Victoria Jelinek


Nebraska posterAging, booze-addled, and confused Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) repeatedly tries to make his way on foot to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim a $1 million Mega Sweepstakes marketing prize. To keep him from harm, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) drives the old man there, stopping for a visit in his father’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska to break up the journey.

Woody’s old stomping ground is a boundless rural plain, punctuated by barns, pick up trucks, rusting farm equipment, and churches.  Shortly after arriving, Woody and David are joined by Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and their other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) for a reunion with Woody’s family. Before long, ancient grudges rise to the surface, prompted by the prospect of money. Over the course of the film, David begins to learn more about his mom and dad, and, therefore, himself. And we, the audience, are prompted to contemplate the nature of family, our origins, our dynamics, our choices, and our movements.

Director Alexander Payne has already demonstrated that he is a talented filmmaker, as evidenced by his films Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt. Like these other films, this film is heavily nuanced, subtly comedic, and incredibly observant. The performances are affecting, the cinematography is beautiful (shot in black & white), and the screenplay is seemingly effortless.


The Dallas Buyers Club

dallas-buyers-club-2013-03The true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a promiscuous straight man who finds out he’s HIV positive in Texas of 1985. When doctors tell him he has days to live, he turns to black market medicine and becomes an unlikely hero.

Woodroof is Texas trailer-trash, working as an oil company electrician and screwing former rodeo glories while off his head on booze and lousy coke. He doesn’t pay attention to his declining health till a work accident lands him in the hospital. Woodroof initially refuses his diagnosis, and then he defies it. Abandoned by his redneck friends and fired from his job, Woodroof does not despair and, instead, hazards into Mexico for unsanctioned drugs and alternative treatments in an effort to stall the disease. We discover that Woodroof possesses a nimble mind, as he realizes an opportunity for a swift buck and quickly deciphers baffling medical science and pierces through hospital bureaucracy and governmental bluster. He creates the club of the title, a shrewd legal dodge in which desperate sufferers of AIDS don’t buy illegal medicine, but pay a monthly membership fee in which drugs are a perk. To navigate the marketplace, Woodroof gains an unlikely guide in the form of transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), another AIDS victim refusing to be victimized.

But this isn’t a hackneyed Hollywood offering about a journey of self-discovery. Nor is it a vulgar sentimental film. Woodruff does not become a different person – he remains a scheming asshole and lowlife, and it’s his offensive personality that gives him the elixir for survival. Matthew McConaughey’s latest film is yet another indication that he has left fake tans, bulging biceps, and silly flicks, and is actually an exciting and talented actor, as evidenced in his most recent films, such as Mud, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and The Lincoln Lawyer. McConaughey has turned the victim narrative on its head with a completely convincing portrayal of a hostile, but unbreakable spirit. This is a truly remarkable film with an independent spirit, full of characters that are both romantic and fallible.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis poster1961, the West Village, New York. Singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) skulks at the fringe of the folk-revival scene, bothered by the memory of his dead partner, and hoping for a big break to land in his lap. Meanwhile, the unwelcome pregnancy of a brief liaison with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and the accidental adoption of a cat, create a series of mishaps that lamentably fail to alter anything about Llewyn’s life.

Inspired by the memoir of real-life folk hero, Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ serious films. While the film is quirky and darkly comic, primarily via Llewyn’s expressions to the absurd people and circumstances around him, the film is based upon an unsexy musical scene and infused with melancholy. Additionally, its hero is not likeable. For example, he tries to borrow money from a friend (played by Justin Timberlake) for an abortion when the friend is the boyfriend of the said girl. He laments the suicide of his partner in their flourishing musical duo, but he’s the one left suffering, right? He’s a man who doesn’t deign to connect with others, yet he can’t function alone. He takes responsibility for the ginger Tom, but he alienates everyone around him, even long time fans.

That said, Llewyn is captivating. His observation of the absurd injustices in the world around him, is as relevant today as is was then.

12 Years a Slave

12-Years-a-Slave-Movie-PosterCirca 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga N.Y., earning his living as a violinist. He is lured to Washington DC by two entertainers promising work. After a night of drinking with them, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into slavery. Following Solomon’s kidnapping, he’s owned by different plantation owners. The first offers him some responsibility, some kindness, and a violin, and consequently might be the most brutal of Northrup’s owners. It is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), however, who is the most colorfully cruel. Fassbender introduces Epps as a sadistic drunk, but he becomes a more complex character as the tense relationship with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and his self-loathing are revealed and manifested in his obsessive affection for a young slave girl.

