September 4, 2015

The 25 Films I've Seen in 2015

These are the films I've seen during 2015:

(1) Kingsman: the Secret Service - Colin Firth and Taron Egerton star in a spy thriller based on a popular comic book series. It's like watching a future James Bond find his way. 

(2) The Second Best Exotic Hotel - The cast from the first film return with the addition of some new characters. Like going home, you know exactly what to expect and are among old friends. It has Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, what more could you want?

(3) What We Do in the Shadows - An Indie "mockumentary" about three vampire roommates living on the outskirts of Wellington, New Zealand. Enjoyable satire.

(4) Horns (2014) - Dark comedy/horror film about a young man who suddenly grows horns on his head and the dark lives the people around him suddenly begin to reveal. Daniel Radcliffe has trouble saving this one.

(5) Woman in Gold - Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in a film about the niece of Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer who sues the Austrian government to reclaim the painting  the Nazis stole. Is art more important than justice?

(6) Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson spar with the idea of A.I. embodied by the beautiful and deadly Alicia Vikander. Engrossing film. The film asks us whether in creating robots exactly like humans we set ourselves up for failure. One of the year's best.

(7) The Avengers: Age of Ultron - The Marvel Comics Avengers franchise continues to play on the charisma of its team (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson.). The movie blends humor and action with great style.

(8) San Andreas - This San Francisco based film has some good special effects which is all one really wants in an action/disaster film. Forget the plot and just enjoy the ride.

(9) Iris - Wonderful documentary by Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) on 93-year-old style setter Iris Apfel who lives a life to its famboyant best. If there is anyone I want to sit next to at my next dinner party, it's Iris.

(10) Mad Max: Fury Road 3D - I wasn't a great fan of Mel Gibson's Mad Max, but Director George Miller and his stellar cast of Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult blew me away. I found myself totally immersed in a new world filled with color, action and surprises. The interplay between Hardy and Theron makes for one of the great male/female Hollywood teams. For me, one of the top films of my year.

(11) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - An Indie film about what the title says. The three young actors (Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, and Olivia Cooke) are charming [**spoiler**] but I disliked the narrator lying to the audience regarding where the film was going.

(12) Magic Mike XXL - Although the sequel to 2012's Magic Mike didn't get outstanding reviews, the film was worth the trip. While the first film concentrated on Mike's protege, the sequel follows Mike as he and group go on a road trip to win one final stripping contest. Good dancing and music coupled with some analysis of the women's reaction to male stripping. Channing Tatum has a great natural acting style.

(13) Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem - In Israel there is no civil divorce, so only rabbis can dissolve a marriage, but the action must be approved by the husband. The film details the struggles that Vivianne Amsalem goes through attempting to divorce her husband. Intense with lots of introspection.

(14) Tangerine - Fun Indie film about two transgendered prostitutes searching for one's boyfriend. Filmed on location in Los Angeles using an iPhone 5, which makes for great visuals. Very adult humor and raw language make this not for everyone.

(15) Mr. Holmes - A delightful and thoughtful period piece with a 90-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) coping with his loss of memory while trying to reconstruct the case which caused him 30 years before to quit. His housekeeper's son (Milo Parker) helps him decide to go on.

(16) The Wolfpack - Seven "home schooled" boys raised secluded in a New York apartment with only contact to the outside being films. Their emergence into society makes for a fascinating documentary. In some ways it's like watching Plato's Allegory of the Cave come to life. Can be found on

(17) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - I'm not a fan of Tom Cruise, but I am always drawn to Mission Impossible and it's great action stunts. Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson help make the movie enjoyable.

(18) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - When I think of Guy Ritchie's films, I think classy humor, style, and a buddy couple paired with a beautiful actress. Henry Cavill (as Napoleon Solo) and Armie Hammer (as Illya Kuryakin) work hard at the buddy couple but are hampered somewhat by the need to do all the backstory/setup.  Ex Machina's Alicia Vikander becomes their beautiful side-kick. Good action chases.

(19) Phoenix (saw twice) - Survivor of Auschwitz who requires facial reconstruction returns to Berlin to find her husband and life she lost. He doesn't recognize her but decides she might pass for his wife, who he betrayed to the Nazis.The film becomes a fascinating modern German Vertigo.

(20) Digging for Fire - Indie film about young teacher and his wife house sit the wife's Yoga student's home. The husband and wife are ready for change. The husband finds a bone and a gun which suggests a murder. He sets out to discover a mystery while his wife heads out to test her own marital boundaries. [***spoiler***]Both eventually decide their marriage is more important than experiments. This is first film I remember which uses Uber cars without making any reference to them being Ubers.

(21) Grandma - Lily Tomlin is one of our National Treasures. She shines throughout. The film would make an interesting companion piece to Bruce Dern's Nebraska. Both are road pictures where older star and younger companion learn about themselves and their world. Highly recommend.

