Frances Ha -- A Breezy Bittersweet Comedy

                                       From “The Squid and the Whale” to “Margot at the Wedding” to “Greenberg”, film-maker Noah Baumbach has got a clever mind for anxiety-ridden films. With “Frances Ha” (2012), he has changed his style a bit to make a playful, effervescent comedy. It is a story of a 27 year old woman in New York, whose scant talent and unemployment makes her chasing for apartments. She captures the spirit of an age – both cruel and beautiful -- where one couldn’t figure out their quest in life and when even the simplest of things like a job, a companion or a place to live seem so desperately out of reach. Shot stylishly in black-and-white, the life of Frances should resonate with youngsters, well beyond the demographic the movie depicts.

                                    Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an aspiring dancer, who has reached an age that is too late for aspiration. But, she is an optimist and works part-time an apprentice for a dance company that refuses to hire her full time. She lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in a Brooklyn apartment. When Frances’ boyfriend asks her to move in with him, she rejects the offer, and later breaks up with him. However, when Sophie leaves Frances to live in a fashionable Tribeca apartment, she finds herself adrift, navigating for apartments, which all are filled with flaky roommates.

                                   Frances moves in with two wealthy young artists, Benji and Lev (Michael Zegen and Adam Driver) and soon considered as “undateable”. She also doesn’t make much impression among other strangers. One girl tells her, "You look a lot older, but you seem far less mature." Frances knows that she can’t be a darling in everyone’s view. She takes a trip to her parents and has a glorious Christmas time. In the dance company, things grow from bad to worse, but she constantly cheers herself and even takes a lone trip to Paris without encountering any handsome European. Fate tries to control her life, but somehow her unruly passion shines a fascinating new light.

                                  Noah Baumbach has co-written the script with his real-life girlfriend Greta Gerwig. One of the aged movie cliches is that women’s friendship are not same as men’s. But, Greta’s contribution to the script uses the ideals of female friendship with a hard-edged pragmatism. Sophie finds herself a rich guy and makes compromises and ditches her career. Frances disapproves her friends’ move not from jealousy but from a genuine belief that she can achieve great success with her passion. Frances is at times maddening, but at the same time she greets each new disappointment and disastrous life choices with great courage. Her quirky adventures take life forward and the failures make her learn, how to be ready for anything that comes her way. In reality, we might label Frances’ types as ‘merely childish’ but there is something here, which makes us appreciate her aimlessness.

                                 Director Baumbach’s jumpy rhythms and undetermined time lapses revives the French New Wave setting (especially, the joyous scene, where Frances runs and dances through the streets of New York). The setting doesn’t distract our attention. Instead it helps us to feel the spirit of this hapless young woman. Baumbach’s stylistic forebear also succeeds due to a lead, who’s likable in spite of her flaws. Greta’s elegant performance makes a viewer admire her resilience in an ever-drifting life. Her dance doesn’t show a hint of delicacy, but if spirit is what counts, then you can see sparks from those feet and eyes. In the dinner party scene, she explains her notions of true love. And, towards the end, there is payoff to that scene. Greta’s expression in that scene is poignant beyond words.

                              “Frances Ha” is a contemporary fairy tale about a girl with an untarnished heart. It possesses an irresistible lovely central character, whose aplomb manner beats away failures and disappointments.


Rated R for sexual references and language

Dallas Buyers Club -- The Unpredictable Thirst for Life

                               In the 1980’s, in the US, and later in many part of the world, AIDS related paranoia and restlessness spread-like forest fire. The drugs to mitigate the symptoms of the disease were also so few, ineffective and highly expensive. There was also a misconception about AIDS that only homosexuals are vulnerable to this disease. In those days AIDS is referred to as “GOD’s judgment against gays.” So, when Jean Marc Vallee’s “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) starts, we see a group of mid-80’s rodeo rednecks conversing or mocking about the recent death of AIDS afflicted actor Rock Hudson.  Well, soon one of the rodeo’s life changes, when he comes in close contact with the disease through another gruesome way and becomes the recipient of fear, hostile homophobic actions.

                             The movie opens with a primitive vitality as Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is engaged in sweaty-sex with two women inside a rodeo arena cattle stall, while inside the ring, a rodeo is being tossed around and pierced by his bull. One man’s life is in question as another one is enjoying the company of women. But, later we get to know that the man outside the ring has also risked his life. Woodroof is a proud Texan-electrician. He runs on cigarettes, liquor and drugs. He is crudely homophobic and like a rodeo has this pure animal drive for living. In short, he is not a guy we root for in movies. A little accident takes him to the hospital, where he was informed that he has AIDS.  He bellows at them first and but was explained that an unprotected sex through a infected female drug user might have been the reason for his HIV transmission.