12 Years a Slave is an absorbing film – intelligent and starkly severe. In line with director Steve McQueen’s background as a fine artist, it is also beautiful. Practically every shot could be a still photograph or a painting. There is gorgeous metaphorical imagery in contrast with the violent and physical reality for the slaves. And, as is evidenced in his previous films, McQueen does not shy from human physicality, with scenes, here, of beating, lovemaking, and working, which are visceral, humiliating, and horrifying. This adaptation could have been a feel-good film, a survivor-who-beats-the-odds sort-of-thing, but it’s not, which is appreciated. From the ‘get-go’ this film is despair incarnate that does not make you feel like crying by its conclusion, but, rather, leaves you stupefied.

This is not a common evocation today. I applaud McQueen’s effort, and I value the skill of his refined and remote approach while dealing with potentially incendiary subject matter. But it is for the same reasons that 12 Years a Slave is being heralded as a masterpiece – its ‘objective’ gaze, its aesthetic, its treatment of the subject matter- that I have issue with…the film feels self-conscious, contrived, and didactic. What feels fresh and authentic about this film is its cast: the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor, his tormentor, Michael Fassbender, the cruel wife, Sarah Paulson, the hideous slave broker, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist (though I swear he begins the scenes he’s in with a southern U.S. accent and ends with a northern one).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) lives a quiet and timid life. He’s afraid of change, he’s afraid to stand up for himself when his job at LIFE magazine is threatened, and he’s afraid to confess his feelings for his co-worker, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Then he loses the photo needed for the cover of Life’s final issue, and the only way to get it back is to go find the photographer (Sean Penn), an adventurer who could be anywhere in the world.

An adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story in which a man escapes his drab existence with flights of fancy, Walter Mitty is the consummate wallflower. Here, he’s a man who goes unnoticed as he moves through the world, working quietly in the picture department of the once monumental magazine that’s now closing due to changing markets and financiers who are unable to see beyond the bottom dollar. But inside Walter is a world of wonderment and adventure — he daydreams he’s the hero who rescues a puppy from a burning building, or a courageous champion who battles futuristic villains, or a powerful mountaineer who boldly claims the girl.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has frequently been compared to Forrest Gump, a film I don’t like (and felt like an alien when it was released and everyone in the world loved it and I secretly wondered what was wrong with me). Sure, both are feel-good movies with optimism at their core and dorky lead characters. I believe, however, that this film is more thoughtful and relevant – this is a story about the journey to change oneself, not the external world, and to find personal truth, perspective, and confidence in a global environment that often seems dishonest, unreal, and disheartening.  As both the director and lead, Ben Stiller is sincere, revealing to us that he’s a huge romantic with a subtle side. I love the films Stiller has previously directed, such as The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder, but they had an indulgent, farcical comic style, along with a huge dollop of cynicism. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is funny, but the humor is situational rather than comedic, and it’s also unabashedly hopeful. This isn’t likely to be the best movie that you’ll ever see, but it is a touching and timely one worth watching.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall StJordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) dreams of being super rich, but after losing his Wall Street job in the crash of 1987, his hopes are dashed. Inspired by a shifty local operation that sells “penny” stocks to working class stiffs, Belfort starts his own dealership, hires a group of his degenerate buddies from high school to work for him, exploits those willing to invest in his firm, and manipulates the market, culminating in outrageous profits for him and millions spent on his decadent lifestyle.

The Wolf of Wall Street has been heralded as the first Scorsese film in a long time with the energy and substance of his early greats, such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas. This is certainly the material of Scorsese’s classics – a criminal survivor story with an antihero who pushes the audience to the limits of its empathy. Jordan Belfort could be the worst of ‘em, too, as he exploits the poor and revels in his obscene wealth.  The movie clocks in at just under three hours long, also, which is typical of Scorsese. What is different about this Scorsese film is that it’s funny. Jonah Hill, who plays Belfort’s sidekick, is consistently and effortlessly hilarious as a hedonistic dipshit. Mathew McConaughey is comedic, and despite being in the film for only a short time, he leaves an indelible mark on it. It is DiCaprio’s performance, however – versatile, commanding, relaxed, powerful, complex, and humorous – that makes this movie magnetic. This film simmers in one’s thoughts long after leaving the cinema. Yes, it arguably glamorizes drugs, money, sex, arrogance, and selfishness, but I think that this is missing the point. Scorsese isn’t blaming Wall Street for its excesses, he’s pointing the finger at us for allowing the world to become so disturbingly greedy, with its aspirations for wealth and notoriety at any price. This is an invigorating and timely film.

