LIFE’S A BREEZE

Fionnula Flanagan is cinema’s gift from Ireland, that country’s most engaging actress of a certain age, perhaps the equivalent here in the U.S. of Blythe Danner. But her presence in LIFE’S A BREEZE, presumably an ironic title, cannot save the movie from being little more than a sitcom that you might find on commercial tv or, to be magnanimous, on a cable station like HBO. LIFE’S A BREEZE, taken from a sign on the wall of the Dublin-area house presided over by Nan (Fionnula Flanagan), is the location of an extended family of the unemployed, the slackers, and of high-spirited citizens who despite their financial hardships find warmth, comfort, and a lot of laughs in their togetherness.

NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS 2014 – LONGLIST ANNOUNCEMENT

With the announcement this week of the Longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards, the previous year of outstanding achievements in American publishing, as adjudged by writers and peers in the realm of letters, has come into focus. The National Book Foundation, which presents the annual awards, has assembled panels overseeing the four categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature, and after reading all of the submissions – which must be written by American authors and published by American publishers, and typically range in number from approximately 150 titles in Poetry to over 500 in Nonfiction – the respective panels have settled on 10 titles from which in mid-October they will cull the shortlist of five finalists in each discipline. Thereafter, there will be a public reading of the finalists’ work on November 18th, and the following day the four winners will be chosen by the respective panels over lunch prior to the announcement of their selections at the evening gala awards ceremony on November 19th.

THE GUEST

If you were fortunate enough to have seen the director’s 2011 movie YOU’RE NEXT, you’ll say THE GUEST is right up Adam Wingard’s alley. YOU’RE NEXT features a group of toughs, ax murderers in fact, who invade a family reunion, and whose victims are ready to say their prayers when one of their number proves equally adept at killing. The title guest of Wingard’s latest—scripted by Simon Barrett who was on Wingard’s team for YOU’RE NEXT and took a hand at writing V/H/S—is as charming as Ted Bundy and just as psychopathic. He oozes his way into an upscale family’s beautifully decorated house in the fictional town of Moriarty, New Mexico, getting their sympathies by identifying himself as the best friend of one Caleb, who died in Iraq. He is so polite, throwing out “Sir” and “Ma’am” and “I-don’t-want-to-impose” that of course he is asked to stay for a few days. Calling himself David (Dan Stevens—from “Downtown Abbey”), the guest wins the trust of Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley), her husband Spencer (Leland Orser), 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and especially high-school student Luke Peterson (Brendan Meyer). In the last case, David makes mincemeat of four bullies who had regularly taunted the dorky Luke by provoking them in a bar and taking revenge. How can we in the audience not sympathize with a fellow who wants only to protect the clan?

HONEYMOON

It probably happens more often than we think, and not just in the movies. A wedding reception is paid for, the couple walk down the aisle, then one of them gets cold feet and bolts. In at least one case I know, a bride and groom are at the airport getting ready for their honeymoon in Hawaii. The bride goes to the women’s room and disappears, never to be seen again by her husband—no foul play, just cold feet again. Leigh Janiak’s HONEYMOON similarly asks by implication: are all honeymoons happy occasions that you think about for years to come? Even better: do you really know the person you married, and do you learn as early as the honeymoon that the beautiful wife and handsome husband are not the persons you thought them to be?

IDA

Director Pawel Pawlikowski is known to cineastes largely for his passionate MY SUMMER OF LOVE, which charts a meeting between women with opposite predilections; one a tomboy looking for an alternative to the emptiness of life, the other cynical, spoiled and well educated. You can see that IDA is right up the director’s alley as now he posits two women as opposite as they can be; one a naive 18-year-old committed to taking vows in a convent, the other a hardened Communist member who, as a judge in the Poland of the 1960s sent people to their deaths. IDA has twists that are usually associated with the works of John Le Carre except that in this case the changes that occur to the title character pull her in opposite directions at the age of 18 when, for the first time in her life, she encounters emotions and epiphanies wholly unknown to a young, sheltered woman.