                             Woodroof was given 30 days. He already looks gaunt-eyed. His friends shun him from the group and are afraid to even touch him. He vigorously denies accepting his fate and does a lot of hollering at Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) and her boss (Denis O’Hare). Through an orderly in that hospital, Woodroof gets AZT, an experimental drug which wreaks havoc on his white blood cell count. Later a trip to Mexico introduces him to a renegade doctor (Griffin Dunne), whose cocktail of vitamin and drugs (not approved by FDA) bolsters up his health in a substantial manner. He has also passed the 30 day deadline. Soon, Woodroof decides to profit of this therapy by physically and economically. He recruits an HIV-positive trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto) (he meets him in the hospital) and starts a self-guided alternative therapy in a local motel. He charges $400 membership fee to give his experimental drug cocktail. The illness didn’t go away but the symptoms are controlled without any strong side effects. Soon, AIDS afflicted people flock the lobbies of the motel, as Woodroof travels in the attires of priest and doctor to get unapproved drugs from various countries.

                           As like in many of the “based on a true story” movie, considerable liberty is taken to establish the main character and narrative. But, still the most compelling aspect of this movie is McConaughey’s performance as transforms from a redneck to a man who shows respect for the gays. However, Woodroof is not portrayed like a redeemed saint. The whole business venture is based on his thirst for life and money. Remaking the health policy and saving the diseased people only comes next. As time changes, he shows a lot of empathy toward gays. Many consider that Woodroof’s rampant therapy course a key development in the history of fighting AIDS. McConaughey, in the recent past has constantly worked to re-invent his image (“Lincloln Lawyer”, “Killer Joe”, and “Mud”). Here, he has 50 lost pounds (which is often called as “Oscar-bait”) and brings out a masculinity, which runs full only on sheer bravado. But what counts in this performance, is the fear we see in McConaughey’s eyes – fear of death.

                         There is a hint of romance between Woodroof and Dr. Saks, but the relationship which is more interesting than the former is the one between Woodroof and Rayon. Known for playing teen heartthrobs, Jared Leto, here sheds all those caricatured feelings and catapults a performance that is rich with delicacy and humor. Their compassionate friendship, in a way, revives the ancient of stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive drag queen. Jennifer Garner’s performance is good but her character of Dr. Saks is a redundant one.

                         Directing Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s robust, schmaltzy-free script is not an easy thing. It could have easily become a campy movie, where a heroic redneck straight man delivers medicines and saves the flocks of hopeless homosexuals. But, director Jean-Marc Vallee, without stamping out the script’s life, blends both the character study and campaign against pharmaceutical company. He also maintains an impressive control over all the performances, presenting them with a low-keyed humanism.

                       Yeah, there are lots of conventional elements in “Dallas Buyers Club”, but the film provides a striking portrait of an undeniably sincere and determined man. It also offers the painful history about the sufferers of AIDS in that paranoid era. 


Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use 

Blue Jasmine -- An Empathetic Character Study of a Selfish Woman

                                      To say that Woody Allen is a great film-maker is a colossal understatement. He has shifted and changed from the tranquil days of “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” to the sparkling highs of “Match Point”, “Midnight in Paris.” Every time he gives a bad movie, critics quote that this is the demise of his career. But, his creative flame fights back to give another triumphant drama. The recent, more serious Allen’s social satire “Blue Jasmine” (2013) is so diversified that it looks less like a “Woody Allen film.” Narcissism flows through Woody’s films. It is mostly played to laughs. But, in “Blue Jasmine”, the level of narcissism is so unsparing that it makes a viewer both laugh and cry. The film is touted to be the reworking of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Williams’ tragic American heroine is uprooted and place by Allen in a post-recession, financial collapse age. It is also the first instance since 1970’s for Allen to shoot his film in a U.S. location (San Francisco) outside the beloved New York City metro.

                                   The top one percent of wealthy Americans’ extravagant spending and merry ways are scrutinized closely to create this Allen style fiction. The movie starts with Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco to move with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger and Jasmine are both adopted from different sets of biological parents. Jasmine is the pretty one and has the haughtiness of a movie star. Ginger was left alone to find her way in life. Jasmine behaves like a worst house guest. She starts with disparaging comments about Ginger’s apartment and makes cruel remarks about her current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine always covers herself from reality and frets about her once-rich life.

                                  Jasmine’s husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) was a rich financial fraudster. He is eventually caught by FBI and faces a sad demise. Jasmine has turned a blind eye to her husband’s schemes and has encouraged her sister and her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest their fortune in Hal’s shady financial dealings. The loss ends Ginger’s marriage and dreams, but she remains forgiving towards Jasmine. However, Jasmine is not accustomed to this new life and tries to avert the gazes of men, whom she thinks are below her status. A shot to yet another rich life opens, when she impresses a wealthy diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard).

