Victoria Jelinek

Sunshine Cleaning
December 31, 2015, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Published film reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

sunshine_cleaning_movie_posterThe heroine, Rose, is a single mom in need of a regular income who starts a business cleaning up crime scenes. The circumstances that prompt her need are multi-faceted. She’s poor. She’s trapped in an affair with her high-school sweetheart, who fathered her son but then married someone else. Her son is perpetually in trouble at school. Her mother is dead. Her father is a ‘chancer,’ whose moneymaking ideas almost never come off. And her sister, Norah, is a hard-living numskull.

Rose is a good mom. She ‘gets’ her son, and he seems like a nice boy, but the teachers and administrators accuse him of misbehaving and she can’t afford to send him to “a good school.” It’s Mac, the faithless love that abandoned her in the first place, that tips her off to the idea of a new business venture. He’s a cop who notices people get paid well for cleaning up after gruesome murders, and so Sunshine Cleaning is born. By the very nature of the work, Rose and Norah (who helps Rose with the business), witness the aftermath of lives irrevocably interrupted.

Does this sound sunny to you? It’s hard to make a feel-good film about murder scene clean- ups and broken lives. While the material has promise as a black comedy, Sunshine Cleaning’s attempt to keep a smiling face throughout is artificial. That said, it is a watchable film due to its cast. Amy Adams as Rose, and Emily Blunt as Norah, are effortlessly charming. As is Alan Arkin, who plays their father, perpetually hatching get-poor-quick schemes, and whose rapport with Rose’s son is heart-warming. If you’re in the mood for good acting, high production value, and can overlook the excessive cheerfulness of the script, despite the circumstances and events of the plot, then this is a movie worth watching.



Christmas Movie Watch List


Growing up, my family’s Christmas viewing was the films Valley of the Dolls and Lenny Bruce. While these remain staples in my holiday diet, in the years since I’ve lived at home my Christmas movie watch list has expanded.

Of course It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, is a Christmas classic. The plot is about an angel who shows a man what life would have been like had he never existed. It’s from 1946, so the black-and-white coloring may turn some people off, but it’s worth watching not only ‘cause it’s a great film that any self-respecting cinephile has watched, but because it’s dealing with disillusionment, depression, and the prospect of suicide– avant-garde themes to put on the big screen at the time.

For a bright, silly, funny film with a gracious helping of insight into elfin mores, Elf tops my list. Directed by Jon Favreau with Will Ferrell, it’s the story of a human raised in the North Pole who goes to New York City to find his biological father, played by James Caan. Mishaps and misunderstandings that appeal to all ages and personality types ensue as the two cultures meet.

A Christmas Story is a close second to Elf. Filmed in the 1980’s, it’s circa 1940’s and all Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder B.B. gun. In the days that lead up to Christmas, we get to know Ralphie’s family – his father’s penchant for swearing, his mother’s desire to placate, his little brother’s atrocious eating habits, his aunt’s namby-pamby gifts, and the trials and tribulations of playground politics. This is a movie full of warmth that will have you and your family laughing out loud in recognition of its characters, and the circumstances and events of their lives.

While Bad Santa may have made the watch list in my family had it been produced while I was still a tot, it’s not general family viewing. Billy Bob Thornton plays a con man that dresses up as Santa for Christmas in order to earn a bit of dosh, and he simply doesn’t give a fuck about others’ expectations of him once he dons the Claus outfit. Humorous and downright rude, this movie entertains by taking the idea about what a naughty Santa would look like to its extreme.

As a caveat to my final recommendation for Christmas movie fare, know that I grew up with Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live and am a fan of the cult classic film CaddyShack, so I forgive Chevy his later career transgressions. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is funny ‘cause the Griswold’s family’s mishaps at Christmas could be our own – obnoxious family guests for one thing…







Realizing that they share a common enemy in Margaret Thatcher, the police, and the conservative press, London-based gays and lesbians give support to striking coal miners in 1984 Wales.

PRIDE is exactly the kind of film British filmmakers do best: a focused local story based on hard facts and blended with sentimental fiction. It’s poignant and humorous at the same time. Add a stellar ensemble cast and a nostalgic soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself a film worth loving. I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my seat, my spine tingling in response to this film’s charm. I laughed. I cried. And in lieu of my inability to join their ranks and raise a fist in solidarity, I clapped with joy (and relief) that such artful and engaging films are being made.



