Sunday, September 25, 2011

The BC Review: Moneyball

Each time my husband and I make the mistake of heading to Tysons Corner on a Saturday night we always end the trip with the same refrain, "Never again!". Of course, despite this realization of our faulty judgement, we continue to repeat the act over and over again, and prove ourselves (apparently) none the wiser. As you've probably guessed, last night was no exception.
The opening weekend for Brad Pitt's true-story sports chronicle, "Moneyball" turned out to be quite the popular event with a viewing in the Tysons Corner AMC's largest theatre and a sold out audience. For those (like myself) who may not be familiar with baseball trivia, Moneyball is the true-life story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (A's). In early 2000, facing an ever-growing realization that the A's simply could not compete financially with other big league teams like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees who systematically bought the team's "A list" roster (including Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi), Beane realizes a different method could make a sizable difference to the team's chances of acquiring talent, and most importantly, wins.
The term "Moneyball" was henceforth coined and with the help of a young economist serving as a baseball statistician, Peter Brand (played by comic Jonah Hill of Superbad and Get Him to the Greek fame). The premise - create winning baseball team using not so-called big, and expensive talent, but skilled players whose ability to "get on base" or "score a run" is the wave of the future. After all, it's all about numbers... the stats are what matters, build a team of less expensive (and by all accounts, overlooked, talent) and you just may see a team make it to the championships spending less than half of what the other teams expend to pay for their talent. Overall, not a bad plan and an exciting premise for a film!
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a real-life ex-pro baseball player who was recruited out of high school to play for the Mets but shortly fizzled out. Pitt does a good job in this role - he is able to play Beane with a sense of humbleness, but at the same time, exuding inner strength. As one can imagine, Beane faces some significant criticism both within his own club house and outside from skeptical baseball scouts touting their 30-years of experience in recognizing talent and even his own team manager (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who refuses to "play ball" with the new scheme. One point of detraction I will make is the film's pace. At 133 min, the film moves at times in a sluggish pace (perhaps mimicking the pace of an actual baseball game!).
So, my recommendation - do not attempt to see this one past 8:30pm on a school night (or else opt to pick up the book of the same title). Moneyball is recommended for baseball fans and true-life stories. It is certainly an inspirational film and may make a believer out of even the most skeptical baseball guru.
The Bee Charmer Review: B

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The BC Review: Blue Valentine

I've been struggling with how to write this review. As I was placing the DVD back into its Netflix (soon-to-be Qwikster) envelope last night I remember liking it. And I think I still do. I'm just realizing the word "blue" in the title is more apropos than I originally thought. I'm not going to sugar coat it, this pick is a doosey. So, with that said, enjoy (?) the review!
At its core, Blue Valentine is a love story (and looking at the movie poster the phrase "A Love Story" under the title confirms my opinion, funny enough I did not notice that before starting this post! Apparently I've taken away from the film the point they wanted me too. Ha ha). The film begs the question, "Maybe not all love is meant to last?" Despite the feelings that exist between two people, in some cases love just isn't enough...(not the most uplifting of films, but valiant in its assertions).
Blue Valentine showcases two people who fell in love as young adults, eloped, and started what they expected to be a happy, if not stable, life together. But that's where the story goes awry... or is it life that gets away from them? As the film opens we see a little brunette girl standing in a field calling "Megan" at the top of her lungs with an exasperated expression on her face. She quickly turns and runs inside to a house with children's playground equipment outside. The little girl jaunts through the back of the house and leaps onto the bed, waking her father, Dean (played by Ryan Gosling) and the two head out to the backyard to inspect a broken fence surrounding a dog house. In the resulting moments the father and daughter run to wake up mom, Cindy (played by Michelle Williams), enthusiastically jumping on her bed and eliciting a tired and tousled mother. A bit of expertly employed foreshadowing is at work here. Life is not as it should be for this rural Pennsylvania family.
Cindy, is the at times confused and utterly unhappy wife of Dean and a medical professional administering sonograms to ebullient expectant mothers with the pained look of a woman suffering from what could only qualify as regret. As we learn, Cindy was full of potential and far-out-shined Dean in the brains department but we get the distinct impression her life has not taken her where she thought she'd be.
The film flashes back and forth between the present (including a slightly heftier version of Dean with less hair and a drunken swagger) to the past, showing us two young lovers who met under atypical circumstances and fell head over heels for each other. I should point out, much to the film's credit and romantic appeal to me, it is the male character, Dean, who was really the initiator of the relationship and questions whether a person can truly fall in love at first sight (Ryan Gosling playing a strikingly similar role in The Notebook ring any bells?).
Following days of tense looks across the kitchen and petty arguments over the trivial goings on of day-to-day life, Dean "whisks" his adoring (?) wife away for a romantic get away to "the future room" (a corny and completely depressing hotel suite) to rekindle what's left of their love life.
*Spoiler Alert* - it does not go as planned.
Blue Valentine is recommended for fans of the King of Indies, Ryan Gosling, and enthusiasts of off-beat loves stories (i.e. 500 Days of Summer).
The Bee Charmer Review Rating: A

