was still a departure for him in terms of tone and character.  The film is extremely tense and his character is a troubled German spy who is trying to do good work in the face of many personal and professional demons.  I don't intend to spoil anything and I am not a film critic, so I will be brief.  There are a few scenes where PSH displays incredible proficience in the art of subtle but profound acting.  I will now defer to Phil, his fellow actors and the director to speak for the film.     
One more thing - director Anton Corbijn and PSH had plans to work together again and Mr. Corbijn wrote a beautiful tribute in his grief on February 3.  My favorite part is, “His strength was a total immersion in the role and a lack of vanity.”  

A fitting epitaph for a remarkable actor.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Image = Comedians Doing Something Dramatically Different

It is fascinating to me when performers are known for one thing and then they do something totally different very effectively.

Ricky Gervais is best known for his toxic persona and skewering everyone in the room as two-time host of the Golden Globes.  And now he has created a lovely series like Derek.  He is wonderfully affecting as a seemingly mentally challenged man who works as a caretaker in a nursing home.  This mockumentary style show has so much heart and compassion that all I could think was - how is this the same person?  Is his persona just a persona?  Or is this poignant stuff just a bunch of bunk?

Now, I’ve seen other comedians do drama very well – Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Will Farrell – but this is something different.  Derek is a different kind of comedy – or dramedy if you will – and there’s also an element of social commentary on Derek – about caring for the elderly and the bureaucracy of institutionalized care.  It took me completely by surprise and moved me to tears.  Derek is simply wonderful and everyone should watch it.    

Saying that, I definitely would not call myself a Ricky Gervais fan.  I hated what he did on the Golden Globes.  What’s the point of hiring a host to tear apart Hollywood at an event meant to honor Hollywood excellence?  And I can’t stand The Office – British or American.  However, The Invention of Lying (which Gervais also wrote) was ingenious and he was great in Ghost Town.  After two seasons of Derek, I am now definitely more inclined to seek out other projects Ricky is involved in from now on.

{An aside - It’s interesting that Netflix is getting so much acclaim for Orange is the New Black & House of Cards and no one is talking about Derek, also a Netflix original series}. 

One more thing about comedians crossing over.  I am intrigued by Steve Carell, who displayed some non funny chops last summer in The Way Way Back.  Since Cannes, there is Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a paranoid schizophrenic murderer in the film Foxcatcher.  I definitely would call myself a Steve Carell fan and I would love to be forced to call him “Academy Award winner Steve Carell” for the rest of my life. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Image = Indie or what?

What is going on with indie film these days?  In the past few years there have been some truly great independent films.  Ruby Sparks, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Any Day Now, In a World…,  Enough Said and Nebraska - just to name a few.
Me with Lake Bell - Writer/Director of In a World...
I have been blown away by many films with a unique take on storytelling, a great effort by a first time writer/director and emotionally impacting characters and plots.  Lately though, I feel like every indie I see has a fatal flaw – like killing off a main character for no apparent reason.  Or – starting off as one genre, then becoming a totally different one and then changing back again.  WTF? 

I felt this way about everything I saw this year at Tribeca and the trend continues at subsequent screenings.  I just saw Words and Pictures which started off strong with many redeeming qualities.  Great script and powerful performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, but it was at least 15 minutes too long.  And the story - which starts off with an English teacher and an art teacher arguing the merits of words versus pictures (great concept!), became a dark, melodramatic love story based on the old chestnut of two characters who hate each other falling in love.  I would think that above all - indies would be much more economical with their exposition.  The budgets are small and the shooting days are limited.  Feeling that an indie is too long is absurd.  I come from the school that I don’t care how long a movie is – just as long as it doesn’t feel that way.  When it feels that way – and it wasn’t worth the wait – there’s a problem.

The other thing I don't understand is why are festivals like Tribeca showing films that already have distribution and/or major celebrity involvement?  There are so many tiny films that desperately need exposure, so why does Courtney Cox need to show her film at festivals? And what sense does it make that Jon Favreau, one of the biggest directors in Hollywood wins $25,000 (although Chef is absolutely wonderful and I heard Favreau donated the money to charity but that's beside the point) for his film when other unknown filmmakers are much more in need of financing?  The line between indie and mainstream is very vague these days and it makes me very sad.