War Horse

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

It can be difficult to sum up a movie that runs for about two and a half hours in a concise way, but I’ll give it a shot.

War is hell; army horses are soldiers, too; war is stupid; horses are generally smarter and possibly nobler than most people. Steven Spielberg is a magician who can make a fantastic movie out of what most any other director would turn into a maudlin, tedious, predictable, war movie.

I was afraid that this was going to be an overly sentimental period piece but I should have known better. Spielberg is much better than that, and he has proved it once again. Yes, there is a lot of sentiment in War Horse, but it didn’t succumb to boring predictability. The first part unfolds slowly with well-defined characters portrayed with great skill, giving the viewer an opportunity to really get to know them and become invested in their futures. The pace shifts when their futures involve trying to survive the savagery of WWI, and we are charging into battle only to discover how horrific war can be. The intense battle sequences might remind you from time to time of Saving Private Ryan, but this film tells a very different tale.

A sweeping, epic saga that deftly focuses on intimate human stories, this movie depicts the suffering and privations that war brings to all soldiers, no matter which side they fight for, as well as innocent civilians caught in the middle. And it does it very well.

Jeremy Irvine, the young man in the role of Albert Narracott, was very good and he is probably going to be a hot commodity for quite some time. I was pleasantly surprised to recognize Toby Kebbell in a smaller, yet pivotal role. I first enjoyed him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and then also in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; more recently I saw him as John Wilkes Booth in The Conspirator. Kebbell is one of a handful of actors who can really stand out in any role, even a small one. He’s one to keep an eye on.

To sum up, this isn’t Seabiscuit or Secretariat; it isn’t even just a pretty movie about a boy and his horse. This one has heart and depth with gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful score by John Williams. Need a break from loud, mindless overly-CGI’d action flicks or cookie-cutter, overly-CGI’d comic book adaptations? Go see War Horse and experience what a good movie is all about.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving plus TWO boxes of Milk Duds

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My Week with Marilyn

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Simon Curtis.

Among the most iconic images of the twentieth century are those of Marilyn Monroe; beautiful, sexy, breathtaking, hypnotic. That’s how most people tend to think of her. Those images, however, are only half the picture; she was also sad, confused, frightened, mentally imbalanced, lonely, overmedicated. My Week with Marilyn offers a glimpse of what the whole picture might have been like.

This movie is based on the real story of Colin Clark, a young film student who landed a job with Sir Laurence Olivier’s production company when he was preparing to direct and star in the movie The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Monroe as the female lead. The film was to be a light comedy designed to showcase Marilyn’s singular brand of “screen presence.” Colin, thrilled even with the lowly position of gopher on the set, is as excited to see Marilyn Monroe as anyone else.

All is not well on set, though, as day after day Marilyn shows up late, if at all, and has to perform take after take after take of her scenes to get her lines right. Olivier is infuriated; as an old-school stage actor he expects the same discipline and professionalism from film actors as he is accustomed to in the serious theater. In the midst of desperately trying to find some way to accommodate Marilyn’s eccentricities and get on with the production, Colin accidentally endears himself to her, his wide-eyed innocence and honesty appealing to her vulnerable side.

So for a brief time Colin finds himself at her beck and call, a rare opportunity to get to know a little about the sad and lonely Norma Jean Baker under the façade of glamorous Marilyn Monroe.

Kenneth Branagh is excellent as Laurence Olivier as is Eddie Redmayne in the role of Colin Clark. As great as they are, the most brilliant thing about this movie is how mesmerizing Michelle Williams is as Monroe. She completely transformed herself into the tragic star from head to toe, scoring a bull’s eye with both the Norma Jean and the Marilyn aspects of the world-famous bombshell. Watching her recreation of several memorable performances, I found myself wondering if footage of the real Marilyn from the 1950’s had been inserted in the movie; no, it was all Michelle Williams.

