“The Judge”

I wish the State of Indiana would give financial incentives to movie-makers to film in Indiana. One of the winners of last year’s Heartland Film Festival was supposedly set in a small Indiana town, but was actually filmed in Shelburne, Massachusetts. True,the backdrop of director David Dobkin’s “The Judge” makes use of the proverbial diner,bar,tire shop,fishing cabin and front porch;yet,the town square and church architecture and countryside were nothing like Indiana. I could not keep from imagining Crawfordsville and Shades being a much better setting. The Berkshires are lovely,but don’t try to pass them off as Indiana’s environs by throwing in a tornado.

The cast of “The Judge” is what you go to see. Robert Downey, Jr. is superb in his impatience and candor. Vincent D’Onofrio is encyclical-like in his resignation and matter-of-fact suffering. Billy Bob Thornton could not be slicker or more savvy as prosecutor. Vera Farmiga is protective and accepting,yet bedeviled by her past choices.Ken Howard is masterful and ready for any conundrum posed. And finally, Robert Duvall scores an Oscar win as the once renowned judge, turned law-breaker. Duvall is perfection as a cantankerous and failing father awash in alcoholism and dementia.

Big ideas like justice,reconciliation and forgiveness mesh with the passing of time and chronicles of life’s pain in divorce,estrangement, parent death,unwed motherhood and lost promise. Throw in a hit and run fatality with courtroom scenes of bluster,and we almost have too much. I liked the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s mix of broad and close frames and the beautiful sound track.

The scenes of showering off bowel discharges and selecting a jury by bumper stickers are
tender,fresh and memorable. A crowd pleaser of a movie if it were only filmed in the heartland.

“In Secret”

One more Oscar Issac film to mention is a period piece based on Emile Zola’s 1867 novel”Therese Raquin”. I was not disappointed in the film renamed “In Secret”. Issac is masterful as lover and murderer. Jessica Lange was a tad campy,but is always brilliant in inhabiting a character so thoroughly. She does the French Emile Zola proud as she has done the American Willa Cather. I ,for one, am glad Glenn Close bowed out of the role.

The cinematography is beautiful in capturing the rather seedy nineteenth century Pont Neuf Paris in blues,olives and grays.The sexual awakening of Elizabeth Olsen,as Therese, is smile -inducing at times;and I caught her out of period at least twice. Repressed sexuality,sickly cousin/husbands, illicit affairs,guilt and madness and a mother’s love reign in this morality tale. The quick fall from ecstasy into meanness is more realistic than romantic. But what is not to like when it comes to obsessive love, lust, and the retribution of madness!

“Still Alice”

I have been watching Julianne Moore since she was an ingenue on the now defunct soap “As The World Turns”. She played twins: the good and the bad. As a teenager, she was emotive and fun to watch. Her facial expressions held range from vengeful spite to sympathetic care. Here, as a Best Actress nominee, Moore has honed her craft. It is not easy to play a strong,intelligent woman thrown to her knees by a debilitating disease and still show triumph in all her loss. As her character Alice states, ” I am not suffering; I am struggling”.

Director and writers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer take Lisa Genova’s book and give their cast a perfectly paced and unsentimental script of a privileged academic’s family’s heart- searing journey. The settings of Manhattan and Saugetuck allow us to see the family at work and at play.At lunch with one daughter,we see Alice in her good-humored acerbic asides as a harried water whisks away her almost finished salad. “She chirps “Thank you, I’m done and rolls her eyes at her actress daughter. We see her blaming the champagne when she is at a loss with her wordstock of language. She thrives on her work as a research linguist and lecturer and plays “Words with Friends” obsessively with her eldest daughter. We relate to her in her panic. Her body framed in long hallways and winding jogging paths mirrors her journey from blurred vision and thinking she has a brain tumor to her rare,but confirmed diagnosis of familiar Alzheimer’s.

Nothing about the script is labored. We get fast glimpses of a Dove shampoo misplaced in the kitchen pantry,erratic lectures and student complaints, botched dinner plans with department heads, yet all with a relentless verve that “this might be the last year I’m myself.” All I can say is this film begins with a toast and ends with one. A great script that will have you looking up Elizabeth Bishops’ poetry on the art of losing,as well as, smiling at yellow markers and butterflies.

Alec Baldwin surprised me in his modulated portrayal of a loving,but career -driven husband. The family’s resourcefulness is made easier by their upper middle class status, but his “whatever happens, I’m here” is a pledge kept. Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth were equally affective in bringing out their mother’s soul,and they were sisterly real.