                              Allen flips the script between present and past. It goes back to flashbacks of rich Jasmine being gifted with jewels and hosting A-list dinner parties and skips to the now, humiliated life (especially the shoe selling and receptionist job she takes). “One minute you’re hosting women and the next you’re measuring their shoe size!” laments Jasmine. This film also deviates from the usual story arc of Allen funny flicks. Here, it is laced with black humor and moments of lacerating humor, such as when Jasmine converses with her two young nephews. There’s also none of those Allen’s neuroses in the character sketches, although the Jasmine faces “mental issues.” In the later part, the plot wavers unnecessarily towards Ginger, which is the less memorable thing.

                              Blanchett’s Jasmine is brilliantly multi-layered. She is not the one-dimensional anti-hero, even though does harm wherever she goes and is too shallow to care. Blanchett explores her as a tragic person and takes the viewer behind the facade of pride to show us the brittle side of this ad and desperate woman. The mascara-smudged eyes and blush-colored dresses of Jasmine, even in her current disintegrated life, bring a raw naturalism to the character. Blanchett was also immensely crowded with a ensemble of expert supporting actors: Sally Hawkins chipper performance and Alec Baldwin’s conniving smooth operator role adds more strength to this character study.

                           “Blue Jasmine” neither retains the aesthetics of 70’s Allen films nor the huge emotions of "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Crimes and Misdemeanors", but at the age of 77, Allen once again gives a convincing portrait of failing lives, constructed on pretense and deceit. 


Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content

Captain Philips -- A Hijack Thriller Made with Unfailing Compassion

                                   “Gravity”, “All Is Lost”, “12 Years a Slave” – 2013 has seen most marvelous survival movies from Hollywood. Another heart-tweaking survival saga, which deserves to be added to the list, is Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Philips.” The movie is about a Somali pirate attack (based on a true event, in 2009) on an American container ship. This dramatized true event is not just a suspenseful hijack thriller. It also hides different layers of thematic elements, which incorporates bigger economic and political factors. And, if you have seen Greengrass’ “United 93” – 9/11 hijack nightmare – “Bloody Sunday” or “Bourne Ultimatum”, you know what to expect: shaky camera work, shallow breathing, clenched teeth, and confrontation that is colossal. The principal explanation of why this movie works so well is the presence of Tom Hanks (his best role in a decade or so) and first-time actor Barkhad Abdi.

                                At the beginning, we See Richard Philips (Tom Hanks), a middle-aged captain, saying his good-byes to his wife and leaves the Vermont home, in late March 2009, to travel to Oman. In Oman, he takes charge of an immense cargo ship, “Maersk Alabama”, which sets its sail to travel around the horn of Africa to reach Kenya. The ship’s crew comprises of US citizens and with the escalating tensions, due to Somali pirates, they are extremely attentive to security matters. Meanwhile, in a Somali fishing village turned pirate city, a journey of different are being organized. The chief organizer of this group is a skinny Somali fisherman Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

                              Muse belongs to the community, who is terrorized by local warlord. He has no choice, but to gather his troops and hijack some ship to demand ransom. Most of the money he acquires goes to the warlords or for buying guns. Muse was eagerly joined by 20 year old and teenagers. They take two small boats and travel some 200 kilometers to spot ‘Alabama.’  Philips and his crew elude the pirates in their first pass, but they board into the ship, the following day. The pirates have no sense of the ship and when they don’t find any of the crew to take hostage, their situations turns desperate. The crew surprisingly brings the pirates to a standstill, by capturing their leader, but in a turn of events, Captain Philips finds him inside an orange, ugly-duckling lifeboat as a hostage. The pirates steer the lifeboat to the nearest coast of Somalia and intends to demand $10 million from the company for Philips’ life. What unfolds from that point is an intensifying cat and mouse game.

                           Director Greengrass makes gripping thriller in an all-too-real settings. With “Captain Philips” he does it more effectively, by finding a middle ground, providing an edge-of-the-seat thriller as well as a moral depth to the proceedings. He makes subtle, apparent social commentary (about globalization, consumerism) that speaks very much to the viewer. He wonderfully sets up Muse’s back ground in that simple village scene. And, in the end, there is no sentimental moment in which the two men (Philips and Muse) understand each other. Greengrass’ hero, Philips, has the blandness of a common man. He isn’t into swashbuckling action set pieces or stirring speeches. The hero is just a quick-thinking character, who feels the trauma like every other captive.