Colin Clark went on to a successful writing and filmmaking career, mostly documentaries. Among his works are memoirs of the time he spent working on The Prince and the Showgirl from which My Week with Marilyn is derived. In many ways this film is just as much a behind-the-scenes peek at diametrically opposed acting styles and the daily triumphs and frustrations on a movie set as it is about the tragedy that was the life of Marilyn Monroe.

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Triple Serving

Hugo

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Sir Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, et al. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan from the book by Brian Selznick.

I have just returned from some parallel universe where Martin Scorsese makes kid’s movies and Sacha Baron Cohen plays a funny, yet lovable and quirky character that is entirely suitable for viewing by children. I really liked that place. I’d love to visit there again.

The previews for Hugo looked fairly interesting but I was inclined to pass it over as just more typical, big-budget Christmastime family fare, not something that I would find much substance in. It went on my “rent it eventually” list. Then I saw that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. That Martin Scorsese?! The director who gave us The Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island*, the classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and a host of others? These are titles that spring immediately to mind as some of the most memorable from a very prolific director, but they are all quite definitely aimed at an adult audience. You want a beautiful movie that includes violence and mature themes – Scorsese is the go-to man. Sure, Scorsese is versatile, but is he versatile enough to make a movie suitable for children? It was a conundrum. I paid closer attention to the previews. The story is based on an award-winning book. Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley are both in it. Kingsley brings a sense of class and style to mind; Cohen – to put it mildly – does not. What kind of film is this that seems to be packaging up all of these wildly disparate elements? Hugo was removed from the rental list and elevated to the “must see it in a theater right away” list.

The movie Hugo is based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Set in the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret has been orphaned and lives in the walls of the Paris train station. Hugo and his father had been restoring a mechanical man before the father died, and it is Hugo’s obsession to finish. He must steal not only the food he eats, but also the spare parts and gears needed to repair the automaton. One day Hugo is caught filching more parts by a mean old man who runs a toy shop stall at the train station and also meets the man’s goddaughter Isabelle who – miraculously – seems to be the keeper of the key to the mystery of the automaton’s purpose. The mystery only deepens as Hugo and Isabelle keep trying to discover the secrets that can explain what links the old man, the automaton, and Hugo to each other.

The one word that may best capture the essence of this movie is simply “magic.” Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the sad, mean old man, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic genius who should play this kind of family-friendly role more often, and the two young actors Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz are incredible. Christopher Lee is a treat as are the familiar faces among the train station regulars. The sets are amazing, evoking a sense of not only a particular place and time but also an emotional connection to Hugo’s world. We view the inner workings of all the gears and springs perfectly meshed, ticking away as the world rushes by, people unaware of the delicate human touches necessary to maintain the façade they can see.

As Hugo and Isabelle finally begin to get answers to their questions, we are treated to the most magical of illusions; the discovery of where our very dreams come from. Scorsese is a modern-day magician who has crafted a unique classic with appeal to an audience of all ages that captures the wonder and joy of making dreams come to life. The ability to capture dreams and give them to the world on film is truly a gift that should be honored, preserved, and shared with future generations. If you consider yourself a cinephile, a lover of movies, and this one does not touch you deeply, you have no imagination and you should resign from the human race.

One last thought – Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Melies. You might want to Google him after you see the film.

*Yes, I am a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Even when some members of my family mistakenly refer to him as Leonardo DaVinci. Envision the dramatic heaving of a heavy sigh, the exaggerated rolling of eyes, and a head shaken in despair; not all of my relatives share my passion for cinema. I love them anyway.

A full bucket of popcorn!One serving of popcornRating: Full Bucket plus an extra serving and a handful of tissues

J. Edgar

by CosmicTwin3

2011, Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black.

J. Edgar Hoover is a name most everyone recognizes, even if they are too young to know what he was best known for.  What do most people know about him? He was the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for just about forever and there were nasty rumors about his personal life. The truth is, he built the foundation for the FBI to become the outstanding and respected law enforcement agency it is today, while at the same time keeping his personal life so secretive it would be easy to conclude that he had no life outside the FBI.