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The BC Review: The Whistleblower

I was first made aware of this riveting drama detailing the hideous involvement of United Nations personnel in post-war Bosnia sex trafficking from a friend of mine a few weeks ago. It had yet to be released in the United States, but I knew from the trailer posted on that I had to see it as soon as it made its way to the local theatres here in NOVA.
Disclaimer: When I set out to write this review, I could not see how I could do the film justice without delving into some of the history of the conflict and the hideous nature of sexual violence to provide some context to the film. Much of my graduate studies focused on the conflict and specifically the 1995 Dayton Accords, so I do know a fair amount about the conflict and the accompanying post-conflict and subsequent peacebuilding efforts undertaken by the United Nations, but I promise to keep these details as short as possible and will attempt to weave these in coherent way throughout my review.
The Whistleblower is based on the true account of an American policewoman who took a job as a United Nations peacekeeper in 1999, following the historic signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and the "end" of the Bosnian war. This was not wholly uncommon at the time as an international police force was formed to facilitate the country's evolvement from post-conflict to sustainable peace. Police officers, former military, and even every day citizens from the United States, Britain, Holland, Italy, and elsewhere in Western Europe joined the force to make a difference in Bosnia. But with any group or organization, there is bound to be corruption, and sometimes it runs rampant.
Seeking a transfer from her home police district, Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop takes a highly lucrative job as a private military contractor for a British-based defense contractor known in the film as "Democras" (I'll let you do the research to find out the company's true name) and soon uncovers a devastating and depraved sex trafficking ring, involving UN personnel profiting from girls trafficked across the border from such countries as Ukraine into post-war Bosnia. And yes, this is a true story.
Rachel Wiesz, in a role very reminiscent to her portrayal of Ralph Fiennes' wife in The Constant Gardner (another excellent film portraying the world of foreign policy as seen through the eyes of Western diplomats), is authentic in her characterization of what I would imagine the real Kathryn Bolkovac might be like. Her appearance in the film is not your typical Angelina Jolie-esque glamorous woman at all times complete with perfectly coiffed hair, applied lipstick, and heels -- Kathryn is dressed in a blue International Police Task Force (IPTF) uniform, complete with sensible shoes for traipsing around post-conflict Sarajevo, and as one might expect, her long brunette hair is tied back in a variety of not quite perfect ponytails and braids. And throughout the film, she becomes increasingly disheveled. The emotional toll of what she is encountering is evident in her appearance and her increasingly visceral reaction to events.
The film is benefited by the addition of Vanessa Redgrave as the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Madeleine Rees. As you might know, UNHCR representatives dispatched to Bosnia to address the thousands returning from displacement and hiding in the aftermath of the war to find their family homes destroyed, pillaged, or even sold to third parties who in turn sold them to ethnic rivals. In Rees, Kathryn finds a friend, a fellow woman working to help other women, some of whom suffered at the hands of men who employed rape as a tool of war.
There are of course several problems -- the overbearing policy of the United Nations for one, bureaucratic institutions are not known for their expediency and flexibility in navigating around their own systems even if it is to the detriment of the very people they are charged to protect and save -- and the attitudes of local police towards women. We see a glimpse of this as Kathryn begins her first investigation as part of the IPTF and comes up against local attitudes toward a Muslim woman's account of intimate partner violence at the hands of her husband. In short, the men do not see why this woman's plight should be any of their concern because in their minds intimate partner violence is a "woman's issue".
Despite these ignorant attitudes and the almost constant stonewalling of UN officials and IPTF's primary contract holder, Kathryn forges ahead with conviction and nerves of steel and she is ultimately able to make a real difference in the lives of some Bosnian women. Sadly, she is not successful in all.
The Whistleblower is not for the faint of heart. It is recommended for fans of true-life dramas and those with a passion for human rights.
The Bee Charmer Review rating: A-

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The BC Review: Frozen River

Much to my mother's dismay, it has taken me some many months to finally catch her recommendation from almost a year ago (and well, honestly it took an active choice to move the title from somewhere in the middle region of my Netflix queue to commandeer to the top slot) but I finally watched Frozen River over the long 4th of July holiday weekend.

