The Film Gang

Top Five


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

As the holiday season closes another cinematic year, film producers, directors, stars, their agents, publicists and other movers and shakers jockey for position in advance of Oscars. Behind the image makers lie real human beings striving to live actual lives off stage, off script often fighting the same horrible demons as audiences seeing their screen personae.

The Top Five of the title references one’s musical favorites in order of importance and/or influence, chiefly in hiphop. Chris Rock’s latest work traces recent episodes in the career of Andre Allen, a black stand-up comic who transitioned to film farce and now wishes to recreate himself. Like Birdman, it tells a tale of the difficulty of transcending typecasting.

Read the rest of this entry »



Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

I’m not a fan of ignorance, but I must say, I’m glad I wasn’t familiar with the true story that Foxcatcher is based on. I’m glad also that the preview of the film managed to pique my interest without revealing any of the essential dramatic details.

Foxcatcher is a character study of three people: Mark Schultz, an Olympic gold medal wrestler, his brother Dave, also an Olympic gold medal wrestler, and John du Pont, scion of the du Pont Family and its vast fortune.

The movie opens with a series of old photographs and short film clips depicting preparation for the so called ‘sport’ of fox hunting. There are dozens of hounds being readied for the chase and a posse of formally attired hunters on horseback. And finally, a short clip of a lone fox running for its life across an open field.

These antiquated portraits of an actual fox hunt amount to a metaphor for the story that follows. But in this story, there are two foxes, and one of them doesn’t even know he’s being hunted.

Steve Carell plays John du Pont. He is magnificent in the role. Carell’s du Pont is a soft spoken megalomaniac. The one thing that his massive fortune can’t seem to buy is self respect and a genuine friendship. And du Pont is desperate for it. He is a man of many interests and not inconsiderable talents. One of the running jokes in Foxcatcher is a verbal repetition of a handful of the numerous ‘ists’ that du Pont is: author, ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist – author, ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

In his feckless drive for self esteem, du Pont attempts to lure the Schultz brothers to Foxcatcher Farms, his grandiloquent estate in rural Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge. He succeeds in talking Mark, the younger brother, into joining him, ostensibly to train for the 88 Seoul Olympics. (Among other things, du Pont imagines himself to be a wrestling coach.) But Dave Schultz, happily married and with two children, turns down the offer.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz. Tatum’s Schultz is an insecure, closet masochist. At the time of du Pont’s offer, notwithstanding his recent 1984 Olympic gold medal, Mark is living in near poverty. He packs his few belongings and drives to Foxcatcher Farms, leaving, for the first time in his life, his brother Dave behind.

Eventually, Dave does decide to pack up his family and join his brother at Foxcatcher Farms. Dave’s job is to train and work-out with a team of aspiring Olympians. du Pont, to his dismay, discovers that Dave cannot be coerced into the kinds of self-destructive behaviors that he lured brother Mark into. What follows will likely shock you, if, like me, you are unfamiliar with the true life events that Foxcatcher is based on.

Mark Ruffalo is great as Dave Schultz. Channing Tatum is terrific as his brother Mark. And Steve Carell should get an Oscar nomination for his portrait of John du Pont.

Foxcatcher is one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.

The Homesman


Listen to the audio by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.

At first, The Homesman has the appearance of a western, but we learn pretty early in the movie that it would be more accurate to call it a ‘mid-western’, because most of the action occurs on the plains of The Nebraska Territory, probably in the mid 1800s. As the opening credits roll, we are treated to about three minutes of gorgeous vistas, devoid of humans, and, with the exception of two deer, it’s all flora, no fauna.

In retrospect, the camera’s panning of miles and miles of open prairie could be seen as a harbinger of the psychological trauma that infects so many of the characters in The Homesman. Emptiness breeds loneliness, and loneliness can lead to a myriad of less than attractive behaviors.

Hilary Swank plays an intelligent, articulate, talented, and resourceful woman named Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives by herself on a large spread miles from a very small town. We know she hails from upstate New York, but not why she chose to head west. We also know that she’s lonely and that there are very few potential mates. Early in the film she invites a fellow rancher to supper. He’s an uneducated boor, but Ms. Cuddy asks him to marry her. He is adamant in his refusal and tells her she is “too bossy and too damn plain”. She takes the refusal in stride, though it is evident that her feelings are hurt.