I’ve never been all that interested in J. Edgar Hoover, but I do appreciate a good Clint Eastwood movie. Mr. Eastwood has a great talent for highlighting the place and time of his movies in a way that helps the viewer understand the context and historical significance of the setting which leads to a greater understanding of the characters. The Changeling, another real-life story Eastwood brought to the big screen, was superb in that regard.

To begin to understand why J. Edgar Hoover did what he did and why he did it, one must first understand what the United States was like and how politics impacted him as a young man. Eastwood deftly interweaves historical events into the narrative, focusing on incidents like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, giving us J. Edgar’s own, somewhat distorted, version of the story and then clarifying what the actual truth was. You see, Mr. Hoover’s recollection of major events often did not dovetail very smoothly with actual facts. He was fond of taking credit for high-profile arrests of criminals and enjoyed the spotlight of publicity for his role as the head of the FBI.

There is no doubt that Hoover was instrumental in organizing and creating a modern, efficient law enforcement agency that would use the latest scientific advancements to track criminals, fight crime, and prosecute offenders. There is also no doubt that he was a paranoid, egotistical, spiteful, fussy, manipulative, secretive, “mama’s boy” who was probably gay and may have had trouble admitting it even to himself. The longer he was at the FBI, the more files he accumulated on politicians and influential people that contained damaging personal information. Hoover routinely used this information as a form of blackmail against those who might challenge his authority until he met his match in Richard M. Nixon, the president who was even more paranoid than Hoover.

Leondardo DiCaprio in the title role demonstrates once again that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Even under the heavy makeup that was necessary to create the illusion of growing older, DiCaprio embodies his character so completely it is easy to despise and pity him at the same time. Armie Hammer was great as the life-long inseparable “best friend” who seemed to know Hoover even better than Hoover knew himself.

Eastwood’s movie must just skim the surface of such a complex and mystifying personality as J. Edgar Hoover, but I left the theater feeling like I know a lot more about both twentieth century American history and the man whose name is inscribed on the FBI Headquarters building in Washington, D.C. It’s an absorbing biopic that both enlightens and entertains..

A full bucket of popcorn!Cosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket

The Mighty Macs

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Written and directed by Tim Chambers, stars Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Marley Shelton

Let’s hear it for girl power! This sweet G-rated sports-themed movie may be derivative but it offers real inspiration for young females who have no idea how difficult life used to be for women in general and women athletes in particular.

It is 1971, a transitional time for young women who are discovering that the traditional roles of stay-at-home wife and mother are not their only options. One of these young women is attractive, well-educated, fashionable, married Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino). An accomplished athlete, Cathy aspires to be a college basketball coach, a career field that offers few choices for a novice.

Cathy finally finds a small college in need of a basketball coach, or at least an “activities director” who is willing to work cheap. The college happens to be Immaculata, a small, quiet Catholic all-girls institution of higher learning that doubles as the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns’ retirement home. The stern Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn), more concerned about dampening the students’ hormones than developing athletic talent, is fighting an uphill battle to keep the school and the retirement home open. Without a proper gym, proper uniforms, or even a proper basketball, Cathy is determined to prove to everyone – especially herself – that she can mold a disparate group of girls into a real team. The only encouragement comes from Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), soon recruited to be the assistant coach.

Cathy’s efforts to employ modern coaching methods are met with intense disapproval from Mother Superior and the long hours she is willing to put in create tension with her NBA referee husband (David Boreanaz). The girls seem to be more interested in getting married and becoming traditional homemakers than polishing their basketball skills in their hideously outdated uniforms. Playing larger schools with established, well-funded athletic programs and plenty of family and school support, the Mighty Macs make a dismal showing in their first few games but Cathy doggedly persists and gradually things start to improve. Sister Sunday rallies the other sisters to provide much needed support and a cheering section for the team. Their “We Will Be #1!” buttons seem ridiculously optimistic, particularly considering that the school is on the verge of being closed permanently. With all of these obstacles to overcome, Cathy is more determined than ever to make the impossible happen. What they need is a miracle.

