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 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


 Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-CapoteCapote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.


Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford.  Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America.


 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.


 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.


Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes BoatingThis movie is about two relationships going in opposite directions. One of them, just beginning, is very sweet and the other is clearly at the end of its shelf life.

Jack (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a shy and sensitive New York limo driver who works for his uncle and lives in his uncle’s basement. He listens to raggae, tries to whirl his blond locks into dreads, and dreams about working for the MTA.  His best friend, Clyde (John Ortiz) also works for his uncle as a limo driver and is married to Lucy (Daphne Ruben-Vega) who works in the office of a mortician.

The couple sets Jack up with Lucy’s new co-worker, Connie (Amy Ryan), a shy, nervous girl who seems to be right for him. Their own shyness really works to their advantage as each one takes it nice and slow, careful to make sure of each other before taking any big steps at all.  As Jack walks Connie to a cab on their first date, she mentions that she’d like to go boating some time.  They are walking through the snow at the time and Jack remarks that it might be better to wait for summer.  But he takes it seriously and Clyde sets out to teach him how to swim at a Harlem pool.

Connie is approached by a strange man in the subway on her way to work and she violently resists, breaking her nose. Lucy calls 911 and she is taken to the hospital.  Jack buys a little stuffed koala bear for her and they talk about a second date, maybe for dinner.  She tells him that no one has ever cooked for her, so Jack decides to learn how to cook and make a splendid meal for her.  Clyde recommends a chef he knows from the Waldorf Astoria that he calls “the Cannoli.”  Without Jack prompting him, Clyde then volunteers that Lucy had an affair with the chef that lasted two years.  It’s obviously bothering him, but he tries to pretend that they’ve worked the problem out.

Applying himself to his swimming and cooking lessons, Jack gets good at both. After a few initial problems, he gets his application into the MTA and waits to hear whether he will be called for an interview.  As he and Connie become more intimate, he comes to understand that she has serious psychological issues about sex, but he is understanding and goes slow, much to her relief.

Without revealing how the movie ends, I will say that both situations come to a head when Jack finally cooks his big meal for Connie at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman directed this moving film, based on the stage play he appeared in, adapted for the screen by the playwright, Robert Glaudini. The study in opposites is very funny at times, but a feeling of tension runs underneath the surface and it kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen.  At an hour and twenty-four minutes in length, the pacing and timing are perfect.

Hoffman’s performance as Jack is just amazing. It is a pleasure to watch such a gifted actor creating such a layered character.  Amy Ryan gives a great performance as Connie and she works as a perfect foil for Jack.  You find yourself hoping that these two gentle, injured people will find a way to make their relationship work, even as it hurts to see what can happen to a relationship at the other end of the scale.  John Ortiz is excellent as Clyde and Daphne Ruben-Vega compliments him very well as the two cope with a relationship that doesn’t have the glue to hold it together.

I’m an innocent when it comes to betrayal. I’ll never understand how partners in a marriage can turn away and wound the other so deeply.  Jealousy remains one of the great emotional themes of art.

This is a very fine movie and it should be seen. When it was released, it kind of slid by me–and pretty much everyone else, I gather, but it is really good filmmaking.  It’s a story well-crafted and well-filmed and it deserves far more attention than it has gotten.  I highly recommend it for adult audiences.

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 Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayThe Man Who Knew Too Much

Never endanger an American’s children.  That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.


Marnie 03Marnie

Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.  This might have been a great film, with sufficient editing, perhaps with a different leading actress as Marnie and maybe an American actor as Mark, with some of the action sequences done more realistically.  As it is, the movie looks like an overblown Hollywood version of what should be a compelling drama.


Midnight Cowboy 03Midnight Cowboy

This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.


 Miss PettigrewMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

London in 1939 was a hodgepodge of pre-war jitters.  Depression era soup kitchens operated down the block from posh nightclubs for the rich and the middle class worked to scratch out a decent living.  This is a rip-roaring comedy filled with delightful performances by Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.


mr and mrs smithMr. and Mrs. Smith

This 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.


Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing

If you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.


936full-mystic-river-photoMystic River

Mystic River is a hard-hitting blue collar crime movie by the amazing Clint Eastwood.  Released in 2003, it tells the story of three boyhood friends forever changed by an incident in 1975.  Eastwood makes a point of the fact that things do not add up–it is part of the appeal of the movie.  And it is usually a fact of life that most filmmakers do not worry themselves over.  For Clint Eastwood, however, the fact that life doesn’t add up is the very point of the movie.

The Savages

linney hoffman savagesThe Savages is a 2007 film featuring two of my favorite actors, Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as sister and brother Wendy and Jon Savage. 

