Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)



People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.

The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.

This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.

Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.

1973 - Flo-Bol_ UnaBreveVacanza- 1973_V de_sica (13)

The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.

It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.


Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.
Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.

The cold, empty void that follows prestige and Oscar picture overload — a season that typically ends at the end of January, when I’m usually caught up with whatever I haven’t seen already — brings a sort of lethargy. If it weren’t for the sheer level of art-house and independent theaters in NYC who open the year with a handful of new releases and smaller festivals — New York Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, and Film Comments Selects, to name three — there would be precious little for me to watch.

Fortunately, having friends who also watch foreign and indies on VOD or iTunes helps, and as of late I’ve been introduced to a plethora of Bollywood movies that I’d like to share with you.

The first of the trio is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), a film that is as near as perfect as a thriller as I’ve come across. To put it mildly, Hitchcock himself would be proud of this accomplished, fascinating, richly plotted movie. Kahaani opens with a masterful sequence pregnant with pure suspense that starts in a lab where a scientist employs a lethal gas to kill mice and cuts to a scene in a subway train in Kolkata where people meet the same fate in a terrorist attack that recalls the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995.

Kahaani fast-forwards to two years later. Vidya Bagchi, an IT consultant and wife of an IT Specialist, Arnab Bagchi, who was contracted by the National Data Center and of whom she has not heard of, has arrived from London with the intent to find him. Despite her inquiries, the Kolkata police seems rather inept or passive to help, but a rookie cop, Satyoshi Sinya (Parambrata Chatterjee), sympathizes with her situation and agrees to assist her. Soon enough, Vidya and Rana learn that no one has heard of Vidya’s husband at the NDC, nor the hotel where he claimed to stay via photos sent to her phone. In the meantime, the head of the HR department makes a discovery and informs Vidya that Arnab resembled Milan Damji, an NDC employee who now has a restricted file. Parallel to this, a shlubby man who works at a claims department gets a text to eliminate someone. That someone is the very head of the NDC HR department.

Hitchcock once (loosely, in a sequence of quotes) expressed that he didn’t care if his story didn’t exactly tie in perfectly but managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. Kahaani offers a riveting conspiracy story in which a pregnant woman is at the center, inside a circle of danger that draws closer and closer and in a key scene, leads to an intermission literally on a breathtaking cliffhanger that had me screaming. I can’t imagine any thriller as of late that has managed to cause this effect on me in since the shocking revelation of Gone Girl and then its blood drenched sex scene.

One of the many surprises I discovered in watching Kahaani was that it offered me the opportunity to witness the city as a living participant other than as a postcard. Ghosh clearly mapped his locations out well and used them and the city’s religious festivities to the story’s advantage:  early in the movie Vidya admires some women in startling red and white saris. These saris are used for the Durga Puja celebration; later on, she will herself wear one in a nail-biting sequence filled with vivid red symbolism.

Vidya Balan acquits herself in the role of Hitchcock blonde/woman in peril, but who is also as astute as the men around her, able to hack computers and outsmart bandits. She’s given solid support by Parambrata Chatterjee as the young cop who has a crush on her, and especially by the compelling, super-creepy performance of Saswatta Chatterjee as a man no one should ever want to cross paths with. Again, I know I said it before, but this is a superb thriller with many twists and turns, and with a monster of a denouement that will make you think for days.

Below is a trailer for Kahaani:


Hooked on Film rating:

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

There comes a moment in many actors’ careers where they essentially stop reaching for that higher performance and basically go on autopilot, repeating down to the minimum gestures the One Character / Affectations that made them famous. Come to think of it, we can’t but not expect it from them. Dame Maggie Smith  arches her eyebrow and give you a well delivered line; Tom Cruise bares his chest and attempts to recreate his invulnerability in every single film he’s in. With Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress not known for her depth of performances but for an HBO series where she played a shoe-loving sex columnist who also, let’s face it, was kind of a social climber, this has become her Everest. It seems that from then on, every movie Parker does she runs the gamut of Carrie Bradshaw and Carrie Bradshaw, and in a way, that’s okay. It works for her. We actually like it that way.

