“In Secret”

One more Oscar Issac film to mention is a period piece based on Emile Zola’s 1867 novel”Therese Raquin”. I was not disappointed in the film renamed “In Secret”. Issac is masterful as lover and murderer. Jessica Lange was a tad campy,but is always brilliant in inhabiting a character so thoroughly. She does the French Emile Zola proud as she has done the American Willa Cather. I ,for one, am glad Glenn Close bowed out of the role.

The cinematography is beautiful in capturing the rather seedy nineteenth century Pont Neuf Paris in blues,olives and grays.The sexual awakening of Elizabeth Olsen,as Therese, is smile -inducing at times;and I caught her out of period at least twice. Repressed sexuality,sickly cousin/husbands, illicit affairs,guilt and madness and a mother’s love reign in this morality tale. The quick fall from ecstasy into meanness is more realistic than romantic. But what is not to like when it comes to obsessive love, lust, and the retribution of madness!

“Still Alice”

I have been watching Julianne Moore since she was an ingenue on the now defunct soap “As The World Turns”. She played twins: the good and the bad. As a teenager, she was emotive and fun to watch. Her facial expressions held range from vengeful spite to sympathetic care. Here, as a Best Actress nominee, Moore has honed her craft. It is not easy to play a strong,intelligent woman thrown to her knees by a debilitating disease and still show triumph in all her loss. As her character Alice states, ” I am not suffering; I am struggling”.

Director and writers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer take Lisa Genova’s book and give their cast a perfectly paced and unsentimental script of a privileged academic’s family’s heart- searing journey. The settings of Manhattan and Saugetuck allow us to see the family at work and at play.At lunch with one daughter,we see Alice in her good-humored acerbic asides as a harried water whisks away her almost finished salad. “She chirps “Thank you, I’m done and rolls her eyes at her actress daughter. We see her blaming the champagne when she is at a loss with her wordstock of language. She thrives on her work as a research linguist and lecturer and plays “Words with Friends” obsessively with her eldest daughter. We relate to her in her panic. Her body framed in long hallways and winding jogging paths mirrors her journey from blurred vision and thinking she has a brain tumor to her rare,but confirmed diagnosis of familiar Alzheimer’s.

Nothing about the script is labored. We get fast glimpses of a Dove shampoo misplaced in the kitchen pantry,erratic lectures and student complaints, botched dinner plans with department heads, yet all with a relentless verve that “this might be the last year I’m myself.” All I can say is this film begins with a toast and ends with one. A great script that will have you looking up Elizabeth Bishops’ poetry on the art of losing,as well as, smiling at yellow markers and butterflies.

Alec Baldwin surprised me in his modulated portrayal of a loving,but career -driven husband. The family’s resourcefulness is made easier by their upper middle class status, but his “whatever happens, I’m here” is a pledge kept. Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth were equally affective in bringing out their mother’s soul,and they were sisterly real.

Technology plays a big role in this rendering of connection and loss. The face to face computer meeting of the planning and strategizing Alice withbthe floundering and forgetful Alice is Oscar worthy. Here are Moore’s twins again: the intelligent leader and the docile follower. One of the most ironic lines is delivered by her Columbia department head. After Alice has shared her diagnosis with him,he asks “unpack that for me”. Alice’s liberated brain is unpacking everything ,already.

Shriver Productions produced this film,and many will recall that Maria Shriver’s father died of Alzheimer’s. Early onset,for Alice at age fifty, is objectively explained by her neurologist; but it is Baldwin’s tears and Moore’s hysteria and the faces of their children that move us. It is Moore’s heavily rimmed glasses, her defining of herself by her ability to articulate,and her facebook time with her other self that sets this finely tuned film apart. The toll it takes on this family with all of its resources leaves us thinking of the other one in ten who may be left adrift.

This is not a happy film,but it is filled with dignity and love, and the sense that this disease needs to be made curable. When Alice returns to the yogurt shoppe and forgets her favorite toppings,her husband takes over. Fifteen minutes later with one scoop left to savor, Alice looks at him and says “not done yet, do we have to go?” Empathetic audiences feel the same. Let me know what you think about the power of this film.