                          Script writer Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) builds genuine suspense, despite the fact that we know how this story ends. Ray and Greengrass don’t condone the piracy acts, but they definitely give us a crucial sense of why these men do what they do. "There's gotta be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people," says an exhausted Philips to Muse, for which, the Somali replies without missing a beat, "Maybe in America." In another instance, Muse speaks to SEALS commander: "Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No Al Qaeda here. Just business." Moments like this makes us ponder over that the pirates are as trapped as the hostages they procure. Greengrass’ ace cinematographer Barry Ackyord ratchets up the tension organically, without any manipulation. The customary hand-held was overused a bit in film’s early parts, but later they provide a nerve-gangling effect to the proceedings. HenryJackman’s electronic score for most of the action gives a pulsating experience.

                        Apart from “Cloud Atlas”, Tom Hanks has reveled in his iconic status without challenging himself. But, as Philips, Hanks not only excels in capturing the quiet authority of a captain or the overwhelming shock of a hostage, but also strips away all his overly dramatic acting style (for which he was cherished). Towards the ending, Hanks’ response to the attack and its aftermath -- wordless silence, delayed hysterical tears – is something we have never seen in a Hollywood hijack thriller. In that particular sequence, Greengrass and Hanks have dismantled the usual Hollywood macho heroism and gave us purely emotional moment, which was as shattering as the kinetic action moments. The first time actor Barkhad Abdi is a revelation as Muse, who as a small boy fled from Somalia with his parents and made his way into Minneapolis, USA. He is the perfect counterpart to Hanks. Throughout the movie, Hanks changes from being an authoritative to unfortunate person, while Abdi moves from being a stick figure to a guy full of bravado. And, at times Muse also comes off as a genuinely sympathetic guy. 

The 'real' and 'reel' Captain Philips

                      It is true that lots of liberties were taken to build this terrific plot (in reality, Phillips took his craft within 240 miles of the Somali coast, despite a U.S. advisory to remain at least 600 miles offshore). But, the human element incorporated into this true event makes this film interesting and multidimensional. “Captain Philips” is not a hollow, patriotic propaganda movie (like the recent “Lone Survivor”). It sees over a dysfunctional world, where the everlasting poverty is going to be its new enemy (not terrorism). As Muse says: “Big ships come to our waters, take all the fish out. What is left for us to fish?”


The Book Thief -- A Mawkish Holocaust Lesson

                                    “I’m doing this because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust you’re guaranteed an Oscar” – the versatile and gifted actor Kate Winslet said this comment, when she was asked about her nun role in a Holocaust movie. Although she didn’t win any Oscars for this role, she eventually got one for another Holocaust movie, “The Reader.” Now, Winslet’s performance in “Reader” is very subpar, when you compared it with “Revolutionary Road” or “Little Children.” However, her gamble worked and Academy’s obsession with Holocaust was once again proved. So, from time and then we would have a conventional, unrelated or cheesy Holocaust lesson for the younger generation, which does nothing other than repeat the mantra: “Nazis are bad.” 2013’s dutiful Holocaust movie was Brian Percival’s “The Book Thief” – a big-screen adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel.

                                 Narrated by ‘Death’, the film’s protagonist is 12 year old Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) – an illiterate and orphaned daughter of communist couple. She has lost her little brother recently and her mother has abandoned her in a mysterious manner. Liesel was adopted by working-class German couples, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans is a painter and has refused to join the Nazi party, so he is often under employed. Rosa has foul mouth and sudden bursts of anger, but it’s just a cover to hide her warm heart. The couple makes ends meet and Hans has the generosity to give Liesel the education. He changes his basement into a classroom and also introduces her into the world of books.

                                Liesel forms a friendly alliance with a next-door boy, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), a mirthful, athletic boy, whose hero is the African-American runner Jesse Owens. One day, Liesel comes to know about the sad repercussions of the Nazi rule in the form of Max (Ben Schnetzer) – a Jew. Max is the son of Hans’s old friend (man who saved Hans’ life in World War I), to whom Hans has promised to take care of his family. He first occupies the upstairs room with Liesel. Max becomes her friend and ever-willing tutor. He is eventually sheltered in their basement. As war wreaks havoc on her family, Liesel learns some big life lessons.

                             Michael Petroni’s script face s the problems of incorporating a 550 page novel into a manageable movie running time. The script is jam-packed with many sub plots, which doesn’t give the necessary emotional payoff. In a novel, those subplots might have been given a time to evolve, but it doesn’t work well in feature film. The script also avoids irreconcilable disturbing subject matter and comes away with the PG-13 rating, for the sake of young adult audiences. It muffles the horrors of Holocaust, which looks childish from an adult perspective and too frightening for a child. May be, the novel undergoes the same problems all ‘Young Adult’ novel undergo or maybe I hate these kind of novels.