In All Roads Lead to Rome, a title that telegraphs the entire plot and hopes you’re in for the madcap ride like it’s the very first time, Parker, playing a single mother variation of Bradshaw, takes to Italy with her problematic, pink-haired daughter Summer (because, why not?) to show her the countryside. Also, to steer her clear out of doing time for her boyfriend who’s been caught with several kilos of pot and will face jail time, but wants Summer to take the fall for him. What-a-keeper.

Mother and daughter haven’t arrived when complications ensue, and the movie tries to milk language barriers for comedic effect in ways that not only don’t work, but backfire when things really take a turn. Somehow, Maggie finds herself walking back into the life of a former beau Luca (are all Italian men named Luca??), who lives in Tuscany with his perpetually grumpy mother (played by Claudia Cardinale — yes, that Claudia Cardinale). Now, you would think that the movie would stop to admire the sheer scenery and at least have one slow scene of Getting to Know You and establish character motivations, but the movie is on overdrive as it is, and in less than an eye-blink, while Luca and Maggie are off somewhere, Summer, who only wants to go back to the USA, takes off with Luca’s mother in tow. Slow down, people! You’re in the Italian countryside!

But why Luca’s mother? It seems she has a story-line too. She just wants to meet the love of her life who’s still in Rome, waiting for her. So off they go, and after them, Maggie and Luca, in an extended chase sequence that manages to up the ante in terms of miscommunications and screwball overtones. You can literally second-guess this one if you’ve seen any comedy of the likes of It Happened One Night and beyond. I’m not even going to describe it. All Roads Lead to Rome is a movie on autopilot wasting the talents of pretty much everyone in it (including Paz Vega who shows up as a news reporter aimed at also being something of a rival for Parker) that somehow, by the virtue of how light and inconsequential it is, manages not to flop. This is romance, ready-made, with prefabricated emotions, just for you.

On Amazon Instant Video and iTunes



Hooked on Film rating:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Here is an ambitious movie that wishes to present unto you, the viewer, an overreaching, multi-leveled series of story-lines designed to present a cohesive, thematic whole not too dissimilar to the likes of greater ensembles of the likes Robert Altman and Woody Allen directed (i. e. Nashville, Gosford Park, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and almost succeeds. I say almost because when we’ve seen these pictures one too many times, the freshness of the material becomes a bit stale and staged. If anyone recalls a little movie called Crash that inexplicably won the Oscars in 2006, then that is the one that this movie seems to pay homage to. It didn’t work well (for the most part, except in some isolated circumstances), and it doesn’t quite deliver this time.

Anesthesia opens rather dramatically: on an Upper West Side corner, Walter (Sam Waterston) crosses the street to buy some flowers at a deli. Moments later a couple, Sam and Nicole (Corey Stoll and Mickey Sumner) get jolted out of their sleep and rush downstairs to find out that the man we just met has been brutally stabbed in what seems a random attack. Suddenly, Anesthesia goes back in time to about a week prior to its opening scene, and we’re introduced to Walter as a philosophy professor at Columbia, delivering his final classes before starting a life of retirement alongside his wife Marcia (Glenn Close). Everyone that he has met or will encounter within this space and time has some form of isolation in the form of escapism.

For instance, there is Sophie (Kristen Stewart, essaying another complex role). When we first meet her she’s sitting in the college cafeteria when she has a rather unpleasant encounter with a guy who wants her chair, to which she refuses. It turns ugly, and then we see that Sophie seems to be at odds with the world around her, a thing she copes with by injuring herself. Sam and Nicole, who encounter Walter at the opening of Anesthesia, are in the middle of an affair. Sam, allegedly, is in China, his wife (Gretchen Mol) in Northern New Jersey, drinking her pain away, suspicious that he is lying to her. Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Jessica Hecht) are coping with a lump on her breast while their kids get high to cope with their parents’ tension. And adding to this mix are two unrelated characters: Jeffrey (Michael Williams), a high-powered African-American lawyer who is trying to force his childhood friend Joe  (K. Todd Freeman) out of his drug-addiction and back to sobriety.

