December 31, 2013.

This blog is now closed. After three years and 311 posts, I have decided to end this blog. I have enjoyed watching the films, reviewing them, and interacting with global readers.

If you are interested in contacting me, you can do so by commenting on any of the posts. The blog will remain live on the web.
Thank you to all the readers for your comments, ideas, and thoughts. They were helpful, stimulating, and enriching. This is Alene, signing off.

November 24, 2013

The Butler (2013)

When it's over, what I remember most about the film is Forest Whitaker’s meaningful performance as Cecil Gaines, an African American butler who serves eight presidents during his tenure at the White House. The story spans several decades, including the tumultuous times of racial segregation and the Civil Rights movement. There has been much controversy to the film’s accuracy, since it is inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen’s life. The key word is “inspired.” I am not familiar with Allen’s life, so I went into this film as a fictitious story, without any preconceptions. I am glad I did. The story has a lot of emotional texture, and for this, I really enjoyed the film. Perhaps this is where the lack of accuracy falls into play. Perhaps, there is a need to alter facts to strengthen the story. At every stage in Gaines’s life, he encounters conflict and inner struggle, which is at the core of the story, which keeps the story interesting. I do not see this film as merely a story about a man who goes through turbulent times and of how he deals with those challenges, but rather, a story about a man who takes great pride in his occupation, while serving white employers, somewhat ironic to the time period. The fact that Cecil chooses to spend more time at the White House than he does at home supports this idea. Cecil is not an angry man. He is not hateful or resentful. He does not hold a grudge against his white employers, even when his son is treated with cruelty on camera by order of the government. However, his older son, Louis (David Oyelowo) believes the complete opposite. Louis joins the Black Panthers, a revolutionary socialist party, and demonstrates his opposition to segregation openly at protests, landing him in jail on several occasions. Louis’s actions are emotional triggers for Cecil, who has to nod obediently when the presidents question him about his son in the headlines. On the home front, Cecil’s relationship with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) crumble through the years, adding another layer of personal struggle. Cecil’s journey is filled with twists and plummets, and what is interesting is that Cecil’s demeanor remains unchanged. Is this a sign of perseverance, strength, indifference, conformity? I cannot be sure, but watching the man's life unfold is an emotional experience almost parallel to Forrest Gump (1994). Like many of his previous films, Director Lee Daniels leaves the window open for interpretation and much food for thought, even controversial debate.

My rating: 4 out of 5

Before Midnight (2013)

When it's over, much like some roles find its actors, some films find its audience. Watching this film in a time of personal unrest, I find the communication and dialogue between the lead actors extremely relevant to society's domestic life and spilling into some of my own experiences. Almost twenty years after the fateful meeting of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train bound for Vienna, the couple is now married with two children. On a family vacation in Greece, their relationship takes a dark turn. Before Midnight is another chapter in the characters' lives. Therefore, this is not a stand alone film, and the viewer needs to have seen the previous two films – Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) – in order to understand the depth of the characters and from where they stem. Watching Jesse and Celine interact onscreen is still amazing, because they have grown older, wiser, and less idealistic. Hawke and Delpy have that “thing” together that when I watch them, either happy or angry, they are incredibly real and they suspend me with their relay of intelligent and biting dialogue.  And it is the rich dialogue that has been consistent through all three films that make the whole Before series a worthwhile journey. Before Midnight is the most gritty of the three, because it deals with the issues of resentment and blame, which the previous two films had not touched on. Again, this is very real, as couples do go through these “bitter moments” at some point in their relationships. The script is written by Director Richard Linkwater, Hawke, and Delpy. It is a fantastic piece of writing. The lead up to the argument and verbal abuse is incredibly raw, honest, and unexpected, and I have to wonder, how much of it is adlib, since there are hardly any cuts within the long extended scene. Regardless, the “fight” in the final act is the best part of the film. With each film taking place and filmed nine years apart, viewers can expect another installment in 2022, at which time, the audience will find out whether things really do end happily ever after for Jesse and Celine. 

