Imagine one of those cooking competitions in which Gordon Ramsey yells at all the contestants and makes them feel small and inadequate. Now translate to a music school. That’s Whiplash in a nutshell.

I don’t have any admiration for abusive teachers. The idea that such a horrible character would be allowed to teach people about something so rich in spirit is a disappointing one. And yet it would not surprise me if people like that are out there.

Parts of this film were difficult to believe. I would think, for instance that most if not all the students at the best music school in the country would be able to keep tempo without being slapped silly.

There were some strong performances in this film, but I’m not going to recommend this one.

Did you see Whiplash? What did you think?

Movie night: A Most Violent Year

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 8.15.43 AMWe went out to see A Most Violent Year last night, directed by J.C. Chandor with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I think this one was just released around here, but it apparently is a 2014 film. The fact that this excellent film failed to score any Oscar nods says more about awards institutions that about this movie.

The film is set in 1981, a violent year in NYC. It’s about a couple who are in the fuel oil business, attempting to buy a significant property which will help their business grow. The backdrop is that the business is corrupt and there are various levels of corruption among the competitors. Somebody is highjacking our protagonists’ oil trucks and there is significant pressure on them to arm the drivers. Meanwhile the District Attorney is set to indict on 14 charges. They are guilty, but feel they are following standard industry practices. The female lead is the daughter of a crime boss, but the male lead wants wants to avoid being a gangster.

This film is about a tainted American dream. The character of Abel prides himself on his ideals but operates in a world in which ideals are almost always compromised. In fact he is willing to compromise his own ideals as well – faced with limited options.

I loved the drab colours and the ordinariness of the industrial scenes. Action sequences are filmed without music and with a generous dose of real-life awkwardness. I also loved the tension between the Abel and Anna characters – a compelling sexual tension complicated by Abel’s idealism and Anna’s pragmatism.

Excellent film. Go see this one!

Five Easy Pieces

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 6.48.06 AMSo, it’s 2015. Last night we followed our usual New Years strategy – take-out bad food (we went with fish n chips) and a movie at home. We like it that way. We watched Five Easy Pieces. Amazingly, unbelievably, I had never seen this film.

I loved the rawness and the awkwardness of the film, and Jack Nicholson’s performance was fantastic. His character was at once so unlikable yet so compelling. Haven’t we all felt at some time or another that we don’t belong, that we can’t live up to expectations, that we’d much rather avoid responsibilities and live totally in the moment?

What a collection of peculiar characters, simplified and amplified. And yes I loved the famous diner scene in which Bobby attempts to order what he wants against all odds.

On a roll, today we’re going to watch The King of Marvin Gardens.

Gone Girl – a good B movie with high budget actors

As we were watching Gone Girl tonight, I was thinking it was a quality B movie – the scheming Amy reminded me some of the Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. The film  almost lost me until we started to get more information about what was going on. At that point I started to appreciate it. The last half-hour was a let down for me, though.  It simply wasn’t convincing enough. I confess I laughed out loud when Amy drove home soaked in blood.

One thing in this movie drove me crazy – and that was the actress who played the Detective – Kim Dickens. She seemed so familiar to me but I just couldn’t figure out what else I had seen her in. Of course as soon as we got home Google kindly reminded me she played Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood and also the Chef in Treme.

The thing about a really great B movie is the script delivers all the way through, and I think that’s what held back this film. Still, it was entertaining and it had some very good bits.

The Drop

We watched a matinee screening of The Drop this afternoon, a crime drama starring Tom Hardy, the late James Gandolfini and Noomi Rapace. The film is about a Brooklyn bartender, underworld nasties, a waitress with a super-cute puppy in her trash can, and a guy named Cousin Marv with a desperate plan to score.

Unusual film, well written and acted, capturing plenty of neighbourhood atmosphere. I enjoyed the understated chemistry between Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace. As well, James Gandolfini did a great job in what must have been his last role, as Cousin Marv.


Get on Up

We saw Get on Up this afternoon – the James Brown movie. This film is a blast to watch, on the strength of a wonderful performance by Chadwick Boseman as JB. In seconds you forget it’s an actor playing Brown.

The story, which seems to be somewhat santitized, takes a back seat to the music. That’s OK with me. I don’t need a studied analysis of James Brown’s life. I need the groove, and Get on Up does offers up plenty of groove.



The Intouchables

Last night we watched a 2011 film called The Intouchables on DVD (French with English subtitles). This is a 2011 film directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. Now, I don’t know French directors – I hardly know North American directors for that matter (and don’t even ask me about actors)- but I mention them because they did a wonderful job on this movie.

The film is about the relationship between an unlikely caregiver, Driss and a rich quadriplegic, Philippe. Driss has a unique qualification – he doesn’t pity Philippe.  The film is charming and funny and irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable. It could have been a much darker film but instead it’s a movie about human possibility in the face of mountains of adversity.

I suppose The Intouchables is really simply a “buddy” movie, but it’s a really well crafted buddy movie and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Pressure Cooker

We watched a delightful documentary tonight called Pressure Cooker. It’s a film by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, and it follows a Philadelphia high school Culinary Arts class as they get ready for a competition for major college scholarships. The kids come from a variety of circumstances and have some difficult family stories. The teacher is a remarkable woman named Wilma Stephenson. She is tough but tremendously generous of spirit toward her students. Watching the film, you get a chance to get to know the kids – before long I was cheering them on. This film is 27th Street recommended.

Ain’t in it for my Health

We watched Ain’t in it for my Health tonight, the documentary about Levon Helm, directed by Jacob Hatley. It’s a lovely, intimate look at Levon Helm in the midst of his late career resurgence, spawned by two great recordings, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt. His voice came back years after radiation therapy for cancer left him whispering, but the film shows it is a voice that is very precarious (it can’t have helped that he appeared to be smoking weed all the time). Levon was a survivor – of drugs, cancer and bankruptcy, making some of the best music of his career in his last years.

Excellent film – recommended!

Inside Llewyn Davis: what’s all the fuss about?

1961 in Greenwich Village, the Great Folk Music Scare has begun, and Llewyn Davis is making the scene. He’s serious about his folksongs and he’s a bit of a crank, and he’s broke and homeless, sleeping on sofas of whatever friends will take him in. Davis has played the Gaslight many times, but he hasn’t been “discovered” and it’s not looking good.

This is a Coen Brothers film. I should like it, right? It’s about a folk singer. Maybe I should like that too. I’m pretty familiar with that bit of American cultural history. I mean, I know all the old Bob Dylan material and Phil Ochs and Eric Anderson and Ramblin’ Jack and Dave van Ronk and Paul Clayton and The Clancy Brothers and so on. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a guy who makes the scene, has some talent, but doesn’t have whatever kind of spark it took at that place and time to emerge successful from that scene. The problem is that the story just isn’t that interesting.

The film captures what I imagine could be what the historic Greenwich Village atmosphere was like. Justin Timberlake and John Goodman have smallish supporting roles and they do OK. Carey Mulligan does a nice job of Jean, part of a duo with Jim (Justin Timberlake). They remind me somewhat of Ian and Sylvia, or at least Jean reminds me of Sylvia.

There are two cats in the film, and they are as compelling as any of the characters. It seems to me there’s something wrong with that picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is just OK, worth seeing, but nothing to write home about.