Everest movie posterBase Camp Everest, 1996. Climbers from two commercial expeditions begin their final ascent to the summit. With little warning, a violent storm strikes the mountain and envelops them. The teams endure severe winds and subfreezing temperatures in their struggle to survive against the seemingly insurmountable odds.

Everest appears to have it all. A great locale, it’s set on the world’s mightiest mountain. It’s based on a real-life cliffhanger. The cast is stellar. The director is a cool Icelandic fellow. And, the co-screenwriter wrote Slumdog Millionaire and The Full Monty. Yet despite these elements and the filmmakers desire to create a spectacle, this movie is distinctly unthrilling.

It could have been gorgeous visually. In the least, a good landscape film. Instead, the mountains look like the sulphurous crust of an alien planet or a silty oceanic floor. The camera focuses on the individual actors in their color-coordinated outdoor gear, rather than what they’re seeing, which means context and visual possibilities are lost.

The storyline is presented as immutable fact, while various members of the ensemble cast make their way up the mountain in what is already their preordained fate. But why do they go? The film doesn’t seem to be interested in what might drive these characters up the side of a feral mountain to potential death. Is it for the views? In order to breath the thin air? To say that they’ve been there? We don’t know. We’re repeatedly told that the reason for these characters risking life-and-limb to climb Everest is the pseudo mountaineering philosophy, “Because it’s there.” But that doesn’t work for cinema. We have to feel like we’re there or it doesn’t send the chill up our spines. We have to feel as though we’re invested and relating on some level and if we don’t know anything, really, about the characters, how can we? It also infuriates me that Emily Watson and Robin Wright are relegated to playing the “mother hen” and the sidelined spouse, respectively.

As a caveat for my lackluster review, I concede that I may simply be the kind of person that doesn’t get into stories and films about mountains and mountaineers. It’s ironic, too, because I live in an alpinists ‘mecca.’ However, I watched this film with a friend who is a mountain guide, and who has climbed in the Himalayas (Ama Dablam). As the credits rolled and we made our way out of the cinema, I asked him what he thought. He softly chortled and replied, “It was totally unbelievable. Their clothes, hair, and equipment would have been really dirty…”


I Am Love (Io Sono L’Amore)

51VEnx3iQ9L._SY300_Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) left Russia to live with her husband in Milan. Despite being a member of a powerful, ancient, industrial Italian family and the esteemed mother of three, she is unfulfilled. Then, a chance meeting with her son’s friend, a talented chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), revitalizes her.

One gets the sense you are watching a bygone era with the formality of tradition and the grace of luxury that pervades this film, supported by beautiful cinematography that sweeps over the tapestries, stones, tiles, chandeliers, polished tables, and the white gloves of servants. In the style of prior Italian directors, such as Antonioni or Visconti, the visual style is lush and sensual. While the plot is not original, and the movie is arguably melodramatic (one thinks of many stories about a working class ‘stud’ who rekindles passion in an aristocratic malcontent, namely D.H. Lawrence), the visual display and Tilda Swinton’s acting make this film fresh and authentic. From the opening scenes in which her face is controlled while she manages a grand family party, to the climax of the film in which it is in ruins, your gaze is absolutely fixed on her alabaster face. Long after its conclusion, her expressive face and its subtle reactions to the events and circumstances of the story, haunted me.



When FBI specialist Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) starts working with two dodgy defence advisors, she finds herself on the ethically blurred front of America’s War on Drugs.

I was so excited to see Sicario because publications whose opinions I respect hailed it one of “the best” movies of the year, and a “must see” film. Additionally, the cast, namely Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin, are excellent actors I admire immeasurably. While I’d concede that my high expectations played some part in the disappointment I felt when I did see the film, Sicario goes on my list of movies (which are only a handful out of hundreds viewed) worth walking out on. And I would have, too, had my friend not refused to leave due to the expense of our cinema tickets. The only redemptive element in my opinion was the cinematography, but coupled with the cliché-ridden script, it becomes an accomplice in the hackneyed story and its characterisations.