So, as this stands, there are a lot of characters to cover in the barely 90 minutes of running time. For the most part, Tim Blake Nelson succeeds without making the entire premise look too affected. What bothered me a little was the fact that Anesthesia seemed to, yet again, be mostly a front to present White People’s Problems under the guise of racial tensions that happen rather unexpectedly late in the film. Everyone has a certain degree of self-absorption, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the characters that surround Walter, although the one character that does come through is the one who couldn’t be further from this circle of over-privileged White people living in the clouds of Upper West Side domesticity: Joe.

Beyond Joe’s addiction there are gears and cogs turning. There is a character — a real person — trying to come out. Sadly, Anesthesia relegates Joe to a hospital bed, yelling into thin air, completely dependent on the phone call from Jeffrey that fails to arrive (Jeffrey’s met a female lawyer of probably White, but ill-defined ethnicity, for a tryst). Joe’s biggest scene comes late, and is as mysterious as it is pregnant with possibilities. It’s again, inexplicable to me why it’s also left unexplored and instead goes for something that seems to be a necessary cop out that brings the story back to its opening scene.

Anesthesia is a story enamored of its own concept that has moments of humor, moments of pathos, but ultimately doesn’t know where to go once the moment that it — and we — go “Aha!” arrives. That n itself is a crying shame.




Hooked on Film rating:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

During the cold, dead slumber of January and February when the dreck that can only fit during this time (post Holidays) gets released, I sauntered into the AMC theatre with little expectations to catch what I thought would be a painless incursion into zombie horror mixed with genteel, 18th century sensibilities. Mind you, I was only drawn to this knowing I was probably not its target audience. The mere fact that this was in some way related to the original source, which has since been one of my favorite go-to novels to read even when desperation calls and not a book in sight, called to me.

So there I was, sitting in the rear as per custom — I can’t sit near people who chew, talk, check their cell phones, or even as much as breathe loudly and this is the place in the theater that is the least occupied even on opening night — prepared to see either a massive misfire or a grave mistake. Suddenly, I heard Lily James, fresh out of Downton Abbey, recite the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, with modifications to fit this new incarnation . . . and I was sold. Jane, you can requiescat in pace. Your book has been done in a much more modern style, and your characters and their story-lines remain pretty much uncorrupt and even when battling the rotting dead, reciting some of your lines makes this a much more livelier affair.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is as light as popcorn and as silly as the combination of the two elements looks like, but it falls under that nebulous area of date movie meets gore and delivers it in spades. As mentioned, Lily James brings a lot of her previous roles (Lady Rose from Downton and even Cinderella from Cinderella) to her Elizabeth Bennet, and is the standout sister (much like in the novel, despite their being five and one of them running off late in the novel). [Although one early scene where all five sisters defend a house from zombies had me cheering. These girls can kick ass!] Sam Riley is one of the more accurate Darcys I’ve seen, his face expressing precious little and his voice tending to sound cold and unfeeling, but progressively more human as his emotions slowly surface. Jack Huston walks away with the picture as Wickham, and while his role is expanded here, it fits the purpose.

And the zombies. There are lots of them, but frankly, other than an initial scare or two, they’re more fodder for being reduced to mincemeat once the action starts. All of this is handled quite well without any exaggerations — they don’t suddenly become superhuman, for once — but somewhat closer to the ones featured in 2013’s Warm Bodies. So, in essence, the movie gets it fairly right, it satisfies, and that’s all there is to it.



Hooked on Film rating:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Coen Brother’s newest film opens up with a man in a confession booth, disclosing his peccadilloes to a mostly unseen priest who then informs him that it’s been here a mere 24 hours since his last confession. That doesn’t seem to matter; the man lays out every single transgression as if his existence and peace of mind would depend on it. Once we realize who this man is, and what he does for a living, our perspective shifts, and it all becomes strangely clear.

He’s Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” working in Hollywood who’s job is keeping actors in line and out of transgressions that could tarnish the studio and result in a loss of profit. Back in the 50s, when Hail Caesar! takes place, there was such a thing as an actor losing his or her career as a direct result from unprofessional behavior, scandal, or being labeled a Communist, as opposed to today where no matter how badly an actor behaves, all he or she has to do is open up a Twitter account, go on reality TV, and they’re back on the spotlight, accruing millions of followers in the blink of an eye.