I should caution you, this film is certainly similar to this past year's Best Picture nominee-- Winter's Bone-- in its wrenching portrayal of a woman struggling to survive and the questioning of morality and the virtue of "following the rules".

Frozen River, released in 2008, stars Melissa Leo (winner of the Best Supporting Actress in The Fighter) as Ray Eddy, a not-so-young, but at the same time not-so-old (the deep lines of worry on her face may deceive us) mother living in upstate New York along the Canadian border, scraping to get enough money together for her dream house. No, this is not Malibu Barbie's mansion or even a modest split level home with three bedrooms and two and a half baths, it is a double wide. A double wide trailer. A significant upgrade from her current trailer she shares with her two sons and her gambling-addicted husband who's just run off with all of her savings just a few days before Christmas.

Working part-time at a local dollar store aptly called Yankee Dollar, Ray can barely afford to put food on the table (and sometimes even that is a stretch as on more than one occasion Ray is reduced to feeding her two sons popcorn and tang).

On arguably a fortuitous trip to the local Mohawk Reservation so-called "high stakes" Bingo, searching for her degenerate husband, Ray recognizes her husband's car in the parking lot. Following the vehicle as it peels out of the driveway leads Ray to another trailer (in possibly worse condition than her own) and to a Mohawk woman named Lila. From this first meeting we learn that Lila makes her living in an inventive, if not illegal, way - smuggling illegal aliens across the border from Canada.

From here it is not long (and a few more hardships begin to take their tole) and Ray is pulled deeper and deeper into the smuggling game. The question is, how long until the smuggling duo's luck runs out? And, will Ray triumph over all and finally get that double wide?

Melissa Leo gives a commanding performance as Ray. If you've ever spent time in upstate NY (to some of us who have fondly referred to as "the frozen tundra") you will recognize Ray in every down trodden woman looking to take care of her kids on a minimum wage salary while contending with frozen pipes, addiction, K-Mart's short operating hours, and searching for a good deal on food stuffs at the local "Chopper" (Price Chopper that is) food market.

Little known Misty Upham (also seen in HBO's Big Love) portrayal of Lila Littlewolf is reminiscent of the character "Sue" in Clint Eastwood's triumph Gran Torino (another great film, but for entirely different reasons)-- honest and bare-- and what one might expect of a single mom working just enough to get by on the reservation.

Frozen River is not for the faint of heart, but is recommended for movie goers who enjoyed Winter's Bone, The Fighter, and perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Jim Carroll in 1995's The Basketball Diaries.

The Bee Charmer Review Rating: B+

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The BC Review: The Trip

I'm sorry to report that my life has become increasingly busy these last couple of months and as a result my film watching (and reviewing for that matter!) has suffered.

Until last Friday evening when my husband so pleasantly surprised me with a "date night" trip downtown to catch one of my beloved Indie flicks, the last movie I caught was back in April and well, it was Scream 4. Yes, you read that correctly, I spent good money to catch the fourth installation of the 1990s era horror sensation and well, actually it wasn't terrible. Certainly not Bee Charmer Review worthy, but if you are a fan of the slasher series, you'll likely enjoy it.

In any case, if you're wondering why the title of this post makes no reference to Wes Craven, I will tell you (probably to the delight of most) that I am not reviewing Scream 4, and instead will compose my thoughts on that Indie film I mentioned, pleasantly and appropriately titled, The Trip.

The Trip, starring British actor Steven Coogan (you may recognize him from The Good Guys) and Welsh funny man Rob Brydon, is the delightful tale of two friends who set off on a week's road trip throughout the picturesque northern country side of England, tasting gourmet food and wine (yes, I realize the oddity of this - British cuisine not always associated with the description "gourmet" but surprisingly some of the dishes do in fact look delicious), sleeping in quaint and sometimes famous inns (one locale the basis for Bronte's Wuthering Heights) and well - just enjoying themselves along the way.

And that certainly goes for us too - this riproarious comedy depends on these two friends, one-Coogan- a womanizing, not entirely unattractive in that Englishman with long hair and awkward speech, struggling to find that one break out acting role that will bring his career to new heights and his funnyman friend Rob (Brydon) who's pleasantly content with his young wife and baby at home and his positively expert impersonations, the likes of which include Al Pacino, Michael Caine, Billy Connelly, and Hugh Grant.