We soon learn that Ms. Cuddy’s problems pale in comparison with those of three other women. The psychic burden of the illnesses and deaths of family members have driven them past the coping point and into insanity. Medical care is non-existent. It is determined by the local clergyman, played by John Lithgow, that the only hope for these women is to be transported to Iowa, where another clergyman and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, might provide them with an opportunity to recover.

The perilous journey to Iowa in what amounts to a wooden paddy wagon pulled by mules is at the heart of the film. The reluctance or outright refusal of the ill women’s husbands to take responsibility for getting them to Iowa causes Ms. Cuddy to volunteer.

And at this point, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a rogue who calls himself George Briggs, enters the scene. He’s a claim jumper, an army deserter, an alcoholic, and, when not besotted, or at death’s doorstep, a very quick witted and charming fellow. How he and Ms. Cuddy cross paths, and then join paths, and what they do on that path, is what The Homesman is all about.

The Homesman suggests that people can change their ways, and it also asks if they can change them enough, and in time. ‘In time for what’ is a question I leave for you to discover.
This is a film that defies romantic and narrative expectations. In other words, it surprises us with its twists and turns. We learn that practicality and naiveté can wear the same clothes, that incipient generosity and a penchant for mass murder can inhabit the same flesh.

Tommy Lee Jones not only shares the lead with Hilary Swank. He co-wrote the script, co-produced, and directed The Homesman. It’s a fine film.

The Theory of Everything


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

The life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, as seen through the eyes of Jane Wilde, his first spouse, which formed the basis of her memoir Travelling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen, is the subject of the film The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten based upon Wilde’s book.

Eddie Redmayne is Hawking, while Felicity Jones portrays Jane in a reconstruction of key events marking their coupling, marriage and ultimate uncoupling as Hawkings struggled with Jane’s help to cope with the crippling effects of motor neuron disease. The two great tales unfolding simultaneously and interdependently are of a love then marital relationship and Hawking’s meteoric rise to prominence as an innovative scientific theorist, starting with research into Black Holes as a route to determining whether time had a beginning to the quest for what the title suggests, a theory to explain existence.

The gift of the film is its ability to take on the heady stuff of physics and then balance it with romance, propelled by the electricity of the lead actors. Redmayne and Jones are assisted by David Thewlis as Hawking’s Cambridge mentor physicist Dennis Sciama and Simon McBurney and Emily Watson as Hawking’s mother and father. Special mention should go to Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a choirmaster and caretaker who played a decisive role in the lives of Stephen and especially Jane.

Redmayne’s transformations, first into Hawking, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, and then from ostensibly able-bodied to grievously afflicted patient then highly dependent man whose intellect is unfettered by the chains of infirmity is really remarkable. Redmayne is able to capture oceans of emotion in a knowing wink, sly smile or lascivious leer to remind us that however things may look, he is very much engaged in the here and now.

The film does not shy away from the hard questions posed by the circumstances in which Hawkings and Wilde find themselves. How does one create and sustain what can be considered a “normal” existence, in the face of such monumental challenges? Yet Jane and Stephen do raise progeny under extraordinarily trying conditions, and Hawkings continues to work, at great expense to everyone around him. While this unavoidably situates Hawkings the innovator in the pantheon of the great, it is clear that his stature could not have been reached without the support of Jane and others.

The Theory of Everything affords much food for thought. It will not leave viewers wanting.



Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton, and read it below.

Whiplash is a film that raises lots of questions but leaves many of them unanswered. And if, at times, we viewers feel that we’ve been lashed with a whip, well, rhetorically speaking – we have.

The story is rather simple. Andrew, a young guy in his first year at a prestigious music academy in New York City, wants to become the best jazz drummer in the world. Terence Fletcher, on the faculty of the academy, is the school’s best instructor. Andrew’s nascent talent comes to Fletcher’s attention.

The problem for Andrew, and all the students under Fletcher’s purview, is that Fletcher is a mean and nasty guy. He brooks no deviation from his expectations. He is preposterously demanding and to say that he is verbally abusive is a massive understatement. His rants range from sexist to homophobic. He’ll pretend, for a moment, to be interested in the personal life of a student, but it’s just a gathering of ammunition to be fired at an opportune time.

Because there are several moments when Fletcher is, or appears to be, human and vulnerable, we wonder how he came to be the ugly man he seems to be. Writer / director Damien Chazelle does not provide us with the answer. Like his students, we, the viewers, must accept Fletcher as he is. And it is J.K. Simmons brilliant performance that makes it possible for us to do that.