                           From the opening shot of train chugging through an immaculate snowy landscape, director Percival brings sleekness to the movie. For the most part, the characters speak in English (with occasional German words thrown words in), however, the Nazis speak in German and their pronouncements are also done in German (with English subtitles). It’s a kind of ludicrous approach to differentiate Nazis from common people. Max, who has been hiding in the basement, steps out onto the street for the first time in months, during a bomb raid. That sublime shot was done in a painterly manner and was also ruined to an extent by that lingering voiceover narration.

                         “The Book Thief” gives few pleasures to a viewer, the main one being the performances. Rush’s irresistible charm and Watson’s facial expressions of an overbearing matriarch makes us forgive some of the narrative missteps. Sophie was an apt choice to play Liesel. She has the requisite cinematic presence and brings an innate strength to her character. Ben’s performance as Max is memorable, while Nico as Rudy tugs at our heartstrings.  

                        “The Book Thief” gives obnoxious, sentimental, cheap Holocaust and life lessons. The realities of hunger and suffering are blunted to sell it to a broader audience. The only solace is the performances, which makes it worth a watch.


The Book Thief -- IMDb    

Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material

Her -- Love and Relationship in the Advanced Era of iOS

                                  The highly ambitious film-maker Spike Jonze loves to disturb our peace and makes us asks questions for which there are no easy answers. His mind-blowing collaborations with writer Charlie Kaufman stooped after “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”. So, for the last decade, except for the oft-kilter “Where Wild Things Are”, he has discontinued his film-career. However, now he is fiercely backed by a haunting iRomance (first movie Jonze written on his own). “Her” – Jonze’s exploration of machine sentience – is a beautiful, economic sci-fi movie, which investigates a philosophical ambition, rarely found in big-budgeted sci-fi: How are we and our relationships changing, in accordance with the technology?

                               “Her” opens with a man dictating a letter to his computer. The words that come out of his mouth seem to be passionate and sincere. But, how could this guy in his 30’s write a letter for a golden anniversary. At that point, the camera pulls backward to take us through a roomful of workers, dictating similar heartfelt letters, in a sleek, multicolored office. A phone ring and is answered as ‘’ The story happens in the near-future in some unnamed metropolis, where everyone seems adrift and comforted only by their virtual pals. The guy whom we first saw is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a soft-spoken man. His job is to craft the lost art of letter writing. He is been writing letters for many years that he knows the recipients’ characters very well. But, Theodore is a very lonely guy. His awkward separation with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) has left him uncertain.

                              Theodore doesn’t spend time with his best friends too: Amy (Amy Adams) -- a video-game designer and wanna be documentary film-maker – and Charles (Matt Letscher). This new companionship-looking guy finally gets a break when he buys a breakthrough computer operating system named ‘OS1.’ After few preliminary questions, an alluring female voice (of Scarlett Johansson’s) speaks into Theodore’s wireless earpiece with a casualness that contradicts its digital origin. When Theo asks what her name is, the OS reads a baby naming book in a millisecond and answers “Samantha.” She starts as a helpmate by organizing Theodore’s inbox and even laughs at the jokes inside his old e-mails. She guides him through the 3-D adventure game and talks him to sleep, slowly becoming a soul-mate. However, Theodore real life doesn’t look better.

                            The dating Samantha sets him up for ends up in suspiciousness and yelling. He also constantly mourns for his lost marriage. Theodore takes late night outings with a monitor propped in his pocket, camera side out, so that Samantha can watch. The mutual sharing and all the flirtations eventually makes him fall in love with his operating system. How does Theodore find bliss in a relationship, where he can never touch the entity? And what does ‘love’ means to an OS? Questions are raised without judging the inherent nature of this unconventional relationship.

                          Spike Jonze’s vision doesn’t fixate the end of human-to-human relationship. He is also not imposing misogynistic views or celebrating the life of lonely guys. He just brings out an odd as well as a sad love story, which ponders over technology as a catalyst for social loneliness. Even this odd couple has the same difficulty all kind of lovers has, getting it right. They grow towards each other and then away as Samantha is something Theo wishes she was. Jonze’s script doesn’t try to mock the protagonist for being so detached from the human experience. He brings this ‘non-standard’ relationship similar to that of mixed-race, homosexual, etc. So, some of them freak out (calling him ‘weird’) after hearing about Theodore and his OS, while some others treat it as if there is nothing wrong with it. Jonze also deals with the impersonalization of all the personal things. In the first frame, you could see Theodore uttering, "I've been thinking of telling you how much you mean to me" – a genuine feeling dictated to a computer by a third person. In one of the scenes, Theodore asks his lonely game-designer friend, Amy “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” “Is it not real”, Amy asks him. It is the existence of these questions and the absence of any ready-made answers makes Jonze’s singular vision look colorful.