But not to digress: Mannix starts off his day by paying a visit to problematic, unmarried  star Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen, sublime). When we see her, she’s a blonde revelation in an aquamarine swimsuit performing synchronized swimming in the style of Esther Williams. As she gets lifted into the air, the tension in her face and posture is barely visible, but one that could crack through at any moment (and finally does). The reason for this is revealed when Mannix questions her: she’s pregnant and has a vague idea of who the father could be. Her delivery is blowsy perfection and defines image before reality: Moran, while quite beautiful, is nothing more than a fantastically vulgar starlet with a thick New Yawk accent who sits with her legs spread apart. She’s got no sophistication, but is made to show off a package that the public clearly buys. And now Mannix has to find a way that her little secret never gets revealed.


Mannix has other problems as well: rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, playing twins!) are pursuing him relentlessly for dirt. They’ve got a vested interest in revealing the secret behind Baird Whitlock’s entry into films. Whitlock (George Clooney) is currently filming a version of King of Kings as a Roman centurion who, quite literally, finds Christ, but also finds something else: a group of intellectuals with Communist interests called “The Future”. The Future have an extra drug a goblet of prop wine Whitlock is supposed to drink in order to kidnap him and demand a ransom of 100,000 dollars, which Mannix considers a slight trade-off for Whitlock, who seems to be falling for The Future’s ideals. At the same time, Mannix is thrown into the task of expanding rising Western star Hobie Doyle’s appeal and place him in a comedy of manners directed by Laurence Laurentz. The catch is, Doyle has limited acting range, and Laurentz, much to his displeasure, has to coach the man into delivering his lines in upper crust English. Not a good match.

There are other plot threads sewing themselves into the fabric of this 1950s Ulysses and the Coens deliver each scene seamlessly. Having Mannix — a rather fictionalized and watered down version of the real man, who from accounts, could be rather ruthless — be the voice of reason surrounded by narcissists and clueless people gives Hail, Caesar! a center that otherwise it would lack. His dilemma — to leave the movie industry for a better offer in a company (Lockheed) which would allow him to be home by dinnertime is perhaps the most identifiable. While Whitlock finds Communism, and Doyle discovers more than he would like, and other players move within their self-centered universes, Mannix is here the most human of the bunch.

Hail, Caesar is a love letter to Hollywood: from the naming of a Latina starlet (cue an unseen yet pivotal character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo), a sequence straight out of On the Town (who knew Channing Tatum could dance like that?), to a short scene with Frances McDormand as a film editor. It looks and feels of the time and place with a speck of gloss. It’s also often funny, giving glimpses of the studio system and the artificiality that went into making the films that became classics. Even so, there’s just a slight hint of a darker picture just peeking through the day’s events, but it’s not something the Coens delve into, preferring a lighter tone with faint screwball touches, and an ending that perfectly brings Mannix full circle, ready for a moment of much needed peace. A fixer’s work is never done.

Sunset Song

Opening night at Film Comment Selects, Terence Davies new film Sunset Song.
Opening night at Film Comment Selects, Terence Davies new film Sunset Song.

Hooked on Film rating:

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Stories about hardship in the days of old, where characters were forced into early adulthood and harsh destinies are the kind of stories that make great novels. Sunset Song, appropriately titled, refers to the time gone by, innocence lost, and the resilience of human nature. It should have been a much better picture, and perhaps with a much more assured screenwriter and a  more dynamic and fluid representation, it might have been a truly wonderful epic. As it stands, Sunset Song is a gorgeously diluted account that is so restrained and modest in its approach to its somewhat dark subject matter that it mutes any impact it might have had, had the elements of family dysfunction been retained. Even so, it’s not a complete failure. There are moments of picturesque beauty reminiscent of Terence Malick, circa Days of Thunder, and to a lesser degree, The Book of Life.