Whiplash is a two person show. Miles Teller, who plays Andrew, is equally brilliant in his role. The big question regarding Andrew is: how much abuse can he tolerate from Fletcher. Ultimately, director Chazelle does provide that answer.

We do get a few brief hints about the events that have shaped Andrew’s life. These are provided at a family dinner. Present are Andrew’s ubiquitous father, his two cousins and presumably, his aunt and uncle. The cousins arrive a bit late. Just prior to that, Andrew is answering a question about how things are going at music school. His response is interrupted when the cousins show up. Immediately, all attention if focused on them. One has just scored a 93 yard touchdown. The other has just learned that he’s being considered for a Rhodes Scholarship. So much for Andrew, it would appear. But not so. Unexpectedly, in a one-sided bout of verbal fisticuffs, Andrew demolishes his cousins’ achievements. And we are left to wonder if, somewhere under the skin, there’s a bit of Fletcher lurking in Andrew.

There are a few scenes in Whiplash that strain credulity. On the way to a big band competition, an unlikely series of automotive mishaps threatens Andrew’s timely arrival. But perseverance prevails and a bloodied Andrew arrives in the nick of time.

Notwithstanding who prevails or who loses, and when – it’s J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller that make Whiplash a worthy investment of your movie going time. Their performances are simply magnificent.

‘Rotten Tomatoes’, a website that gathers movie reviews, reports that Whiplash is a huge success, among critics and viewers. An astonishing 96% of critics and 96% of viewers have given it positive ratings. Don’t miss Whiplash.



Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

Force Majeure


Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above / read it below.

‘Force majeure’ is a phrase I’d never heard of. So, I looked it up. In general, it’s a legal term – in contract law. It refers to a major event, unforeseen by the parties to an agreement. A ‘force majeure’ can render a contract void should one of the parties successfully claim it as a reason for not being able to fulfill the terms of an agreement.
It turns out to be a perfect title for Swedish director, Ruben Ostlund’s latest film.

Force Majeure is a study of human behavior in the aftermath of a perceived mortal threat. The idea for the film came from an incident in the lives of friends of the director – a married couple who were vacationing in Latin America. One day, from seemingly nowhere, gunmen appeared and began shooting. The husband bolted for cover, leaving his wife unprotected. They both survived, but when they returned to Sweden, if the wife had consumed a glass or two of wine, she told the story over and over, simply couldn’t get it out of her mind.

In Ostlund’s film, we closely observe five days in the life of a Swedish family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. Ostensibly, the purpose of the vacation is to provide the father, a successful businessman named Tomas, some down time to spend with his family. The locale is a bit upscale and the mountain-scape exceedingly gorgeous. Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their preteen children, Vera and Harry, are more than passable skiers. Watching the family zig zag down the slopes is a minor, but enjoyable part of the film.

Day One goes fine. The family skis. The food is good. And Ebba meets an unnamed woman, about her own age, who is vacationing solo – having left her hubby and kids back home. Ebba is astonished to learn that her new acquaintance is an eager practitioner of free love. And, she is eloquent in defense of her life-style.

Day Two begins just as fine as Day One. After a morning on the slopes, the family has lunch on the balcony of their hotel, overlooking the unspeakable majesty of the snow covered mountains. Lunch is momentarily interrupted by the sound of an explosion. Tomas tells Ebba not to be concerned. The purpose of the explosion, he explains, is to precipitate a ‘controlled avalanche’, one that will prevent a spontaneous, and potentially dangerous, real avalanche. What happens next is at the core of the film, and I shall remain mum about it.

But the aftermath of the event consumes the emotional lives of every member of the family for the duration of their vacation. We are treated to ruminations about the psychological consequences of society’s expectation of heroism. Significant and articulate ponderings of gender roles, cowardice, and the intuition of children are explored. And, perhaps the biggest subject that director Ostlund takes on is the torturous path to forgiveness.

For me, one of the things that makes Force Majeure such an intelligent and powerful film is that it doesn’t really end after the credits have rolled. I left the theater wondering how I might react if confronted with a ‘force majeure’. And, it’s not that I want to find out, but, I haven’t stopped wondering. This film ‘has legs’, and it’s following me. I highly recommend it.

Awake: The Life of Yogananda


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

Awake: The Life of Yogananda, a film by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman

Some stories are so profound and meaningful that once you learn them they leave an indelible mark upon you. So it is with the biography of Paramahansa Yogananda. Awake: The Life of Yogananda by Paola di Florio and Judy Leeman. Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh state, India, in 1893, the protagonist of the film was even as a youth consumed with spirituality and steadily seeking guidance in that realm. At 17 in 1910 he met his guru, Swami Yukteswar Giri, with whom he would begin formal study leading to his own mastery of the arts of yoga and meditation. Five years later in 1915 he took monastic vows and became Swami Yogananda Giri. In 1917, Yogananda founded a boys school in Dihika, West Bengal specializing in yoga and spirituality. In 1918 this school was moved to Ranchi, now capital of Jharkand. Eventually this school would become Yogoda Satsang Society, the Indian Branch of the American Self-Realization Fellowship, each brought into being by Yogananda.

In 1920, Yogananda traveled to the US at the request of religious liberals in Boston. Representing India at their international congress, Yogananda founded the Self- Realization Fellowship to spread his ideas on yoga. Embarking upon a multi-city tour within four years he had attained considerable popularity among rank and file and attracted serious attention from several celebrities in the arts. For the balance of his life, this American work was a major factor in familiarizing sympathetic US audiences to the value of embracing many of the sacred spiritual practices of India.

However, as the documentary also makes clear, in spite of what started as a string of triumphs, Yogananda and his beloved associates and followers too had their share of opponents who suspected them for ideological, cultural, political and racial reasons.

Awake is striking in its ability to convey the power of this extraordinary figure, by skillful use of stills, black and white and color film footage and sound recordings. It includes among its talking heads highly recognizable devotees from the late George Harrison to Herb Jeffries, a musician and cult figure in African-American film, known as the “Bronze Buckaroo,” to Italian coloratura operatic soprano Amelita Galli-Curci. These gifted personalities illustrated the tremendous debt each felt they owed guru Swami Yogananda, whom they credited with helping to bring out their inner talents.

This subtle film is densely packed with life lessons. For that reason viewers may be moved to see it more than once. Readers familiar with Autobiography of a Yogi will know the name and saga of Paramahansa Yogananda. The film Awake gives the tale texture and a special form of life, especially whenever we gaze into Yogananda’s fiery eyes. At such times there is no question of the power he was able to summon.


Listen to the review by Dennis Morton, or read it below.

One of the best things about a work of genius is that you don’t get tired of it. A great song, a great painting, a great film – just doesn’t wear out. I’ve watched John Michael McDonagh’s latest film, Calvary, five times in the past week and it gets better and better and better, each time.

Calvary is set on the northwest coast of Ireland, in a small town in County Sligo. The protagonist is a priest named Father James, played masterfully by Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in McDonagh’s previous film, The Guard. We learn that Father James has come to his orders at an advanced age, turning to the priesthood after his wife died of a long illness. And, it’s late in the film before we learn what his previous profession was.

The film opens with Father James in the confessional, ready for another round of the often tawdry admissions of his parishioners. But he’s never before heard what he’s about to hear from a fellow whose face we do not get to see.

This man’s confession begins with a story of having been raped by a priest when he was seven years old. The atrocity continued for five years. Father James is at a loss for what to say. He asks if the putative penitent has sought help. And his response is that he’s not interested in learning “to cope” with what happened, and besides, the rapist priest is dead. And, he adds, even if he had killed the bad priest, it wouldn’t have meant anything. It would only be news if he were to kill a good priest. And this is followed by his declaration that he will kill a good priest. He’ll kill Father James a week from Sunday, on the beach.

All of this takes place in the first scene and first few minutes of Calvary, so I’ve not really spoiled anything for you. And besides, though the story itself is fascinating, it’s the dialogue and the performances that elevate Calvary into the highest echelon of filmdom.

John Michael McDonagh is a brilliant writer and he invests his major characters with perfectly timed bon mots and believably articulate patter. Even the intellectually less endowed characters are fun to listen to.

The Church, in general, does not fare well in Calvary. In fact, the film is a scathing portrait of hypocrisy and venality. And the notion of detachment, supposedly essential for a father confessor plying his trade, turns out to be a questionable characteristic by film’s end.

I’m a sucker for good writing. And the writing in Calvary is way better than good.
John Michael McDonagh, I think, is a genius. Find out for yourself. And don’t put it off.
Calvary is a small budget, independent, foreign film. We’re very fortunate that we have theatres in the Monterey Bay area that provide us the opportunity to see such movies on the big screen. But their shelf lives are still relatively limited. So, catch Calvary soon,
before it’s relegated to the world of DVDs.

Dear White People


Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above.