“The Judge”

I wish the State of Indiana would give financial incentives to movie-makers to film in Indiana. One of the winners of last year’s Heartland Film Festival was supposedly set in a small Indiana town, but was actually filmed in Shelburne, Massachusetts. True,the backdrop of director David Dobkin’s “The Judge” makes use of the proverbial diner,bar,tire shop,fishing cabin and front porch;yet,the town square and church architecture and countryside were nothing like Indiana. I could not keep from imagining Crawfordsville and Shades being a much better setting. The Berkshires are lovely,but don’t try to pass them off as Indiana’s environs by throwing in a tornado.

The cast of “The Judge” is what you go to see. Robert Downey, Jr. is superb in his impatience and candor. Vincent D’Onofrio is encyclical-like in his resignation and matter-of-fact suffering. Billy Bob Thornton could not be slicker or more savvy as prosecutor. Vera Farmiga is protective and accepting,yet bedeviled by her past choices.Ken Howard is masterful and ready for any conundrum posed. And finally, Robert Duvall scores an Oscar win as the once renowned judge, turned law-breaker. Duvall is perfection as a cantankerous and failing father awash in alcoholism and dementia.

Big ideas like justice,reconciliation and forgiveness mesh with the passing of time and chronicles of life’s pain in divorce,estrangement, parent death,unwed motherhood and lost promise. Throw in a hit and run fatality with courtroom scenes of bluster,and we almost have too much. I liked the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s mix of broad and close frames and the beautiful sound track.

The scenes of showering off bowel discharges and selecting a jury by bumper stickers are
tender,fresh and memorable. A crowd pleaser of a movie if it were only filmed in the heartland.

“Mr. Turner”

If you have two and a half hours to immerse yourself in the last two decades of an eighteenth -century, renowned, seaside painter see “Mr.Turner”. Dick Pope’s cinematography is worth the time spent,especially the pictorial splendor of the artist fishing creekside in a wooden skiff. This frame is accompanied by “Jesus rays” and green, primordial lushness. Other landscapes evoke golden windmills and water/sky vastness, but this quiet meditative frame is my favorite. Nature is where the curmudgeon J.M.W.T. could find escape from the vicissitudes of artist politics and hanger-ons’ demands. This frame and the smokey mirage-like composition used with the initial credits do homage to Turner’s ephemeral use of light.

This film is a period drama as well as a bi-op. The stoke hats, the horse and carriages, the lice and scrofula, the candlelight and the sherry, the incessant cleaning of windows and the batting of rugs -all bring the era before us. The costumes and both the inner domestic and the outer street scenes are mesmerizing. Light and shadow bring Margate,London and Chelsea settings in mid- eighteen- century to the fore.

This may be director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. It combines the subjects of a tender yet merciless genius with art and its place in our lives. One flirtatious interlude has a character say,”The universe is chaotic, and you,Mr.Turner,make us see it.”

As for Mr.Turner,his complex and rather dislikeable character is played by a gravelly voiced Timothy Spall. Spall plays against the scenery of loch,light and lasciviousness. There are three “Mrs.Turners”. His ex-mistress (Ruth Sheen) is the mother of two of his daughters. She is a shrieker who berates him for neglecting them. He had not troubled to acknowledge his first grand-daughter. “Billy Turner, you insult me. You have always insulted me.” seems to speak to his modus operandi. He regularly gropes Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson),his simple and devoted housekeeper.  In  one scene, he indecorously throws her against a bookcase while rhymatically breathing and thrusting.When she asks if he will be returning to the house later that night,he  barks ” no”.  Hannah responds with “I might as well stop changing the bed sheets in here”. Later, when she finds an address in his jacket, Hannah journeys with whom we presume to be their sickly daughter to elicit aid. The girl dies in the street outside his new residence,and Hannah returns alone. Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey) is his final match. Their relationship is warm and caring,though he never tells her that he is the renowned painter,Mr.Turner. She learns this truth from the doctor she enlists to treat his bronchitis. The doctor prescribes bed,broth and balsam and the continual good care of Mrs.Booth. She is at his bedside when he says his final words: “The sun is God.”

Spall is a masterful character actor. His wide-leg umbrella supported gait,his grunting and harrumphing will be remembered. Where there is anger,there is pain. He spits on canvases,throws stools,groans like Grendel, yet is able to brook his ire and sing arias of lost love and see a fallen angel in a section of tree bark. His drollness is a thing of legend. He remarks that he resembles a gargoyle and that loneliness,drunkeness and solitude will come. Turner’s melancholy is tempered with wit. Spall delivers double entendres to his host like,”Can never be too salty for me,Madame” with aplomb. He sobs as he arranges and sketches a young prostitute his daughter’s age when she tells him that she does extras. One daughter has died while he “was painting his ridiculous ship wrecks.” He asks that his own physician to ” go down and have a sherry and reassess your opinion” when he is told of his heart condition. It is well to remember that Spall garnered the Best Actor Prize at Cannes.