“A Most Violent Year”

Slow-moving and gritty,”A Most Violent Year” will stay with you even if you don’t care about egos trying to succeed in a gangster controlled industry. Almost chiaroscuro lit and dotted with illumination from curtained natural light, filtered hearth fire, soft candlelight,swaying lamps,porch lights and headlamps, each dark frame keeps faces and fixtures in shadow and shade. Nothing is clear and the glaze of sootiness is poured over everything but the Armani outerwear worn by the married protagonists. In fact,Oscar Isaac’s camel-haired coat becomes a symbol of pressurized striving.Jessica Chastain’s tightly belted white wool one shows a woman in control.

Writer and director J.C. Chandor has a better film here than his previous “All Is Lost”. He still leaves much of the meaning to the viewer. And I feel more guidance could deepen the 1981 NYC crime -ridden year to a questioning of unbridled capitalism’s dangers. The final song,”America For Me”,ironically toys with this view. In fact, the use of music and the use of silence is as beautifully done in this film as is Bradford Young’s cinematography. The urban photographer,Jamel Shabazz’s photos of graffitied sub-stations and railroad tunnels and mottled urban corners are said to have inspired Bradford and Chandor. It works :for when those long shots of NYC or those suburban home interiors are framed, the movie’s heart is felt. Does it take grime and crime to capture the American Dream?

The double briefcase carrying Abel Morales is learning about Federal graft ,as well ;and his tag line “we set the standards” takes on fitting nuances. Abel is mugged where he lives,yet he believes he has “chased them and they are not coming back.” Abel is learning from his “Eve”,too. Anna says “we follow every industry practice”,and she then hides the  company’s boxed records from the Feds during a daughter’s twelve -year old -birthday party. Anna states without a flutter, “my husband is an honorable man”. Compared to her father, he just may be.

The climatic scene with Abel’s favorite driver, Julian, is metaphor-driven for we expect to see blood spouting,and we see oil cascading from its dike-like tanker instead. Abel plugs the gunshot hole, and we know before he says anything that he is “afraid of failure more than anything else.”The storyline is “God-father” -like without the violent pulpiness.A Mafia -linked wife undercuts the stronger moral fiber of her husband by skimming from their own company as insurance for that “rainy day” she knows will come. He prefers to believe that his charm and positive mini-lectures will push their oil transit business to the top. Chastain ,as the mollish wife, emasculates her husband in two scenes. One involves the killing of a deer and the other when their youngest child is playing with a loaded gun. The pressure is intense. Jessica Chastain plays Anna as threatening,calculating, demanding and hard. A fourteen count government indictment in a business her husband bought from her father could see,too,that Anna has been rigging the scales. Wife as bookkeeper with connections is risky, especially as long as Morales keeps the motto “We set the standard” so close to his heart.

There are lots of crooks in this film. There are lots of bullies.Competitors are stealing 600 thousand gallons of heating fuel from company tankers weekly. Their drivers are shot at and their marketing people beaten. The question of why Morales is in this business surfaces again and again. Everybody is running,but this time it is not the wintery forays of the committed jogger. Morales who would not have a gun in his home,picks a dropped one up and chases one bandit over tracks and through tunnels,falls and never sullies his camel-hair coat. He pistol whips the goon,but lets him go when he gives up the name of the boss who hired him. Morales understands the industry is a mess, but he needs to see himself as a caped crusader. What path does it take to “get there”,the right one ? Can Abel Morales be a serious,caring employer amidst such decay? The viewer knows there will be a lot more running, a lot more broken jaws. The question is why.

Something must be said about the musical score. The twelve tone scale is used to perfection in building up the pressure Morales feels. Intermitant use of redolent music is arresting. The audience notices. Musical director Alex Ebert’s name needs to be remembered and watched for and lauded. The final song ” America For Me” burns with bright irony. The Philip Glass -like twelve tone interludes afix the dramatic tension. This film made me think about something I thought I did not care about. Good work J.C. Chandor and crew.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

This 2013 release of Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of a struggling folk singer garnered Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing,and Globe nominations for Best Original Song, Best Actor and Best Picture. I would suggest seeing Isaac’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” work before seeing the Guatemalan-American’s performance in “A Most Violent Year”. Here we see the precursor to narcissistic tendencies with heaps of self-possessed focus.