                         Jonze’s directorial style is contemplative, lingers long enough and talky, as you can’t expect anything different, especially when your lead spends his time talking with a voice. He creates a realistic future society without pushing the futurism to a stalemate. The meticulously imagined color schemes of Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema creates an immersive universe, full of Valentine’s-heart reds and plain-vanilla tones. Much of the shooting took place in bits of the real Los Angeles and in Shanghai's new purpose-built Pudong district.

                        Joaquin Phoenix is at his strongest, when he plays the ‘poor soul’ role. Last year he marvelously inhabited the role of Freddie Quell in “The Master” and with “Her”, he once again ventures into an odd role and ends up with another convincing performance. For a large part of the movie, Phoenix is onscreen by himself, lost in his thoughts and giggling at his Os’ jokes. In all those moments, he authentically looks like a vulnerable man, whose emotionally arrested development can eventually weigh him down. Amy Adams plays a small part as the nerdy and misunderstood girl. Even so, her part is the emotional central of the movie, which prevents this fable of a human-machine love affair from drifting off fully into the digital. Like “2001 Space Odyssey’s” HAL 9000, Johansson’s Samantha seems to be a complex character. The witty and velvety human-sounding voice successfully brings a new person to life, whose warmth and joy are infectious.

Spike Jonze

                      Jonze’s “Her” (125 minutes) remains emotionally genuine and never underestimates the viewer’s intelligence. It is not a grand social satire. It just tracks the way we throw ourselves at our devices and how we may truly live in the future. It is also a rare futuristic movie, where the digital beings seem as touchingly confused as the humans. 


Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom -- An Introductory and Balanced Portrait of a Natural Leader

                                  It’s not an easy task to make a biopic about a legend. You need to flatten the legend’s life to fit to the screen. Then, he/she must be transferred to custom-made film hero, which might demand some gaps in their life. The end result might be like an introductory textbook for the unknowns rather than an insightful examination of a famous and remarkable life. The story of iconic South African leader and anti-apartheid revolutionary, Mr. Nelson Mandela was brought out by Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013) and as usual it follows the myth-making tropes. Even a 135 minute running time is not enough to portray this icon’s 95 year life. So, at times, we get a feeling that it leaps from one event to the next too swiftly without making much of an emotional impact. However, problems aside, this Mandela biopic is the best of the lot, since it finds a right actor, who imparts the legend’s passionate commitment and dignity.

                               Indian-born South African, Mr. Anant Singh set out to produce Mandela’s 700+ pages memoir, 25 years ago, back in the late 1980’s. But, he encountered difficulties financially and was limited to apply the biopic treatment, whose fame already presided over the global imagination. After lot of scrutiny, writer William Nicholson and director Chadwick has pushed five decades of South African history and Mandela’s life through the filters to portray the historical hero in a slick and efficient way. The movie opens with slow-motion images, which briefly glimpses Mandela’s boyhood. Children are running in a village across a wheat field at dusk. They are about to go through a ritual in which teenage boys (one of them Mandela) become men. Few minute later, the story shifts to 1942, where Mandela works as a lawyer. He sets his mind to fight against a imbalanced, racist legal system.

                           He finds some support from the compatriots in emerging African National Congress (ANC). He joins and recruits others for the resistance movement to challenge the white apartheid rule. After his fractious first marriage, Mandela falls in love and marries ANC’s social worker, Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris). The movie’s next act is dedicated to Mandela’s 27 year prison time (for sabotage). In his mid-40’s, on Robben Island, he is forced to wear short pants and did hard manual labor. The script moves through his prison time faster, picking some humanizing moments (like the successful campaign for the prisoners to be given long pants) to keep away from the worshiping tone. The final act covers Mandela’s wary reunion with Winnie, who herself has become a militant with no interest in the reconciliation of the races. The rift in their relationship deserves a lot of time, but since the movie has so many things to cover, it quickly lurches to other events.    

                        “Long Walk to Freedom” is not a hagiography of Mandela. It depicts the ladies’ man side of him. He casually cheats on his first wife, abandons his son, later destroying the marriage. Considerable weight was also given on his sudden embrace of guerilla warfare, even though he knows that there’s a cost to the violence he perpetrates. "You alone are small; your people are mighty"; “We cannot win a war, but we can win an election” – lines like these from writer Nicholson resound beautifully on-screen. Chadwick heavily dramatizes many events, neglecting lighter touches. Nonetheless, there are some moments, which squash aesthetic overkill sequences. One is the glimpse he gets of his daughter Zindzi, another is the long walk Mandela took n February 1990, when he emerged from a small warder’s house, free at last.