Josh Brolin is meant to be a government operative whose cynical experience and daring makes him a cowboy who ‘always bags his man’. This is conveyed in a flat-footed manner, with farcical direction and no dialogue to support the idea that he’s actually a shrewd hunter. Benecio del Toro plays a shadowy character that we’re not sure is on the ‘good side’ or the ‘bad side,’ but it doesn’t matter, because, once again, his lines are so vapid and the plot is so thin that you don’t really care. And Emily Blunt. Good grief. She’s meant to be a young, up-and-coming ‘shit-hot’ FBI agent, but there is absolutely nothing in terms of dialogue, action, or her acting that supports the idea that she’s astute, capable, and one you’d want to be ‘in the foxhole with’ under fire. Instead, she comes across as a self-righteous blowhard, and, moreover, a hindrance to any real action that does take place in the film.

I’m perplexed as to how this movie is such a hit with critics…In this viewer’s opinion, if your keen to see it ‘cause of the reviews you’d thus far read, the tagline, concept, or the cast, then I’d recommend waiting till it’s on DVD.

Pitch Perfect

Pitch-PerfectBeca (Anna Kendrick) is cajoled into joining a female acapella singing group when she arrives for her first year at Barden University. Despite her initial scepticism about the troupe, Beca finds herself invested and wants to help them break their losing streak.

I’m not into musicals, and never got the attraction to the hit TV program Glee, but I love this film. Sure, there’s singing, but the choices are slick and the soundtrack, combined with the story’s milieu and simple plot, remind me of the John Hughes and Cameron Crowe films I grew up on and adored. The acting is as an ensemble, with characters that are astutely observed and well-written. The script is clever, and a catty wit abounds (thank goodness in these days of political correctness). Arguably, the film swerves from one daffy set-up to the next, but the characters and cast keep it anchored, it never loses sight of its story, and it’s really funny.

World War Z

World-War-Z-NewPosterAn unexpected outbreak of a zombie plague leaves the world in shreds. Former UN worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family receive refuge on a governmental ship safely anchored at sea in exchange for Gerry traveling around the globe to find a cure.

Adapted from the grim book written by Max Brooks (son of Mel), we journey around the globe with Gerry, a family man who once ran operations for the UN in countries were most mortals wouldn’t survive a day. With governmental and military infrastructures in disarray, and entire countries experiencing radio silence, Gerry, alone, must trace the origin of the outbreak. Most apocalyptic blockbusters open by teasing the audience about what’s to come, but this one hits the ground running, with an entire city (Philadelphia) being overrun before you’ve settled comfortably in your seat. The opening scene – in which Director Marc Forster keeps the monsters practically unseen, creating an unnerving sense of the chaos — also sets the pace for the rest of the film, in which millions of people die, but scarcely a drop of blood is seen. Horror fans longing for large scale carnage will likely come away unsatisfied, but I appreciated the lack of gore. And the film is scary due to horrifying imagery, such as when the zombies go after prey, swarming like angry locust, screeching and chomping their teeth.

I watched this movie because I’d read about the development and production debacle involved in its making, and was curious to see how it ended up. Granted, it’s arguably bland, few of the characters are memorable, and the ending feels abrupt and flat-footed, but it’s also slick, taut, and holds together nicely. It’s certainly not the disaster many predicted it would be during its distressing birthing. In fact, despite costing an enormous amount of money for Paramount to make (a purported 230 million), it doubled this expenditure in worldwide box office sales alone…


The Monuments Men

monuments_menAt the end of WWII, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) puts together a crew of art experts willing to brave the front lines in order to rescue continental Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazi’s obliteration of the pieces, and the Soviets pillaging of them.

I unabashedly like George Clooney, who also directed and co wrote this film. I know he’s arguably “too earnest,” and a bit “too slick,” but I don’t care – I appreciate his efforts. That said, this latest endeavor was disappointing. It’s a handsome film, and the concept is great – art geeks braving the ruthlessness of war to do the right thing and save our collective treasures. But the film is not focused, making the pieces incoherent and episodic. It wants to be an important film, asking (repeatedly) whether a work of art is worth a human life. It also seems to want to be like the daring Nazi-bashing escapades of yore, with its whistling score. It also seems reminiscent of a Danny Ocean orchestrated heist. Not one of these objectives is successfully accomplished, though, due to a poorly constructed story that does not have one unifying’ job’ that brings all the seams together. It’s a shame, too, ‘cause the idea has potential, there are several excellent scenes, and the cast is talented…