There is so much detail in this film that I am surprised at its mere two and a half hour length. The infamous slave ship the “Zong” is mentioned as the first Mr. Booth recounts his naval experience in the 1780’s. He confesses that the conditions for the slaves were so bad that ” it sent me back to church”. The workings of the Royal Academy and its members Corot ,Constable etc.. are introduced. John Ruskin’s criticism and salon swagger are shown ;and critics,like Queen Victoria herself, are given play. Her highness thought Turner’s smearing of chrome pigment “a dirty yellow mess”. Steam engines,the camera,the use of  prism optics all enter into Turner’s oeuvre and outlook. The camera’s  easy realism and his first photo shot had him opine: “I fear I ,too, am finished”.

The score of “Mr. Turner” is Gary Yershon’s ,and it leads the narrative unfolding from barber/servant father and “lunatic” mother through the bequeathing of his life’s work to the British people. Bird song, fiddle, harpsichord and silence presage salon harangues and  frames of ice and fire firmaments. It is an understatement to say that this film hands us plenty to think about besides Mr. Turner. History is  truly captured.

“Two Days, and One Night”

No one looked forward with more anticipation than I when I saw the post card with Marion Cotillard’s  doleful face advertizing her next film. I took two and used one as a bookmark and set one in a place of prominence near my calendar. The film’s  premise  was so intriguing and so uncapitalistic and communal in theme that I knew I was going to love it. Now, woe is me. This film did not work even with a masterful performance by one of my favorite actresses and a storyline that should have opened up debate on  what is central to our lives. A greater understanding of depression and a deeper empathy for this suffering would have been a bonus. This film could have been great.

Instead of philosophical debate or intellectual questionings or even fresh insight being stimulated, I found myself  bored with the straightforwardness of following Sandra (  Cotillard) ringing doorbells and phoning co-workers in an attempt to  retain her factory job. So bored in fact that my mind wandered to her various bra strap colors. I was so disappointed in this film that I wished to “take to bed”,too.

The script details may have been at fault. Never did this family seem like they were “nickeled and dimed”  or going on the dole. Purchasing bottled water and ice cream cones, buying sandwiches for her children’s  school picnic, using laptops and cell phones with abandon, baking fruit tarts and standing in her bathroom amongst products galore never weighed in as desperate. Her children were bright and  helpful,her husband concerned and working, extended family and friends apparent and supportive.

Sandra ‘s depression is being treated with Xanax. In one scene, we hear her pop plastic packaging endlessly as one by one these pills are freed to do their damage. On hearing from her husband that another colleague had agreed to support her, she confesses her overdose. In the hospital, she asks for food and when a tray is immediately delivered, she chooses to drink only the soup. Why aren’t we made to root for this woman more ? Could she make other choices like look for another job? When she does salvage half of the 16 votes needed for her reinstatement, she is back where she started. Another Sisyphus myth to ponder?

The award winning Belgian brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne may not be at fault. Maybe Belgian’s poor are the U.S.’s middle class. Certainly, the question of why we let an unbridled system control us is a question central to my core. Somehow the guilt felt by half of Sandra’s co workers seems less brutal than the responses I hear too often from our political parties.I wanted to love this film,but in its foreign realism it did not touch my mind or my heart.Sandra has it pretty good.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

This Wes Anderson movie sweeps you along with its hodgepodge format of fun and cloaked statement. Yesterday, it won the Writers Guild Award’s top prize for its mad caper screenplay. ( My fav “Her” won last year.) On February the twenty-second, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may just win Best Picture of the year. It has garnered nine other Oscar nominations!

Anderson is a Texan and a philosophy major who likes to create alternative realities that showcase ideas. It may be totalitarianism or pure serendipity. Much has been written about his use of repetition, inserts, certain camera shots and the color yellow. I feel akin to him because his favorite movie is “Rosemary’s Baby”,and he feels like I do that walking down any street in Paris is a movie. I find him like his movies: engaging, smart, open and fun.

Anderson is also imaginative in his introduction of large casts of characters. Viewers have fun with all the celebrity sightings. Here beyond the keenly-animated Raif Fiennes and incredible Tilda Swinton, try the magnificently voiced Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson as Chuck, a networking concierge of note.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is pretty pitch perfect. Anderson balances homage and irony,nostalgia and current debate with humor and panache. Did I spot an NRA critique from this Texan in the balcony shoot-out scene where everyone with a room had a gun firing away?!