JERKY BOYS

Among the number of specialty food niches one could survey at the International Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center this year I was particularly struck by the expanding varieties of packaged dried meat products – and this was only in the North Pavilion annexed to the main building of the Javits. Certainly I have noted more and more different brands of various beef and other jerkys on offer in the supermarkets, delis and specialty food shops around the city, but the International Fancy Food show, as always, featured varieties I had no prior knowledge of. After sampling a number of these over the time since the show, I can offer an account (by no means exhaustive) of notable products in this area.

THE CONGRESS

Ari Folman, who directed THE CONGRESS, states in the production notes that he hopes his new film will make the audience appreciate good, old-fashioned movie-making, with live actors rather than digitally scanned persons that can be manipulated by animators to play any role desired. Yet given the eye candy, THE CONGRESS could have the opposite effect, at least on those people in the theater seats who are open to experimentation in cinema. While the first segment is down-to-earth, dealing with the efforts of a producer and an agent to convince an actress (Robin Wright) to sell her soul and allow herself to be digitalized, most of the remainder, fifty-five minutes’ worth (taking two and one-half years to animate), is psychedelic, resembling an acid trip with stunning imagery. Yet despite all the beauty, the color, the fine acting by Robin Wright, you could not be blamed if you fidget in your seat as the movie is overlong, the dialogue often pretentious, the narrative on the loose side.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

A bumper sticker that has made its presence felt on New York City cars features an American flag with the slogan, “These colors don’t run.” Would that this were true. Let’s forget about Iraq (I guess the slogan was printed some years ago) and look to the most humiliating escape the world’s strongest power had to make in a hurry, and that, of course, was from Vietnam. Rory Kennedy, who has made a stunning documentary of the event, was seven years old at the time that President Gerald Ford ordered a full-scale withdrawal of all U.S. forces and civilians in April 1975. The prolific resume of this youngest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleven children, includes such documentaries as GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB, about the scandal involving the behavior of U.S. guardians at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison’ and ETHEL, an insider’s view of the wife and later widow of Robert Kennedy. She was scheduled to marry on July 17, 1999 but postponed the event because of the death in an airplane crash of her cousin, John F. Kennedy, Jr.

THE NOTEBOOK

In his 1954 dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding creates a world of British boys as sole inhabitants of an island without adult authorities. They try to govern themselves but end up with disaster. Simply put, the youngsters become barbarians. In THE NOTEBOOK, we discover that adult authorities do nothing to civilize a pair of twin boys. To the contrary, the youngsters, copying what they see around them, imitate the adults. They become barbarians. In short, given the right circumstances, kids without adults can turn savage, and kids with adults can become unemotional, unfeeling, and violent.

ARE YOU HERE aka YOU ARE HERE

ARE YOU HERE is a buddy movie not unlike those of the 1980s. This one finds a friendship between Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a TV weatherman and serial dater, and Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a person judged emotionally unstable who is being helped through his long-term friendship with Dallas.

LOVE IS STRANGE

The recession brought on by the bankers and Wall Street may be over, but tell that to the hundreds of thousands of newly minted college grads who must remain living with their parents because they can’t find jobs. But, what about the millions of people who have been laid off from their jobs, have gone through their unemployment benefits, and are still looking? If they can’t afford to remain in their apartments and houses, what do they do? If they’re lucky enough to find friends and relatives who will take them in, that’s fine, but there’s a limit to how long these benefactors will put up with their guests. Then what? If the unemployed wind up on the streets, I don’t see them. Where do they go?

THE ONE I LOVE

The main reason for the high divorce rate in the U.S. is probably not adultery or violence but simply the disappointment that one or both partners are simply not the same as they were when they met and courted. Either they have grown apart, developing different interests, or they can’t understand why they don’t feel the same passion that electrified them during their honeymoon. Just my opinion, but my viewpoint is given graphic representation by thirty-one year old Charlie McDowell in his full-length directing debut, using actors who are experienced in small, indie dramas and comedies. With Ted Danson in a small role and Mark Duplass largely improvising, think “Cheers” meets “Your Sister’s Sister,” as the popular star of the long-running tv episodes crosses paths with one of the great avatars of mumblecore. This is not to ignore the starring role of Elisabeth Moss, heretofore known to audiences in the brilliant cable tv series “Mad Men.”