And the impersonations - let me just say, these are what make the film. As we follow these two on their journey (true, there is a bit of a more serious underlying story of Coogan trying to find meaning in his life), but it is the constant dueling of two that will start you and keep you rolling in the aisles. My favorites including the battle"this is how Michael Caine speaks" wherein each believes his impression reigns supreme (and it is truely difficult to say which one best characterizes the famed British actor) and Brydon's "small man in a box" (if you have the time, check out these two segments posted on Youtube).

Overall, a light and enjoyable film that may end in you standing in front of the mirror making your own effort to impersonate the best of the best!

The Trip is recommended for those inclined for a good laugh and all lovers of food!

The BC Review Rating - B+

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The BC Review: Stone

I have been wanting to see the Robert De Niro and Edward Norton psychological thriller, Stone, since opening night some three or four months ago, but until last night, never got the chance. Although not quite as good as I had hoped, Stone leaves a powerful mark on the psyche. That is, for better or worse, it leaves you thinking (never a bad thing in my opinion).

Stone opens with a young couple living in suburbia circa late 1960s, an Italian man with greased hair sits in an armchair sipping Jack Daniels and watching television. His young auburn-haired wife strives to get his attention, but is rebuffed. Fast forward a few moments we see the woman carrying the couple's small child up the stairs to her bedroom, her mother tenderly kissing her before turning to leave. But for some reason the woman stops. Her attention is placed on a small fly caught in the screen of the window. She watches this fly as it furiously flaps its wings, creating a grating buzzing sound, chillingly contrasting with the quiet room and pastoral scene below the child's window.

Unable to save the trapped insect, the woman descends down the stairs. The tension builds. She enters the living room, stops, and addresses her husband. Four simple words come out - "I am leaving you." The man turns, runs up the stairs, grabs his daughter from her bed and holds her out the bedroom window, threatening to drop her. The wife pleads and promises - "I will not leave you."

We are now in present day.

We learn more about the man. His name is Jack. He is life-long prison psychiatrist three months shy of retirement. The woman, his wife Madylyn, appears broken and distant - she has learned to live a life with Jack; not a healthy or loving one, but a life.

Jack (played by Robert De Niro) is the doorway to the outside for his patients. To get 'out there', you must go through him. He's had many patients, some tough, some not so tough, some clearly described as con artists, but it is not until he meets Stone (played by Edward Norton), that he is truly challenged. Stone, a convicted arsonist, believes he has served his time (8 years out of 10-15) has a job lined up on the outside, a record of good behavior in prison, and a loving wife who has been faithfully awaiting his return. Jack has dealt with thousands just like him. Young, cocky, raring to get out. But there is something Jack does not know - Stone is a master manipulator. His one goal, his only goal, to get out, consumes him. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Edward Norton is one of the most authentic actors out there. He does not disappoint as the arsonist, adorned with tattoos on his forearms, corn rows, and piercing eyes. His portrayal of a young man with an unsavory past and not-so-hidden agenda is stirring and reminiscent of his role as a violent white supremacist in American History X. Just listening to this guy carry on in his vaguely southern accent and self-deluded grandeur makes my skin crawl. An excellent performance.

Stone both loves and uses his wife. Perhaps telling of his feelings for her, he likens his wife to an 'alien' stating she does not feel as others feel, she does not act as others act, and most events she treats as simply games. Lucetta (played by Milla Jovovich) is arguably the most interesting character in the film and Milla gives an honest and visceral performance as the strong-willed vixen.

Finally, interwoven throughout this thriller is the presence of God and the Church. It seems to guide the characters along and we experience each struggling to define what God means to him/her. The line between 'good' and 'evil' is blurred and each character makes her/his own way through the use and study of divinity - and often failing to understand its true meaning and place in their lives.

- Jack spends much of the film driving in his car, listening to preachers using radio as a powerful medium. But we see he is beginning to fall apart at the seams, visibly questioning his faith. His wife Madylyn reads every night from the Bible, often asking Jack to finish the blessings. He often loses his place.

- Stone begins to experiment with God as well, only he takes a different angle. The clear bastardization of religion.

- To Lucetta, there is no God.

Stone will leave you questioning and perhaps wanting more.

The Bee Charmer Review Rating: C -

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The BC Review: The Fighter

I suppose a celebration is in order - this is my first post of the New Year! Happy New Year everyone! Fortunately, there seem to be quite a few good flicks opening this year (and so early on) - hopefully this is telling of what the year has in store for us movie-buffs!