Technology plays a big role in this rendering of connection and loss. The face to face computer meeting of the planning and strategizing Alice withbthe floundering and forgetful Alice is Oscar worthy. Here are Moore’s twins again: the intelligent leader and the docile follower. One of the most ironic lines is delivered by her Columbia department head. After Alice has shared her diagnosis with him,he asks “unpack that for me”. Alice’s liberated brain is unpacking everything ,already.

Shriver Productions produced this film,and many will recall that Maria Shriver’s father died of Alzheimer’s. Early onset,for Alice at age fifty, is objectively explained by her neurologist; but it is Baldwin’s tears and Moore’s hysteria and the faces of their children that move us. It is Moore’s heavily rimmed glasses, her defining of herself by her ability to articulate,and her facebook time with her other self that sets this finely tuned film apart. The toll it takes on this family with all of its resources leaves us thinking of the other one in ten who may be left adrift.

This is not a happy film,but it is filled with dignity and love, and the sense that this disease needs to be made curable. When Alice returns to the yogurt shoppe and forgets her favorite toppings,her husband takes over. Fifteen minutes later with one scoop left to savor, Alice looks at him and says “not done yet, do we have to go?” Empathetic audiences feel the same. Let me know what you think about the power of this film.

“God’s Pocket”

Directed by John Slattery and co-written by Alex Metcalf, “God’s Pocket” is based on the 1983 novel by Pete Dexter. I won’t be reading it, nor will I be viewing the film again.

The cinematography is dull and lifeless and the script worse. I want to say this would work better as black comedy; it is so faulty- cliché filled. So, if you feel it is fun to watch all seven deadly sins committed view “God’s Pocket”, which evidently refers to a Hell’s pocket section in South Philly that the inhabitants renamed.Hubris, Sloth,Envy, Lust, Greed, Gluttony and Anger all raise their ugly backsides. Dissolution is personified.

The film makes one cringe at the stereotypes of the “gun-slinging mama”, the “deluded playboy” and the “busty Italian”. The bartender, something like the mayor of the enclave, turns on the lights only to see the “cockroaches” scatter. What a depressing film that leaves the audience feeling like the poor deserve laughs. The paper bag “ask-back”, the big- eared photo and the tossed-out corpse could not have lifted Philip Seymour Hoffman’s spirit, and this film deadened mine.

“Whiplash”

“Whiplash” is a great film. Its title takes a Hank Levy piece and gives it nuances that build and build. The cacophony that results is mesmerizing. The audience is whiplashed emotionally,our protagonist drummer is whiplashed physically, and ambition and pride whiplash each other and take grandstanding to new heights. A morality tale this could be . With the good father, Paul Reiner, as guide. But the acting belongs to the master manipulator, J.K. Simmons, who is resplendent with the devil’s whiplashing tongue. Ms. Jean Brodie move over:Terrence Fletcher is here! Teacher power is given a new tempo,and it is perfectly frightening in its spite-fullness.

The “teacher-director-manager” is a pusher of a narcotic called fame for ” the best mf…ing solo the world has ever heard.”He is shown three times as being capable of tenderness: once to the small daughter of a former student,once playing at a piano bar where the music moves him,and once tearing up at a suicide he no doubt helped to bring on. These three renouncements of evil may be the Devil’s Judas’ story!

Big questions like ” What is greatness?” “Why are collegiality & cooperation so important?”, and ” Why is the balance of work & leisure so key to mental health?” are the queries in the wings,while “Clean the blood off my drum set” is the line that will be remembered.”What are the bigger things to pursue in life ?”may be the most exacting question,yet. This film is much more than the abused’ s relationship to the abuser.

The dad deserves applause. He states that age gives perspective,but youth wants none of that. He is concerned and pro-active. He uses understatements like, “You care a lot about his opinion”. He does not wish his son to be an out- of -tune nineteen year old. He hurts when Andrew falls. His favorite question is ,”You okay?”. Dad does not concur that Charlie Parker became ” bird” because a cymbal was thrown at his head.

This film explodes! The brazen pride and raw ambition to be the best just takes over. The music is glorious. Heart-throbbing drums . The images pop. The lights in the windows,the self- scourging, the cleaning of instruments,the dripping sweat,the bloody drum skin,the intentional verbal emotional distress like “no wonder your mommy ran out on you “, linger.

Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons should be nominated for dueling Oscars. This film is close to perfect.
Do not miss it !