                        Idris Elba doesn’t look like Mandela at all. He is heavily muscular, but he retains same sharp, hyper-alert gaze, which looked all the horrors and eventually turned him into a humanitarian ideal. Despite a crafty makeup, Elba wears Mandela's secret look and connects to a layer inside this complex figure. In the moments of sorrow, his face reflects a bone-deep anguish. The way Elba carries himself in the prison scenes gives a crucial human dimension to this streamlined epic story. Naomie Harris channels her fire cracking energy to play the revolutionary, Winnie. After Winnie’s solitary confinement for 17 months, she was released. In the following scene, Winnie tells her supporters and press that she is no longer afraid of anything. The emotion and look she conveys through her eyes makes us believe in her words. Her radicalized viewpoints are the finer moments of “Mandela”, but a thinly drawn script jumps to chaos and arrests, leaving out this dynamic character.

                        The intentions of making “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” are noble and the overall effect is inspiring and enlightening, but it also jumps quickly between events, just to tick off all the milestones of a monumental life. 


August Osage County -- The Volcanic Blasts of Emotions

                                       Tracy Letts’ stage play “August Osage County” was about three different generations of dysfunctional Oklahoma family. It was considered as a riveting work (alongside Letts’ “Killer Joe” and “Bug”) and won the 2008 Pulitzer-prize and Tony award. The adaptation of the play, by John Wells, seems to have few bumps, here and there, but mostly retains its inherent theatricality, stagey dialogues and darker secrets. As a viewer, we witness events that are so painful and intimate and brought face-to-face with the toxins of anger, suffering, shame, which eventually might leave us, not feel good about life’s possibilities. The blackly comic, sulfuric exchanges in “August Osage County” are uttered by an all-star cast, led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

                                   Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a poet, former teacher, alcoholic and the patriarch of Weston family. He hires Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American woman to take care of his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). Violet has mouth cancer and takes huge amount of drugs that could help one to open a pharmacy. In her fit of dizziness, she runs over anybody with razor-blade words. Violet, who has lost her hairs to chemotherapy, ridicules the young lady, her husband has hired. Soon, Beverly disappears without any explanation, which plunges even deeper into depression and makes her summon the three daughters.

                                 Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the middle one, is a dutiful daughter, who has stayed close to home and single. She has endured a lot in taking care of her monster mommy. Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, drives in from Colorado with her estranged husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and weed-smoking 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Barbara seems to be the only daughter able to face Violet’s combative behavior. Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, is self-absorbed and arrives with her sports-car driving fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who seems to be divorced thrice and also a sleazebag. Violet’s Sister Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) and her soft-spoken husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) also join this group. The final guy to turn up is Mattie’s introverted son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose failings are often pondered. Later, Violet’s vicious tongue brings out the sins of present and past.

                                Meryl Streep, once again plays an untamed character and uses her incredible talent to bring out Violet’s incredible rage, drugged-out ramblings and cruel attacks. Wearing a wig over a sparse crop of gray hair, she shifts quickly from the drug-induced incoherence to puddles of self-pity. Roberts, who gets to utter a lot of theatrical dialogues, has left out her trademark smile and has evolved into the angry Barbara. Her character arc grows steadily, whenever she balks at Violet’s out-of-control behavior to take charge of the crisis. The script by Letts, unleashes both Streep and Roberts to go at each other like two alligators. However, he leaves others to sensibly underplay, which raises the claustrophobic tension of the setting. Lewis is both amusing and pitiable as the deluded Karen, who babbles inappropriately without having any idea of what’s on the others’ mind. Nicholson and Cooper’s pained grimace shows the weight they carry of a dysfunctional family that has long closed on itself. Their slow intense performances lead to explosions in the third-act. Martindale’s Mattie makes the story’s soapier twist into a heartfelt confession. McGregor and Cumberbatch are the weak points and their characters are so bland, when compared to the rest.

                            TV veteran John Wells’ second directorial venture moves as much efficiently as possible and is certainly never boring. The direction is at its best, when Wells steps back and lets his formidable cast to act their hearts out. But, when he juxtaposes pretty landscape shots to contrast the ugliness elsewhere onscreen, it seems a little suave and intrusive. The movie recently got nominated in Golden Globes in the category “Comedy”, which looks like a perturbed decision, since this film can be described as anything other than funny.

                           “August Osage County” (120 minutes) was about disintegration of marriages and consequences of humiliation or shame. It feels like a calculated release for awards-season palatability, but very well conveys the raw destructive power of an estranged family’s reunion. 


Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material

The Wolf of Wall Street -- Delirious and Manic Deconstruction of Moral Erosion

                                 Martin Scorsese has never been a director, easy to pigeonhole. He is famous for the intense, dark, violent movies like “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, and “The Departed”, although he has traveled into unconventional territories with “Kundun”, “Age of Innocence”, “After Hours.”  After “Casino”, Scorsese didn’t tackle the theme of organized crime. He is a kind of perfect guy to wield an arrogant character without passing judgment on them. After nearly two decades, Scorsese has once again returned to detailed portrait of true-life corruption, but this time he takes on the bad behavior in the financial sector, rather than the Italian mobsters. The operatically-scaled “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) is a rare openly comedic film of the director and it is madly entertaining, not only due to its live-wire energy, but also because of the exuberant performance by Di Caprio.