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

November 16, 2013

Breakout (2013)

When it's over, awful, just awful. I have not seen a film this bad since The Roommate (2011). The film is a complete disappointment. Poor acting accompanied by a weak story and even weaker characters make Breakout hard to believe and even harder to like. When two children witness a murder in the woods, they become the pursued. Their only chance of survival is their father, who is an inmate in a nearby prison. Brendan Fraser is the father, and after a film career of highs and lows, Fraser hits the lows with this film. The story is not impossible; it is just impractical. Every decision made by the characters lacks common sense, and if the story is about unintelligent people, then their stupidity would work, but unfortunately, this is not the case in Breakout. For example, there is a scene when a wounded man is rescued. Instead of getting into the truck and driving for help, he follows Fraser's character, limping all the way, to save the children and gets himself killed in the process. The story takes place in the woods, in a conservation site, so it is not far from people, towns, rangers, etc. The likelihood of getting help is almost certain. The sound of gunshots would definitely be heard by other visitors. Plus, with all the gunfire happening at close range, there should be no reason for missing, especially if the villain is a hunter who has a scope on his rifle. Truly, there is nothing about this film worth recommending.

My rating: 1 out of 5

Beautiful Boy

When it's over, Beautiful Boy is not beautiful, at least not the subject matter, but certainly beautiful as a work of great independent filmmaking. It is not a feel good film, and you will not walk away feeling refreshed. It is honest, realistic, and deeply depressing, leaving you feeling empty and disconnected. It is a bold film that touches on headline issues and matters of the heart without ever losing focus. Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) are on the verge of separation when they discover their 18 year old son has orchestrated a shooting at his school and has taken his own life. Much like the film, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), this film addresses the aftermath of the tragedy and its ripples on individual lives and a community. It asks painful questions such as: How do you go on? Where do you begin? Who is at fault? What did I do wrong? Bill and Kate attempt to answer these questions by reaching within themselves as the uncertainty begins. What I find most interesting about this film is that it uses an unthinkable tragedy to bring two people together, to make them face their fears and shortcomings. Director Shawn Ku takes this poignant angle and never loses sight on the story’s direction, which is the intimate lives of two people in a sea of emotional chaos. Sheen and Bello dig deep into their characters to make the audience believe. Solid, solid, solid performances. They make the characters incredibly real, and I am hinged on their every action and emotion. There are no happy endings, but it is not completely hopeless. Whether the characters continue to drift apart, or decide to come together, the viewer does not know. In fact, I do not think the film even knows, but that is not the point. Beautiful Boy is about moving forward, continuing on with life, even when it seems impossible. 

My rating: 4 out of 5

November 9, 2013

Gifted Hands (2009)

When it’s over, uplifting and inspiring, a positive film to watch with older children. Based on the true story of Ben Carson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a neurosurgeon who overcame great obstacles to become a leader in neuroscience research. The film was made for television cable, but looked and felt like a small independent film for the big screen. It almost did not feel like a feature film, but a documentary, where I got a vivid picture of the challenges one man underwent with the help of his mother and his faith in God. I liked how the story covered the various stages of Carson’s life, as a unimaginative and unintelligent child, to the sponge he grew into as he soaked knowledge from books, to the brilliant surgeon he had come to be known. The performances were very good by all the actors (children, too), capturing the family’s daily struggles. I particularly liked Kimberly Elise’s performance as Carson’s mom. I think she carried the character with grace, dignity, and strength, even when her character was in the darkest of places. More important, I loved the film's message – that if you work hard, apply yourself, and believe in yourself, you can reach your dreams. Of course, Carson’s success story was one in thousands, perhaps millions, but sometimes we need stories like this to give ourselves that bit of push to reach higher and to dream bigger.