(22) Listen to Me Marlon - Powerful documentary on Marlon Brando delves into the dark side of his early childhood and his obsessive behavior later in life.

(23) Rosenwald - Julius Rosenwald made his fortune from Sear & Roebuck Co., but he used his fortune to build schools for the African American community all over the South. The documentary gives a good view of the man but also becomes an inspiring testament of what someone with wealth and vision can do to help the world.

(24) Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine - The documentary view of Jobs shows him as a charmismatic salesman (as when he introduces the iPhone to the world) and a liar and jerk. Without him would the technical media be where it is?

(25) Wolf Totem -  Two young men from Beijing in 1967 end up as teachers in Mongolia among nomads. One becomes intent on saving a wolf cub. Beautiful scenery and cinematography. The script feels like Dances with Wolves seen through the eyes of the heartwarming coming of age Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

October 13, 2013

58 - Tosca (2001)

Giacomo Puccini’s 1899 opera Tosca is based on a play Victorien Sardou wrote as a star turn for Sarah Bernhardt in 1887 (La Tosca), with an opera libretto by Luigi Illicca and Giuseppe Giascosa. Sardou’s five act play was reduced to three acts. Elements of Shakespeare’s Othello [Iago] and Measure for Measure  [Angelo] surround three main characters:  Singer Floria Tosca, who says of herself, “Tosca’s blood burns with a mad love,” her painter lover Mario Cavaradossi and the Chief of Police Vittelio Scarpia -- imaginary characters peopling real Roman settings.

The opera opens in 1800 in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome, at the Attavanti Chapel. On one side, a large easel holds a painting of a blonde blue-eyed Mary Magdalene, the work of the painter Mario Cavaradossi. Unbeknownst to Cavaradossi, the woman he has painted is the sister of Angelotti, consul of the late Roman Republic, who has just escaped from prison and is hiding in the church. Cavaradossi, a support of Angelotti’s hides him as Tosca enters. Angelotti tells him his sister has been in the church to leave him a disguise of women’s clothes and a fan. Just then Tosca, Mario’s jealous lover, comes and hears voices. She assumes he is hiding another lover and is even more suspicious when she sees the painting, since she has dark hair and eyes. Eventually, she goes off having made a date to see Mario later. Fearful of Angelotti being discovered, Mario takes him off to hide in his villa. When Il Barone Scarpia comes searching for Angelotti. He believes the painter has hidden him, so when Tosca returns to cancel their date because she has to sing celebrating the Italian victory over Bonaparte, Scarpia plays on her jealousy and says that the fan he carries (which Angelotti had left behind) was actually belonged to the girl Mario was meeting. she goes off to confront him. Scarpia plans to trap Angelotti and Cavaradossi and bed Tosca. The act ends with the people filling the church, celebrating a Te Deum.

Act II opens at the Farnese palace in Scarpia’s apartment on the upper floor, where he is having a late supper. During the first part of the scene, Tosca and the chorus sing offstage. Cavaradossi is brought in for questioning and denies knowing about Angelotti’s whereabouts. When Tosca arrives, Mario is taken offstage and tortured while Scarpia tries to get her to admit where Angelotti is. As Mario’s pain become unbearable to her, she finally tells Scarpia what he wants to know. Mario is brought back in and Scarpia revels in telling him he’s been betrayed. He is taken off to be executed. Scarpia finally tells Tosca that if she will have sex with him, he will spare Mario’s life. Not wanting to outright pardon him, he proposes that blanks be used in his execution. She agrees’ and at her urging, he signs safe passage for the two lovers. As he tries to attack Tosca, she takes a dinner knife and stabs Scarpia. In the libretto stage directions, “Tosca puts down the knife, washes her hands, pulls the safe conduct from Scarpia’s clenched hand, places a lighted candleon each side of the dead man’s head and a crucifix on his chest. Looking about cautiously, she goes out the door and quietly closes it.”

Act III takes place in a cell in the Castel Sant’Angelo and above is an outdoor platform reached by stairs. A shepherd is heard in the distance. Mario sings of his sweet memories of Tosca. She comes and tells him of the plans, telling him how to act when shot and not to move until she calls him. After they sing of their love, the soldiers come and Mario is shot. But Tosca has been tricked. The bullets are real and Mario is dead. As they discover Scarpia’s murder, Tosca climbs to the top of wall and after telling Scarpia that he and she will stand together before God, she throws herself off the wall.