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen,”Inside” is melancholy,yet funny. It is sort of like watching the Human Potential Movement of the 70’s unfold before Rollo May’s “Love and Will” kicked in. This slice-of-life odyssey is more than just a tale of an impoverished artist,struggling and angry. There is lots to talk about thematically: the absence of commitment,the forgiveness of friends,meanness of spirit,the Welsh temper, the charm of felines,the lure and the power of music.

The  setting seems more circa 1970 than the proclaimed 1961,but Indy just may have been that far behind the New York East Village scene! Inside L.D. is suffering. We learn he lost his singing partner to suicide,his father to dementia,his first child to Ohio,and his second to an impeding abortion. His promotors steal his meager wages and give him advice to stay out of the sun. Evidentally, he would look too foreign a skin shade darker.

The film’s music is really good,and Oscar Isaac looks like an old boyfriend of mine if anyone is interested.Carey Mulligan,Justin Timberlake and John Goodman are instrumental in bringing out that Coen brothers’ humor in this tender,yet exasperating study of trying to get a break in the music world while remaining human.

“Unbroken” and “American Sniper”

This weekend I saw two war films that were based on two soldiers’ lives. Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut in “Unbroken” and Clint Eastwood’s mispercevied “American Sniper” are analogous in that both push forward the belief systems of their soldier protagonists. For Louie Zamperini it is “forgive thy enemy”; for Chris Kyle it is “stand up and protect your tribe”. The temperament and the politics of the moviegoer may prejudice either film,but
this need not be the case. The horror of war and the poor help given as veteran soldiers re-enter civilian life is paramount to understanding either film. Neither man is legend or hero,in my eyes,only humanly flawed and now both dead to suffering and to sin.

Both Louie and Chris were church raised and often pew disciplined. Young Louie heard sermons heralding “love thy enemy”; Chris heard “protect our own”. Chris Kyle also hears his dad spout “you know your purpose” … ” Protect your brother”. Both father and son believe in ” the gift of aggression”, wolf -dog over sheep. While growing up, Louie hears the bromides of the time from Pete,his older brother.” Take it to make it.”

Jolie’s “Unbroken” begins with a ten minute spectacular opening. Gunners rotating and swirling amongst the clouds. Mixed shots of panoramic views give way to close- ups of eyes held in the gun sight. Puffs of ash stay suspended. The cinematography is splendid,gauzy and then clear. The film’s sound pales in comparison –often weak, raspy and muffled.

I had read the Laura Hillenbrand accounting of Louis Zamperini ‘s World War II survival,resilience and redemption, so there were not any surprises. Hillenbrand dedicated her book to the wounded and the lost,and Jolie holds that spirit in her film. The war experiences of 45 days on a life raft with insufficient rations and water, the sharks, and the internment in a POW camp run by a sadist are added to the sky skirmishes and South Pacific Japanese attacks. Zamperini’s marriages,alcoholism and Billy Graham’s influence are not covered in  the film “Unbroken”. His early years of dealing with prejudice and his Olympic running are. I found the back and forth chronology of the storyline to be frustrating. As soon as I was emotionally hooked, the screen would switch to a flashback. This seemed like teasing, and I think the film suffers for this. The four or five “break always” disrupted the emotional connection over and over again. The actors were still compelling and well -directed, and “the bird” especially brought the detestable Watanabe to life.

Eastwood’s movie opens with a huge tank and flashbacks to SEAL boot camp. We see lots of testosterone “feeling dangerous” vibes: darts thrown on targets painted on backs,for example. Bradley Cooper deserves his Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t. Cooper’s musculature is astounding.His neck is thick; his extra thirty pounds of sinew packs a screen frame. His Texas slur and intense eyes bring a true believer to life. We know Chris Kyle has envisioned how his first kill will go down. Later, a comrade compliments Kyle with “the marines feel invincible with you up there”. Really? One sniper,even one who can get a head shot at 2100 yards out,would not be able to hold to this legend. It is war that “puts lightening in your bones”. And lightening can blow circuits.