I loved the narrative-story-telling beginning that draws the viewer in and the romantic verse that strings all the stories together.Mentoring a lobby boy becomes a deep life’s work. Hurrah for Gustave and Zero. Don’t miss this imaginative romp.

“The Invisible Woman”

This film directed and acted by Ralph Fiennes is an exquisite period piece that channels Victorian England by dramatizing Charles Dickens as a successful forty-year-old luminary embarking on an affair with an eighteen-year-old, inexperienced girl. The screenplay is based on Claire Tomalin’s 1991 dramatic biography “The Invisible Woman:The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens”.

This film shares the same question one may ask after reading “Fifty Shades of Grey”: Can impressionable young woman be protected from the narcissitic manipulations of high-ranking men? And in the case of Nelly,can a mother contract her daughter out for the promise of economic stability? No matter how archetypal the theme,this arranged mistress storyline smarts;and Dickens’reputation is lowered a notch or two. Those who see this as a true love story may disagree. The film balances both takes,and it is my moralizing that judges Dickens and his ilk harshly. The privileged male syndrome has had its comeuppance, I hope.Preying on those coming of age in order to achieve one’s sexual desires is verboten by most. A romantic muse need not lead to carnal displays . As I reread this,I fear that I am the “Victorian”! Yet,I was very satisfied with the film,even after three weeks of seeing trailers that misled the public.

Attention to detail sets this film apart. A 2014 Oscar win for Costume Design was almost assured with the film’s twelve million dollar budget. One frame is especially stunning. Felicity Jones, as Nelly, is encased in lavender and white gauze against grey and lavender clouds. The ensuing effect takes one’s breathe away. Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind” came to mind, as did Lara in “Dr. Zhivago”.

The three female actresses Felicity Jones as Nelly,Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother and Joanna Scanlan, as Catherine Dickens, Charles’ wife are a trilogy of talent. With the use of a narrator and flashbacks, the not so secret love affair unfolds. Scanlan drew tears from my eyes as she suffered with her husband’s infidelity and brutal abandonment. She commanded the screen and used silence and a query as no other has. An Oscar loss,she did not deserve.

Fiennes stepped into the part of Dickens when as director he lost his leading man. He played Dickens as vain,love-sotted and scheming. Both tender and cruel. Full of life affirming possibility and vigor. At the time Dickens was writing “Great Expectations” he ironically had a few of his own.

In this film, one noticed the silence in lieu of background music. When the violins did start, it was heart-rending. A “Dr. Zhivago” for the Anglophile ! Did I leave anything out?

“Ida”

“Ida” is a quiet film. A quiet film that touched me so deeply in its reverence and execution that I place it in my memory like “The Pawnbroker”,another holocaust-themed film where the emotional cost to one Holocaust survivor is recorded through hardened pain and self-immolation. I find “Ida” one of the most inspirational and moving foreign language films that I have seen.

In just eighty minutes of black and white framed images,Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski has delivered a back story and a future one that shows a woman and her niece making decisions based on their shared historical past.

Nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film in 2014, “Ida” is also the haunting debut of the young Agata Trzebuchowska (b. 1992). Her beautifully boned face is
Madonna- like and soulful. She encapsules the 1960’s novitiate setting with an ease that is both powerful and resplendent. When Ida is sent by enlightened and fair-minded nuns to visit her only living relative,she learns of her past and of her family’s. She listens to her aunt,a unique combination of one emotionally removed while being emotionally charged.You will not forget her screen presence as she blows smoke on her niece and haughtily questions, “What do you know of life?”

Like with Amish “rumpspringa, Ida’s restrictions from convent behavior allow for experimentation with 1960 style drugs,sex and friendship. Her rite of passage rings truer than most. When she is last seen walking up the frozen road to the convent,we know why. This film is religious,metaphysical and real.Comments,please.

“Non-Stop”

Need a good popcorn thriller before Valentine’s Day? Try Jaume Collet-Sera’s “Non-Stop”. Maybe I still feel akin to claustrophobic air travel and Barcelona,but this forty- year -old Spanish director has given us one hour and forty minutes of tension inducing,edge-of-your-seat villainy.

Liam Neeson is good sixty-two year old eye candy, and he and Julianne Moore bring enough depth of character and backstory for the viewer to care. Yet,Corey Stoll’s New York cop role is more note-worthy.I changed my villain choice numerous times throughout the film,as did my seat mates. The script is flawed,but the one drawback that irked me most was soldiers and teachers getting a bad rap as deluded revenge patriots. Genre comments,please.