My rating: 4 out of 5

Les Miserable (2012)

When it's over, how could this film not be a commercial and artistic success? It had all the elements of a great timeless tale of love, redemption, hope, tragedy, and human spirit. Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean (Huge Jackman), breaks parole to start a new life, while the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is determined to find and bring the prisoner to justice. After seeing the musical on stage and film multiple times with different casts, I felt an updated version would do little to impress me. But, Director Tom Hopper's vision of the Victor Hugo classic was a spectacle of lavish costumes, set designs, and a talented cast, which took me back to an era of revolution and freedom, of punishment and kindness. At first, I was not sure if the cast could deliver the emotion and intensity of characters I have grown to adore through past performances, but they surprised me with their lyrical and vocal storytelling, each bringing something new to their characters. Jackman’s voice was strong and commanding, yet sensitive and moving. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette was like a songbird soaring in a time of great despair, like a ray of sunshine through darkness. Eddie Redmayne as Marius was a pleasant surprise. His voice captured the character’s ideology and bravery, while still bringing me to tears with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Speaking of tears, Anne Hathaway breathed new life to Fantine with her tragic portrayal and her delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Rounding out the lead vocal ensemble was Crowe's subdued chords, which were the least powerful, but suited his delivery of the rigid inspector. I loved this film for its human story(ies) as told through some of the most memorable music and lyrics ever written in musical history. Hopper's insightful direction had me in tears and reminded me that although the revolution was dead, Les Miserables lived on.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

November 2, 2013

Mud (2012)

When it’s over, what’s love got to do with it? Everything. Matthew McConaughey is Mud, a man hiding out on a small deserted island in Arkansas, USA. He enlists the help of two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan & Jacob Lofland), who help him rejoin with the love of his life. Mud is essentially a love story about loss, regret, and misunderstanding; and amid the heart’s misfortunes, there is a silver lining, which is the unsaid love between children and their parents, the bond that frays but never breaks. This silver lining plays a huge role in the outcomes of the characters, but do not expect any sappiness, because there are none. There are fights and shoot-outs, but these are not the selling features of Mud. This is not the conventional love story viewers are accustomed to. Love does not conquer all. Love is poisonous, as described symbolically in scenes with the venomous snakes. Long lasting love is an ideal that lives in the mind, and not tangible in the real world, as portrayed through the unstable relationships between the characters. Love is deceitful, as shown in scenes between Ellis and May Pearl (Bonnie Stirdivant), and Ellis and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). It may seem like the film takes a negative view on love, but it actually does not. It tries to mirror life and the realities of first love and falling out of love, by putting the characters in physically harsh environments and in turn, hardening their outlook. This makes the characters re-evaluate the meaning of love - its consequences and its value. McConaughey is no disappointment as the fugitive who is blinded by love; but it is Sheridan's performance that keeps me captivated as an idealistic youth who desperately wants to believe in true love. 

My rating: 4 out of 5

Admission (2013)

When it’s over, Admission is a good film, but it is not great. It's greatest fault is its indecision on what genre it falls into. Is it a drama, a comedy, a romance, or all three? There are elements of all three, but most of it leans toward drama. There are the occasional slapstick scenes by comedian Tina Fey, which shifts the film into comedy-mode, and this is distracting as it changes the mood of the entire film. There is a budding love story, and for the most part, it works well. Portia (Fey) is an admissions officer for Princeton University, who falls for the teacher (Paul Rudd) of a gifted student (Nat Wolff) whose application she is reviewing. To complicate matters, the student may be the son she secretly gave up for adoption years ago. This knowledge has Portia bending rules and taking risks she never thought she would. There are a lot of themes addressed in the film relating to family, betrayal, equality, and taking a leap of faith - all of which can succeed as a comedy, but definitely would work better as a stand-alone dramatic piece, which would mean changing the lead casts. Fey and Rudd are decent together, but do not expect fireworks. They are awkward and sweet, in their clumsy way, and help to move the relationship along. But, it is not the relationships between the characters that I remember most about the film. It is the setting and the concept of due process of acceptance (or not) into a prestigious university that keeps my attention. There is something interesting (most likely exaggerated by the filmmakers) about what happens to student applications as they are passed from hand to hand, as they are scrutinized in detail, and as they compete for the coveted acceptance letter from the office of admissions.

My rating: 3 out of 5