Kyle is a keenly observant soldier,but an unreflective man. He sees a rawly red elbow and deduces an enemy sniper. Kyle is good at picking up clues. He volunteers for four tours of duty, until his wife whines:”You can only circle the flames for so long,” and “when you are here ,you are not here.”Eastwood seems to rev -up the motors of war with “an eye for a eye” revenge theme Clint-style. A frame of the twin towers falling seems faultily to suggest that the Iraq War was about this. When a lackluster counselor asks the veteran Chris if there is anything he feels he would do differently, Chris responds with “I am only haunted by the soldiers that I did not save.” Staring a black TV screens, throwing an upper cut at the family dog,or bargeing into a nursery demanding that his baby daughter be immediately comforted by the one attending nurse, all show that Kyle doesn’t know when to quit warring. His wife’s “I need you to be human again” says a lot about what we expect of our soldiers.

There are some powerful scenes of sandstorm battles and an anti- war letter read at a graveside military funeral. There are too many flags, bugles and stamped SEAL crests on casket lids. A younger director would not have underscored patriotism like a sheriff pinning on his badge “High Noon” style. The use of a doll to replace a live child was also a mistake. In the first sequence of frames, the film did not suffer for this,but the second set of sightings was silly. Cooper did his best to shake those plastic curved fingers and the make-up crew did enhance, yet lifeless is lifeless, Mr. Director.

“Saint Vincent”

I love my Friday night movie dates, and connecting with two former students in a chance meeting at the Landmark Theater further enhanced my mood. This being said, I joined my husband for Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy’s feature, “St. Vincent”. Neither comedian Is my favorite, and I had put off seeing Theodore Melfi’s debut film until there was not much else I had not seen. A friend had told me a story of Murray’s first wife, a St.Mary of the Woods grad, who had been betrayed by him etc…and Melissa McCarthy is cruder than I like. All gossip and preferences aside, I did not have high expectations and was ready for a rather low-brow farce.

Surprised and satisfied,I can report that Murray was so engaging that not one of the fifty some filmgoers walked out until after the last credit rolled. Vintage songs liket Bob Dylan’s ,”Shelter From The Storm” deepened the reflective mood of this reflective-comedy.

Director Melfi  and I have the same distain for cattle-maze-rope barriers and the phrase,”It is what it is”! Catholic school nostalgia is here,too. Those saints are first and foremost a starting point for lessons of every kind. Empathy is taught and re-taught; character development is the cornerstone. Naomi Watts is fabulous as Daka, a lady-of-the-night, even though her character is the most stereotyped. Jaeden Lieberher is smart and endearing . He  looks way younger than the twelve years his role implies.

This film has a very strong beginning that uses close shots to center our focus on the debauched Vin  (Murray). Murray is beautifully nuanced and so in character and so convincing as Vin that one forgets one is watching Murray. I rather became a Murray fan with this picture! The ending is strong,too, as tears and laughter mingle in a rather redemptive display of acceptance and giving. A great reminder to withhold one’s judgement until one has walked the same path!

“Tim’s Vermeer”

Have a special interest in art and love science?  See this documentary and mull over a few profound questions when you are not marveling at this inventive plodder, Tim Jenison. Jenison underbills himself as a tech geek. His company and his inventions have paid his way to study a 350 year old mystery: How did the 17th century Johannes Vermeer paint light across his canvases?

Tim has travelled (we feel like we can call this Iowa raised guy by has given name) the world to see all extant Vermeers,even to Buckingham Palace which houses “The Music Lesson”.He credits artist David Hockney and his book with lighting the spark to prove that Vermeer of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” fame used a mirror and something like the camera obscura to blend images through a lens. Jenison aims to copy this technique by using a lens held at a 45 degree angle to paint his “Vermeer Masterpiece”. The self-deprecating  Jenison considers himself a “bathtub thinker”, and he is easy-going as he pushes the definition of what it means to be an artist painting that light.

The documentary, “Tim’s Vermeer” is also full of great music thanks to Conrad Pope.His music supports the profound questions about art and technology and the demarcations we draw between the arts and the sciences. See this for marvels galore.