                               The charismatic sociopath, Jordan Belfort’s decadent lifestyle was vividly explained in his best-selling book, which was held together by Scorsese and Di Caprio’s electric energy. The movie version of “Wolf” doesn’t border within the limits of R rating. The non-stop barrage of drugs and debauchery is showcased with the same sinister smile. Earlier in the movie, Belfort( Leonardo Di Caprio) snorts coke off a prostitute’s backside, gets fellated while driving and nearly crash lands the private helicopter, while remaining high on drugs. This first reel sets out the tone for what’s about to come. Belfort is penny-stock con man, who has been a millionaire at the age of 26. He has all the characters of a villain – drug-addict, womanizer and money-minded. He had his own investment firm called ‘Stratton Oakmont.’ The most trusted associate in the firm is the dazed –looking Donnie (Jonah Hill).

                              Belfort’s team was hell-bent on bending the rules and on looting out ordinary peoples out of millions. The drug and hooker habits, yachts and huge mansions only necessitated their money needs. Belfort gives bloodcurdling speeches to his employees and suggests them that whatever problems they may have, they should solve it by getting rich. In 1998, Belfort was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering. After giving away many of his associates to the FBI, Belfort served a three year prison time in a sophisticated prison. Now, he is motivational speaker and it’s hard to detect his soaring fees now.

                             Di Caprio collaborates with Scorsese for the fifth time, but this is the first time, we encounter such a wild, loose-cannon performance from the actor. Whether crawling across the floor in the drug-induced drool phase or giving pep talks to his faithful broker disciples, this highly paid Hollywood actor just doesn’t play the part; he inhales it into his bloodstream. He doesn’t feel protective of vanity or tries to bring in a sense of cool. Belfort’s memoir starts like a cautionary tale to the rich, but what we get after 500+ pages is the boasting of sinful plays (“I partied like a rock star, lived like a king”). He delivers a wages of sin message only at the very end. He insufficiently talks about the boiler-room ethics and regrets for the swindling of 200$ million. Nothing has changed from the book to movie, but Di Caprio galvanizing execution turns Belfort into a sympathetic character.

                            Terrence Winter’s permeating script resembles Scorsese movies about underworld figures, especially the first-person narration. The narration thrives to elaborate on depraved activity, the illegality, and immorality, which works on a viewer, who enjoys a privileged access to individuals whom they’d abhor in real life. Scorsese’s other long-time collaborators are cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. They both are at the top of their game and their exuberant commitment makes it compulsively watchable. Only a film-maker of Scorsese’s prowess could make a three-hour movie with an infectious energy. Most of ‘based on turn story’ often takes the dramatic note, but he plays much of it for comedy and farce. The hallucinatory slapstick scenes were made under the influence of his favorite comedian Jerry Lewis. The most interesting interjection by Scorsese is the scene, where Jordan's drug ingestion is juxtaposed with a clip of Popeye downing a can of spinach. Another impressive directing technique is the one he uses in a domestic confrontation scene, where Belfort’s drug addiction and nastiness finally (and literally), hits home.

                              The vast supporting cast perfectly supports the protagonist. The drug addled Jonah Hill is the consummate choice for playing the dark comedic role of Donnie. Rob Reiner’s nuanced portrayal of old-accountant dad is absolutely hilarious. Another casually funny character is Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna, who earnestly advises Belfort about masturbation over a multi-martini lunch. As FBI agent, Kyle Chandler projects the virtue of a middle-class man and his face off game with Di Caprio in the yacht is one of the movie’s greatest scenes.

                             From McConaughey’s throat singing to Di Caprio’s viciously funny physical acting, “Wolf of Wall Street” is composed of several memorable moments, but it rather seduces the viewers with the intimate vignettes of Belfort’s life, rather than giving saner voices to the monotonous amorality. The protagonist’s moral rival, the FBI agent gets only two substantive scenes. The subway ride he takes home, towards the end, speaks volumes than Belfort’s ending in the book. Another Scorsese moment that trumped the book was the last frame, where the director turns Belfort’s gaze on the audience itself, suggesting that it is our own avarice and need that creates greedy Wall Street monsters.

                          “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the story of a wealth-consuming anti-hero, who justifies his money scams by saying, “I know how to spend it better.” However, Scorsese’s decision to turn a decadent tale to a roller-coaster ride, full of warped comedy really works. It’s a remarkably funny and fascinating movie, but stops short of being a masterpiece. 


Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence