awards season movie reviews

I love stories.  Big surprise, I know.  I love to read them, of course, but I also love to live them.  At home in front of my little laptop screen streaming Amazon Instant Video.  Sunk into my sofa with the loose down-filled cushions littlest is always smooshing into lumpy clods, scrolling through Netflix with a cup of tea and a bowl of biscotti.  Perhaps my most indulgent guilty pleasure is to spend my quiet time at the movies.

And I’ve seen many over the past year from vintage Audrey Hepburn to Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig’s sleeper indie hit The Skeleton Twins, which I just watched this morning (it’s good!).  Here’s my take on a few Oscar contenders:

boyhoodBoyhood is a brilliant feat of creative storytelling.  Director Richard Linklater shot this film over the course of twelve years — with the same actors.  As the title suggests, we watch a child (Ellar Coltrane) grow from boy to man before our eyes over the course of a whopping three hours, and as a storytelling viewer, I was amazed that Linklater could keep such a tight cast of characters and clean narrative arc together for over more than a decade of filming.  Ethan Hawke, who some would gasp to learn I’m not a huge fan of despite his tousled good looks, shines in this movie.  In many respects for me, the film is as much about his coming of age as it is his son’s, and his was my favorite character in the movie.  I loved the way he showed up and in many unconventional ways offered his kids a stability you wouldn’t expect from him.  I don’t want to give anything away but will say Hawke’s character development will surprise you, especially if you are a child of divorce.  Boyhood was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I think it’s a contender for Best Picture or Direction.

big-eyesBig Eyes should really be titled, Big Weird Eyes.  Going to this movie was a little for me like ordering the Seared Ahi Salad special at a greasy spoon.  You do it because it sounds delicious and stands out on an otherwise mundane menu.  It comes to the table, and it’s like all of a sudden you notice the weary waitress in the worn uniform for the first time.  The cracked red vinyl booth scratching your thigh.  A few belly up flies in the window.  If it weren’t for the barricade of wilted yellow iceberg lettuce and glop of mayonnaise your lunch would nearly slither back into the water.  You’re at a diner for crissakes!  You should have just ordered a burger.  But you never do.  This was my experience with Big Eyes.  I saw the trailer and was immediately intrigued.  The paintings alone are gawk-worthy.  Waifish children with large heads and oversized eyes, rendered in those 1970s hues reminiscent of birthday cards my grandmother would send to me.  You know . . . those Precious Moments dolls.  Kitschy . . . weird.  Yeah, I’ll order that, please.

But what was I thinking?!  It’s Tim Burton.  Order a burger!  Just order a burger!  Burton’s film tells the true-life story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose schlocky husband (Chrisoph Waltz) aggressively markets her work, going so far as to take credit for it himself.  Despite all reason she remains devoted to him and to this lie for ten years, churning out these big-eyed paintings from an attic studio she keeps secret from her daughter.  More paintings!  her husband demands.  I need more paintings!  Then one day the Jehovah’s Witnesses hand her a Watch Tower and just like that a chorus of blue birds starts singing and lifting her skirts right out of there.  The movie’s premise was a weird enough roadside attraction to lure me in, but the Künstlerroman (Smarty pants for an artist’s coming of age, OK.  Write that down.) . . . the feminist transformation I was hoping for?  . . .  Trust me this never happens in the movie.  In the end you’ll wish you went for the burger.

theoryofeverythingThe Theory of Everything.  I hate to admit it but a Stephen Hawking biopic?  You had me running for the door with the first math problem.  About 15 years ago Hawking gave a lecture at the little ol’ community college where I teach, and even as math-phobic as I am, I sensed this was a momentous occasion I would not want to miss.  THE Stephen Hawking.  In the college dining hall.  All I had to do was get up from my stack of essays and wander across the quad and there he’d be, a living genius with an incredible story.  Sadly I don’t remember anything he said.  I only remember him lying immobile on a stage in the center of the room, with young students and wide-eyed faculty gathered around anticipating his every word.  And anticipate they did.  He began with his characteristic humor and made a joke about the voice software he used having an American accent (he’s British).  From there, he answered questions from the audience.  What I mostly remember is that it took him about five minutes to compose his response, during which time everyone waited in uncomfortable silence.  It was fascinating!  It was macabre, and perhaps like that Big Eyes movie, I was keen to wonder and stare.  But fifteen minutes was all I could take.  I’m still praying for patience . . . .

The Theory of Everything tells Hawking’s story from his first wife’s point of view and is based on her book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”  It’s a touching film in so many ways, and again, as in Boyhood, in ways that surprise you.  The characters are playful and good humored and the story is one filled with kindness, generosity, sacrifice, laughter, courage and love.  It delves not only into Hawking’s personal struggle with his debilitating disease, first diagnosed while he and Jane were students at Cambridge and just falling in love.  Its subject matter is not so much the physics of time and space so much as of the heart and that mysterious theory of human connection no one seems able to decode.  What draws us to one another?  My favorite scene in the movie is an incredible moment filled with heartache and tenderness, when Hawking admits to Jane for the first time there just may be a God.  A God who at just the right moment in time brings into our lives the people we need most.

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still thinking about her

Her.  One of the last memories I have before falling into the abyss of the flu last week was seeing this beautiful, haunting film written and directed by Spike Jonze.  I wanted to write about it but was away and then, well.  The vortex of misery and then suddenly bright lights and a sea of disoriented students looking at me and all of us dazed and stumbling around as we are today.  Where was I again?  Her.  That’s right.  Well, even if I hadn’t gotten the flu last week I think I would have some trouble writing about the picture.

I do remember it being hysterically funny and uncomfortably awkward and sweet and terribly sad.  You know the premise, don’t you?  Joaquin Phoenix plays the adorable sensitive shambles of a man, Theodore, who’s estranged from his wife and noncommittal, spending his days in a corporate office — composing tender missives for the professional letter writing firm Beautiful Handwritten Letters — and cozying up to his smart phone at night.  And get this, Scarlett Johansson plays the voice of his operating system, a disembodied digital assistant tuned to his every need and capable of evolving and adapting to her digital experiences.  And this is the hard to write about part because it’s quite remarkable, really.  The genesis and evolution of their relationship.  Without giving too much away, and because I can’t really write about this story without schlumping over my desk in defeat for loss of words, you should just go see it for yourself.  And then let’s talk.


We are not the same person this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. ~ W. Somerset Maugham

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the secret

On a recent morning’s wandering I trawled through the Netflix documentary offerings and stumbled across a title so captivating I dropped my bowl full of candy and my jaw along with it.  It was called The Secret, and as I pondered the title and corresponding graphic on the television screen before me, I caught this tagline like a ten-pound trout in a mountain lake:  The Secret has traveled through centuries . . . to reach you.  

Ooohh, what could that be? I thought and immediately clicked the remote.  The 2006 Australian film promised to reveal “The Secret” that utterly transformed the lives of every person who ever knew it . . . Plato, Newton, Carnegie, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein.  This secret wisdom, the film storyline told me, has been passed down throughout the ages, traveling through centuries.  It’s the secret to obtaining everything you desire– the secret to unlimited joy, health, money, relationships, love, youth: everything you have ever wanted.  All the resources you will ever need to understand and live “The Secret” divulged in ninety minutes right there in your own living room.  Not since I read The Da Vinci Code several years ago had I been handed such an exclusive invitation into the mysteries of the universe.  Well, forget that bowl of candy and tell me already!  What could it be!!??

Ten minutes into the film “The Secret” was revealed and I was so thankful not to have to sit through the “world’s leading” scientists, psychologists and metaphysicians any longer because as it turned out, I knew this secret all along!  Let me save you those ten minutes, too, with the big reveal here at Two or Three Little Birds:  It seems “The Secret” is The Law of Attraction, or to unpack if for you in more familiar terms, The Power of Positive Thinking.  Of Hope.  Of Faith.  Of Patience and Endurance.  Of dreaming and drawing into your life what you desire, whatever that is.  You see, The Law of Attraction as described in this documentary, “The BIG Secret,” is really just imagining the life you want to live and possessing a positive attitude, along with measures of hope and faith and perseverance and patience that what you most desire will come to you.  Your ideas — your dreams and ambitions — live within you like a powerful magnet.  The key to living out this secret is to never cease imagining their reality — no matter how long it may take.  Be patient.  Hope.  Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.


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