The miracle comes in the form of a spectacular winning season and an invitation to the first ever national women’s basketball championship tournament. But with no money to send the team to the competition, can the little college claim the Cinderella title that they have worked so hard to achieve?

The Mighty Macs tells its classic underdog sports tale with a lot of tried-and-true clichés tossed in for good measure. The presence of so many nuns, while integral to the story, provides plenty of flashbacks to Sister Act. There aren’t many surprises as the film unfolds and some of the characters come across at times as entirely too one-dimensional. There are lines of dialog that are extremely corny. Still, despite all the familiarity (which can be forgiven considering the G rating), this movie has a lot going for it. With its heartwarming story and charming performances, the film is emotionally engaging and enthusiastically empowering. Knowing that the story is based on true events helps to elevate it from a forgettable yawner to an inspiring example of what women can achieve when they believe in themselves. This is a wonderful family movie for both tween girls and anyone interested in modern sports history. Cathy Rush not only coached the Mighty Macs to a winning season in 1972, she coached them to three consecutive national women’s basketball championships; she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; several of her players went on to become nationally recognized college basketball coaches as well. And the quiet little all-girls school became a co-ed university that continues to thrive.

While this one may not find its footing in theaters, it should become a permanent fixture in home DVD/Blu-ray libraries where there are young children.

Cosmic Twins rating: Cotton candy for everyone!

Distances

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Directed by Brandon E. Marshall, stars Jordan Tanner, Shauna La, and Jackie McCardell, Jr.

How far does a man have to go to get back to himself?

Written and directed by newbie Brandon E. Marshall, this little gem showcases a budding talent.

Grieving from the sudden loss of his father in a car accident, Graham Richards (Jordan Tanner) drops out of grad school and abandons the family publishing business to return to Austin, Texas where he reconnects with old friends and hopes to find, if not healing, then at least solace in the local music scene. Graham is passionate about two things: music and Leah (Shauna La), the old girlfriend he had left behind in Austin two years earlier.

Understanding his depression, Graham’s buddies attempt to raise his spirits while at the same time giving him plenty of space to work things out in his own mind. Conveniently, his friend Windham (Jackie McCardell, Jr.) is also a psychologist. The problem is that his mind seems to be playing tricks on him in the form of increasingly confusing and frightening hallucinations. Leah wants to comfort him, maybe even heat up their old relationship, but is frustrated and angered by Graham’s odd behavior.

Why is Graham experiencing these psychotic breaks with reality? How bizarre and violent will they become? As he slowly realizes that he must face up to and understand what is causing the inner turmoil, he is also in danger of destroying his chances with either a music career or the lovely Leah.

See the music video. Working within the constraints of a lower-than-low budget, Marshall has carefully crafted his story into an entertaining and suspenseful movie experience. He has given us believable characters, particularly in the two leads Graham (Jordan Tanner) and Leah (Shauna La) who exhibit a good on-screen chemistry. Taking full advantage of a beautiful location, we also get some wonderful glimpses of Austin.  With a couple of minor exceptions, the movie flows well from scene to scene and is nicely balanced with interesting camera angles and artistic shots. Another great aspect of this film is the soundtrack and original music by Jordan Tanner. The lead actor truly shines when performing his own music as he is an authentic Austin musician.

Marshall makes the most of meager resources available to him. The only thing that comes across at times as a little less than polished and professional are performances of the secondary characters.  A more experienced cast could have made a big difference in the final product. Also, the final scene felt a trifle flat and tacked on, as if there was some obligation to wrap up the story in a “Hollywood ending.” The dialog, for the most part, felt authentic with some moments of true, natural humor as well as some genuine darker episodes.  

The bottom line here is not simply about the entertainment value of the movie itself, but the potential it promises for Marshall. Hopefully this movie will get some well-deserved attention on the indie film festival circuit. I’m anxious now to see what he and Out There Productions can accomplish with a real chunk of money, not a shorter-than-shoestring budget. It should be awesome.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving plus a Large Box of Milk Duds

The Help

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Directed by Tate Taylor, Screenplay by Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett (from the best-seller by Kathryn Stockett) 

Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Sissy Spacek

The Help is a period piece set in the area where I grew up, so I was especially keen to see if they “got it right.” To my absolute delight, they did. This is probably because the writer of the best-selling book upon which the movie is based and the director/screenplay writer are actually from Jackson, Mississippi, where the story takes place, and it just so happens the two of them were childhood friends as well.

At the heart of this film is a story about women – young, old, black, white, wealthy, poor – finding their voice and learning how to be strong and independent at a time when society dictated that each of them should remain in their traditional “place.” When Skeeter (Emma Stone) the new college graduate comes home full of excitement and plans to find meaningful employment, she discovers that she doesn’t quite fit in any more. Her friends from high school don’t understand why she bothered with all that education as they have each gotten married, started families, joined the Junior League, hired a colored maid to do their housework and raise their children, and embarked on a lifetime of sucking up to the mean-spirited, self-appointed queen-bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). This is their definition of success.

Hilly dominates and bullies everyone within reach, except for Skeeter who is developing the ability to think for herself. Skeeter wants to be a writer and stumbles upon an idea for a topical story when she realizes that the Civil Rights movement is not just a hiccup in the natural order of things. Her idea to interview her friends’ maids seems just plain odd to most of the young ladies, but Hilly finds it particularly offensive. Skeeter finally convinces one of the maids to be interviewed and soon learns just what it means to be black in that place at that time. The more she discovers the more she realizes just how ugly and unjust the rigid system is that seeks to maintain the status quo.

 

Quiet, dignified Aibileen (Viola Davis), Skeeter’s main source of information, and feisty Minny (Octavia Spencer), the pessimistic realist, gradually warm up to the idea of being able to share their personal stories, but not without great fear of retribution. The lifetime of heartbreak and suffering they have experienced so far is nothing compared to the hell they will face if anyone ever finds out who Skeeter’s anonymous source is. Davis and Spencer are nothing short of phenomenal in their respective roles, both delivering Oscar-quality performances.

Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are intertwined in this journey of discovery to find themselves and learn to be the strong, intelligent, talented women they were meant to be. Along the way we are introduced to some delightfully quirky characters; Sissy Spacek as Hilly’s “sort-of-senile” mother steals every scene she’s in and Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother is outstanding, as is Cicely Tyson’s portrayal of the maid who raised Skeeter. Jessica Chastain is wonderful as the social outcast Celia Foote who needs a maid to teach her how to hire a maid. There isn’t a female character in this movie that doesn’t feel completely three-dimensional and real and that’s the true triumph of this movie. One minute you will laugh out loud and the next you may be choking back a tear, just like real life.

This isn’t a movie about the Civil Rights movement. It’s about the ordinary people caught up in the turmoil of changing times who didn’t have a voice or a national platform to call for societal reform. It’s about a new generation choosing to blindly accept things the way they are or to accept the challenge to make the world a better place.

Anyone who doesn’t think this fictional story captures the feeling of what it was like in Mississippi during the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement did not live through it there. True, this is one story about a particular unlikely friendship that does not encompass the entire spectrum of what the struggle for civil rights was like for both blacks and whites, but the tone and the depiction of the segment of society it portrays is spot on. Filled with wit, humor, poignant moments, heartbreak, triumph, and excellent performances from a superb cast, I personally think it deserves recognition in the form of several Oscar nominations.

A full bucket of popcorn!One serving of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket plus an extra serving