The estranged pair, both theater people, have been estranged for some time, both having suffered from parents who were never there for them.  Wendy, a playwright, has even written a semi-autobiographical play about their father.  She lives in New York working temp jobs and applying for grants and having an affair with a married man who will not commit to her.  Jon lives in Buffalo and teaches Brecht at a college.

The two are forced to pull together when their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco), who lives in Sun City, Arizona, develops dementia at about the same time the woman he is living with dies.  Over Wendy’s objections, Jon decides to place their father in a nursing home not far from where he lives.  However, Wendy is assigned the unsavory task of accompanying the old man on a cross country flight to Buffalo.

Wendy and Jon must deal with their own personal issues, as well the incapacity of a man they once hated.

There’s no doubt that this is a “slice of life” movie and also an “actor’s drama.”  Those types of movies do not have to be alienating in any way, especially when you have such incredible talent as Linney and Hoffman in the lead roles.  However, I think that even the best slice of life movies must have a hand at the helm that will keep them moving in a direction and I felt that lacking in the script and direction of Tamara Jenkins.

After sleeping on the movie, I did realize that there is somewhat of a character arc for Wendy, but it was so subtle that I didn’t pick it up during the viewing—it only becomes apparent at the end.  It is extremely difficult to see any kind of arc for Jon and yet he has changed at the end of movie, too.  And I must say that Linney and Hoffman give wonderful performances.  The characters are believable, the comedy is very funny, and the drama works extremely well.

I just had the feeling that I was spinning my wheels.  The movie didn’t really seem to go anywhere.  And yet, it had enough of an effect on me that I thought about it overnight and finally saw what I failed to see during the viewing—an actual character development for Wendy.

For fans of good acting, I highly recommend this movie.  For those who cannot take the time to dig the subtlety out of the movie, you might find it tough going.

Catching Fire

mocking_jay_animated_by_twilightlover865-d6hg1ka

Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, is an excellent sequel. Like the first film, it’s based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Although Ms. Collins co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, she settles here for the role of Executive Producer. While that might have been a problem, I think that was really for the best.

For one thing, the novel Catching Fire has a few issues. Many times I felt kind of lost while reading it, mostly due to description. I couldn’t really see some of the action, especially in the Games arena. It felt rushed, as if the action was streaming by me, rather than keeping me actively engaged. The final problem in the novel is that the ending left me up in the air. I didn’t think it resolved–it seemed rather clear that it was only the first half of a book. The movie resolves all of these problems beautifully. Either that, or I was simply reconciled to the ending. It’s hard to tell.

At two hours and fifteen minutes from the opening to the final credits, there is plenty of time to see the action unfold. And while I generally don’t care for movies that long, some films are some noteworthy exceptions–where the action, story, and character all combine to keep me totally engaged for the entire length. Catching Fire meets all of those requirements.

A good example of how the movie took a generalization and graphically made it beautiful is in the look of the costumes. In fact, all of the visual flair of the movie makes the story come alive. The dress that Katniss wears to the President’s welcome party is stunning, interweaving the colored feathers of the mockingjay on her shoulders. The wedding dress that she wears for her interview with Caesar is beautiful. When she twirls and the fire engulfs the dress and turns it into a mockingjay, complete with wings, the effect is nothing less than astounding.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film, as she did with The Hunger Games. There is something really special in the way she carries herself, the use of her voice and her eyes, that makes her one of those rare acting personalities that seem to reach inside you. Some actors have “it” and she has “it” in spades. Her body of work is already very impressive, considering her youth. Her acting in Winter’s Bone is amazing, as is her Academy Award winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and I’m hoping that she chooses her scripts well and has one of those careers that is meteoric.

All of the supporting actors that were great in the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel–Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch are all perfect. The best performance of this group is given by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a moving character arc as Effie, bringing her full turn from giddy capital gadfly to broken realist. In addition, there are a couple of new characters here that really make the story go. First of all, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Evansby, the new Head Gamemaker, and secondly, Jena Malone is cast as Joanna, the misfit victor who joins the revolution along with Plutarch.. Both of them are really great.

All of the scenes inside the new Hunger Games arena are extremely well-done. They have visualized the arena from the book very precisely and it makes a terrific battleground. The clock dangers, especially the poisonous fog and the attack of the apes, are heart-pounding sequences and memorable filmmaking.

The final reason that the film is better than the novel is that the ending brought a feeling of resolution. I can’t stress enough how difficult this is, given that the ending is really (just like in the novel) a cliffhanger. I walked away from the movie looking forward to the final installment, but not feeling as if I had been left hanging. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence’s face is way plenty to keep me going until Mockingjay finishes filming and is released. I loved the final graphic of the mockingjay’s twisting around from a silhouette posture and turning into something resembling a phoenix surrounded by flames in the circle. Beautiful.

If you loved The Hunger Games, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find Catching Fire to be a marvelous film and well worth the investment of time. Highly recommend.

 

 

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.