Oscars 2014

academy-awards-filmstrip-logoI was told when I worked at a talent and literary agency in Hollywood many years ago that the formation of the Oscar awards was a cynical endeavor. The legend went that there had been a rash of sordid incidents in Hollywood in the 1920’s involving starlets and wannabes who came to Los Angeles from all over the US, and so the Oscars were set up by the big bosses of the day as a way to create a nobler image of Hollywood and garner some good press. I’m not sure this tale is true, but I don’t dismiss its possibility outright. What is certainly true is that because of the prestige and positive exposure of the Academy Awards, studios spend millions of dollars and hire publicists to promote their films during “the Oscar season.” This practice has generated accusations that the Oscars are influenced more by marketing, than by quality. In 2009, William Friedkin, himself an Academy Award winning film director and former producer of the ceremony, described the Oscars as, “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself.”

Despite its potentially disreputable origins and many criticisms of the event, the Oscars are still a grandiose affair I love. Speaking of grand, I’m going to make my predictions about the Best Picture category, and then wait with bated breath to see if I’m correct. I think that the Oscar will go to 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street. My reasoning is that the Academy will not award Steve McQueen Best Director, given his age and his competition in this category, and unless they award Chiwetel Ejiofor Best Actor, they will not want to appear racist by overlooking this film in the major categories (racism is still a hot subject in the US). Moreover, Brad Pitt’s production company produced it, and there have been some bad press and disappointed expectations regarding his costly movie World War Z, so the industry might want to generate some positive feelings. If it is, indeed, 12 Years a Slave, a movie I found beautiful to look at, but too didactic and self-conscious, it won’t be the first time nepotism and guilt won the day (I remember sitting open mouthed when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999). If it’s The Wolf of Wall Street, then it will be in an effort at atonement for the fact that Scorsese has never won the Best Picture award, despite his films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Best Director, yes, but never Best Picture. Moreover, Leonardo di Caprio has never won an Oscar, so he may get the Best Actor win, but if he doesn’t, there could be the desire to create a balance with the Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, but I don’t think it deserves Best Picture. I can live with this win, however.

I’ll be gutted if American Hustle wins. Talk about nepotism and a popularity contest. Writer/Director David O’Russell has delivered fine films, such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but this isn’t as good as it’s touted to be. Sure, the actors are charismatic and capable, the production design is entertaining, the soundtrack is nostalgic, and there are fun costumes, as well as a lot of time devoted to amusing hairstyles, but there’s little point or suspense to this film.

I’ll also be upset if Philomena wins either Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, it’s harrowing subject matter (see my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave and the appearance of being sympathetic), the acting is brilliant, the humor is good, but this shouldn’t be confused with the Best Picture or the Best Adapted Screenplay. The Former ‘cause there are more comprehensively great films this year in the category. The second, for the same reason, and because there is a storyline introduced and dropped rather clumsily that should eliminate it from this honor: the scene is the one in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. But I digress.

Captain Phillips was suspenseful and well shot, but not the Best Picture in my opinion. Nor is Her. Relevant, and a great concept, but not the Best Picture. And I think that despite Spike Jonze’s contacts and cult status in the biz, even the Academy won’t give this film the win. Gravity is beautiful and has lofty existential themes that I find incredibly interesting, but if this wins it will be because the Academy doesn’t want to seem as though it didn’t get it. It’s more likely Alfonso Cuaron will get Best Directing (though I hope Alexander Payne gets it). I’ll be happily surprised if either Dallas Buyer’s Club or Nebraska wins Best Picture (though, as mentioned, I’m fine with the atonement and ‘career honor’ motivations prompting Scorsese’s film to win). If neither Dallas Buyers Club nor Nebraska win the Best Picture, then I hope to god that they win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, respectively – they deserve it (see my notes on Philomena), or that one of them gets the Best Actor win.

It would be too lengthy a piece to cover the race for Best Actor and Best Actress, or Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Suffice it to say that the competition is thick (please let it be Matthew McConaughey or Bruce Dern! Please let it be Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett!) But, again, it’s worth remembering that members of the Academy choose the winners – these are fallible folks who work, or have worked, in the industry of movies.  Similar to the rest of the big honors, the acting prizes have been criticized for not recognizing superior performances so much as being given for personal popularity, sentimental reasons, atonement for past mistakes, or as a “career honor” in order to recognize a distinguished nominee’s entire cannon of work…watch it all with a grain of salt, and enjoy the fete.