While the real places mentioned in the opera offer the glorious opportunities of setting, the film relies on props and set pieces in front of a black background. Occasionally, however, brief images of the real places present jarring intrusions. Tosca sings of the villa where they’ll meet and we are shown it. Scarpia walks through the church and we suddenly see the baroque paintings of the ceiling.  Also, to establish a concert feel to the production, black and white images of the orchestra and the singers in a studio are used to open and close scenes. When the actors would sing to themselves, we tend to get these as voice-overs.

The strongest visual image of the film is Tosca’s second costume, a flame red empire gown with lengthy train and cape with even longer train. As seen from above, the swash of color looks like blood spilling on the floor.  One of the surprises of the film for me is the director’s choice to eliminate Tosca’s business with the candles and crucifix. This moment is one of the most seen images of the opera and the play. Without it, I reacted with a “wtf?”

Angela Gheorghiu (Tosca), Robert Algna (Cavaradossi), and Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia) all have strong and often lyrical voices. But since director Benoit Jacquot likes close-ups, we often have operatic large gestures and emotions thrust into our face.

The subtitles in the version I saw (unlike the clip below) do help.

I would not call this the definitive version of the opera, but it is worth a look.

Tosca (2001) ***

57 - Kill Your Darlings (2013)

If Daniel Radcliffe really wants to get rid of his Harry Potter image, he's made the right choice playing poet Allen Ginsberg in a prequel to "the Beat generation." As the movie proclaims from beginning, what we see is a "true story," although we're not always sure what version of that story to believe. 

It's a lovingly recreated 1940 when virgin/Jewish Allen Ginsberg goes off to Columbia University to study writing and gets caught up in the lives of charismatic Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), druggie William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and writer Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). As the group experiments with drugs and sex and writing poetry in a way never tried before, they decide Lucien needs to be free of his stalker/teacher/boyfriend, David Kammerer (played with creepy stares by Michael C. Hall). The murder we're told from the beginning was real is David's. Just how it happened is the focus of the film.

Director John Krokidas has a fondness for closeups, loud sound transitions, and rich colors. Radcliffe's daring nude gay sex scene, intercut with the murder and Burrough's drugging will probably get a lot of press, but the film does give insight into four literary figures whose friendship helps fuel On the Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch.

Seen at the Chicago Film Festival last Saturday, the crowd around me seemed very positive. I think it is definitely a film to see.

Kill Your Darlings ***** 

56 - Gravity (2013)

Although I'm not a great fan of Sandra Bullock, the premise of the movie and the trailers intrigued me enough to see the film. With two friends, we decided after I had raved about the IMAX experience with The Hobbit that we would do it with 3D. We weren't disappointed as it proved one of the most involving films of the year.

[More to come]

Gravity (2013) *****

55 - Don Jon (2013)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves he can not only act but also direct and write.

[more to come]

Don Jon (2013) ****

54 - Still Mine (2012)

Very strong performances.

[More to come]

Still Mine (2012) ****

53 - Prisoners (2013)

Incredibly strong performances and a well crafted screenplay make this a must see.

[more to come]

Prisoners (2013) *****

52 - Salinger (2013)

Salinger is a documentary based on the life and work of reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. Having taught his works for American English, I was interested to learn what new information I could glean about the author.

One of the first things I learned was that his experiences in World War II did a lot to shape the thoughts of the man. The second thing I learned was that Salinger was drawn to young women who he could impress and mold into companion writers, until they grew old enough to realize how stiffling the relationhip was.

The film says that Salinger did have some final writings that he refused to have published until most of his current fans would be dead. I'm not sure why a writer would do that to the fans that make him famous, but I would wonder how a future generation might view the works that were so definitely set in the 1950/1960s.

The film uses talking heads and staging with an actor playing out his part against a large screen. Sometimes the approach was effective.

Salinger (2013) ***

51 - The Grandmaster (2013)

The fight which opens Kar Wai Wong's The Grandmaster is one of the most reviting fights I've seen. The rain drops and the puddles become a total part of the action.

[More to come]

The Grandmaster (2013) *****

50 - Josh Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

I have to admit that Much Ado About Nothing is a Shakespeare play I've avoided. I read it in college, but little of the plot or characters stayed with me. 

So as Josh Whedon's stylish black and white version began in a very contemporary setting, it took me a long time to adjust to the juxtaposition of Shakespeare's language in contemporary drag. Somewhere about the time that Amy Acker's Beatrice and Alexis Denisof's Benedick begin in earnest to pursue each other, I found myself fully in the production. By the end, I would truly say I enjoyed the experience.

I am a fan of many of the actors in the cast, so I enjoyed their ensemble acting. Of particular note was Nathan Fillion's Dogberry which at first seemed too over the top, but gradually grew on me.

I found myself a little disappointed that the spot color used in the trailer didn't appear in the actual film.

Having read that Matt Whedon's home in Santa Monica, California, was used as the film location, I found the house as rich a character as the cast.

Josh Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing (2012) ****