I am happy to report one of the first ones of the 2011, based on the true life story of Micky Ward and his brother Dickie Eklund, The Fighter, is hands down one of the best sports-themed films I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. I may even go as far as to say this is one of best films of the year (early, I know, but I'm in the gambling mood!). For those of you like myself who may not be up on the sports scene, let alone, the boxing world, I will tell you that flat out The Fighter gives you a feel for what goes on behind the scenes of the sporting world and the dynamics of family.

In the late 1980s - mid 1990s Micky Ward, hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts, was making his way into the world of boxing -- following in the foot steps of his once great half-brother, Dickie Eklund, aka "The Pride of Lowell". The Fighter is the true story of their lives, full of chaos, drama, love, sacrifice, and ultimately, enduring support for one another.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the up and coming Micky Ward. Rumors have it Wahlberg hand-picked this film, serving as its producer, and physically preparing for it - consistently training his arms, legs, and well, fists - for several years. It shows! As many of you know, I am an admiring Wahlberg fan (catch him in The Departed, Date Night, Rock Star, and Boogie Nights to name a few of his highlights), and yes, he was genuine and convincing as the Irish underdog, but paled in comparison to the real star of the film - Christian Bale.

Christian Bale plays Ward's older half-brother, Dickie Eklund, a former pro boxer who (arguably) bested the great Sugar Ray Leonard, however has fallen from grace and battles a crippling addiction to crack cocaine. Our first glimpse of Bale is in the opening scene of the film. Suffering in the sweltering summer heat, we see the camera following Micky as he does back-breaking work sweeping the streets of Lowell while Dickie follows-- jovial in mind and in spirit throwing fake punches at his kid brother. The camera pans out and we see an emaciated Bale, easily 50 lbs lighter than normal (this is no Dark Knight) with a sweat-stained shirt, backwards hat, shorts, and Timberlands. We soon learn that HBO is filming Dickie -- he is set to make a come back and is apparently a very good showman (dancing around working his fancy ringside footwork, mugging for the camera, and stopping to kiss and hug various women on the street). Bale truly transforms into what we can all imagine the real Dickie would look like -- a battered crack addict with a glory-filled past and a not-so-bright future.

Amy Adams lends her charm to the film as well. Playing Micky's girlfriend, Charlene, sassy red-headed bar tender who partied too much and dropped out of college. Charlene is dynamic - it's evident she loves Micky and she is strong, constantly battling Micky's (on all accounts crazy) family. Starting with Micky's no less than six sisters (some real, some half, some adopted) and Micky's mother/manager, Alice, expertly played by Melissa Leo, and of course, Dickie. But she does it well - she loves her man, she sticks by him, and she teaches him that love comes in all forms.

Finally, we come to Micky and Dickie's mom, Alice Ward, played by Melissa Leo. Alice is exactly what one would expect of a woman who's lived a hard life and tries to do what's best for her family but just can't get out of her own way to see the damage she is doing to them. Alice is bleach blond, chain smoking, loud, and if nothing else, ambitious. She manages Micky and she'll be damned if anyone else will take her place (even if it means putting her son's future in jeopardy). We want to hate Alice for what she does to her son (mostly Micky, but Dickie has suffered at her hands too) but in the end we do see she is a mother with nothing but the best intentions.

In addition to the actors (all of whom deserve an award nomination - Bale and Adams likely an award win), there are two factors that put this film at the top of my list for best film of the year.

1. The locale
2. The cinematography

As I mentioned, the film takes place in Lowell. As my friends from Massachusetts put it - Lowell is easily considered the "deep south" of MA. Everything from the accents (think Boston with a much harsher sound) to the clothing (circa late 1980s-early 1990s), to the make-up (lots of eye shadow and pink lip gloss), to the hair (easily the best part of the sisters- huge bangs sticky with hairspray), and even the bar, feel authentic. It's as if the audience is transplanted from our cozy AMC seats to the gritty streets of Lowell 25 years ago.

The second aspect that makes this film great is the cinematography. As we see Micky slowing climbing the ladder to success the audience is taken on that journey with him through time. When we see Ward fighting in the arena during a televised event the film quality itself actually changes and it looks as though we are watching him fight not only on television, but on our old tube television complete with old school HBO graphics, sound quality, lighting, and music. This level of detail takes the film to an entirely new place and in this reviewer's opinion, firmly secures its place at the award winners' table.

The Fighter is recommended for fans of the sports biopic, dramas, and of course The Dark Knight and Marky Mark.

The Bee Charmer Review Rating: A