I’m going to say that Davies opted to give his movie a softer touch because as he himself has stated, he prefers the movies of old. That in itself is okay, sensibilities are sensibilities, but in the days of BBC turning out powerful dramas that are unafraid to show the grit as well as the rolling meadows, it indicates perhaps a refusal to engage. Davies prefers a more impressionistic tone here and often resorts to off-screen narration, which instead of adding to the events, manages to take away, leaving us somewhat irritated. Chris Guthrie for the first part of the movie is merely a clean slate of a girl, which does little to reveal her later resourcefulness and capacity for confrontation at a moment of abuse. For the most, Sunset Song is dominated by her father who looms over the household with an iron fist, punishing his son Will ruthlessly (until he runs away to Aberdeen), punishing his wife by getting her pregnant more times than she can handle, and punishing Chris in the worst possible of ways in the only scene that made me squirm.

Once his character leaves the story, Chris takes charge, and perhaps it’s too much a character for newcomer Agyness Deyn to handle, or perhaps Davies wrote her with soft edges, but the story becomes so muted that one wonders if it will reach a point where it comes full stop and refuses to budge. The only high point at this part of the movie is when Kevin Guthrie enters the picture as Ewan as the man Chris marries. He brings a sense of joy and love sorely lacking in the picture, and watch his reaction when Chris goes into labor and all he can do is wait and wait and wait. His character arc, for this reason, becomes more incomprehensible for the hard left turn it takes. There is just no warning, no basis for us to relate to what he experiences during World War I and returns not just a broken man but the literal reincarnation of Chris’ father.

Sunset Song has an ancient Hollywood appeal to it, but aside from its staid, almost stilted presentation, and the thick of its characters’ accents that makes it almost necessary to justify subtitles, it’s a dispassionate affair that might only appeal to lovers of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

The Witch

the witch

Hooked on Film grade: A

One of the most anticipated and talked about horror movies shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival finally gets its due release and boy, does it deliver chills in spades. First time director Robert Eggers clearly did his research. His picture is not just a frightening work of art, but also, a remarkably accurate period piece that opens up as a time-capsule and gives us a glimpse of the religious death-grip people were in.

Eggers’ setup is outrageously simple: because of a vague religious conflict, William, a man of fervent faith who desires to live closer to God’s will, gets banished from the English settlement and now must make do with his wife Katherine, and five sons. Off into the unknown they go, resettling at the edge of some thick woods, but you would believe life would be much better. As a farmer, William is a mess, and as a hunter, he’s completely useless. Katherine, even in stillness, seems to be on the border of some great hysteria. The younger twins haven’t a care in the world (and God, are they creepy!). Their older sons Thomasin and Caleb are close, and as an added dose of tension, Caleb has begun to notice his older sister’s entry into puberty.

The Witch takes off the moment the youngest child, William and Katherine’s newborn baby, disappears while Thomasin is watching him. The swiftness in which this occurs is disorienting indeed (as are Katherine’s painful cries of agony that begin a slow unraveling of her personality), but then the story reveals that it wasn’t an animal who took the baby from Thomasin’s care . . . but a woman.

It’s here where the first truly disturbing images start to bleed into the mostly gray picture. In chiaroscuro shots, we see a naked woman covered in blood, reducing something to liquid on a mortar and pestle. It doesn’t take long for us to realize what has happened, but the story has some rather nightmarish detours that creep into the fabric of this already fractured family — including a joke that Thomasin plays on her little sister where she calls herself a witch that will come to backfire on her, badly, after Caleb has a surreal encounter in the woods.

Eggers manages to create an almost unnerving sense of dread and suspense at every turn, and you don’t notice how deep you’re into the story until you start witnessing some truly horrific imagery, tainted and near-perverse. Because of the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch has an almost chronicled feel, and in a way, could serve as an allegory on what happens when society crumbles at the foot of chaos and anarchy and people quickly start turning on each other. One is never truly sure if Thomasin is or is not as innocent as she seems to be, but that’s the entire point of this engrossing picture. One could even state that there are no witches, and all this is just women on the verge yet rejecting their very natures.

Whatever one will make of it, The Witch is a slow-burn art-directed horror movie that is sure of itself and never gives into cheap scares, sudden, screeching violins, and the rest of the trappings of modern horror. This is a long days’ journey into the dark night of the soul, a love letter to stories like The Crucible and The Shining and even Cries and Whispers. This is what a horror movie should be about.