American Hustle

American Hustle movie posterCirca 1978. Skillful con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) cut a deal with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to catch other swindlers in return for clemency. But Irving is having an affair with Sydney, and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is a loose cannon, creating a powder keg of a situation that could derail the whole sting.

Nominated for several key awards at the Oscars this year, namely the coveted Best Picture, this film has been given a lot of positive press. Writer/Director David O’Russell has delivered fine films, such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (and the leads, here, were in those films, too) 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 – Bale’s disco comb-over, Coopers tiny curlers, Lawrence’s sweep – but there’s little point or suspense to this film. The elaborate plot attempts to address corruption in America, but repeatedly gets lost self consciously in its own chicanery. And who are the bad guys? Con men, errant politicians, and Mafia bosses are more likeable and upright in this film than the FBI operatives out to take them down. While the friend I watched American Hustle with relegated it to one of the most boring movies he has ever watched, I think it’s worth watching, particularly if you’re into slick visuals, and it’s definitely worth renting on DVD.


philomena-movie-poster-2After losing his job as a spin-doctor for the government, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) resolves to return to journalism. Then the story of an Irishwoman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) happens upon his doorstep. As a teenager in the 1950’s, she had a child in a convent that she gave up. A secret she has kept for 50 years. Together, Martin and Philomena set out to find him.

Philomena confides in her daughter that in her teens she had a baby boy out of wedlock. Disowned by her family, she was sent to a Magdalene home in County Tipperary, where she endured forced labor, seeing her child for just an hour a day. In order to leave the home, she would have had to pay 100lbs – an unimaginable sum for her at the time – or stay for four years. One morning, a couple takes her son away in an expensive car, along with the daughter of her best friend, and Philomena is advised to put her son out of her mind. Believing she has committed a grave sin of the flesh by having sex and conceiving a child out of wedlock, Philomena keeps her secret until the event of his 50th birthday, when she confides in her adult daughter. Is he still alive? Is he a drug addict? Is he homeless or lost? Every mother’s worst fears flicker through her mind.

This is harrowing subject matter, but writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope make the astute decision to distil Philomena’s story through a man who, initially, isn’t interested in her story, and the film keeps this remoteness throughout. While the two characters come to a mutual understanding of each other, they do not alter who they are as a result of the experience. Additionally, despite the themes of cruelty and injustice of the Magdalene homes, and the disgraces of Ronald Reagan’s administration, this is a droll film. Praise notwithstanding, there is one aspect of the film that leaves this writer troubled by its inclusion as well as the script’s nomination for best screenplay at the Oscars. There is a scene 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. It is, I believe, the subject matter, with all of its historical and ethical implications, its humorous treatment, and the talent of the actors that make this film a great picture.


We’re the Millers

Were the Millers posterA neighborhood pot dealer and underachiever (Jason Sudeikis) needs to put together a fake family in order to complete a drug smuggle that will save his skin, so he recruits a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), a runaway (Emma Roberts), and a sweet, but stupid boy (Will Poulter), to be his family as they take the stock over the border from Mexico.

I’d never heard of this film before renting it. In the mood for light comedy, and hopefully a few laughs, I began watching it with skepticism. Oh-my-goodness, it is a hilarious film! I laughed consistently throughout, and was in a giddy mood afterward. I’d normally attribute my enjoyment of this film to my having had poor expectations in the first place and consequently being happily surprised, but my normally dour husband, a critic of American humor, laughed out loud throughout the film, too. There are moments when the scenes slip into a mild awkwardness – an inevitable result of everyone’s improvising – and the third act is weaker than the first two, but it doesn’t matter because each member of the cast is so talented and comedic, the result is an incredibly funny and heartfelt film.


We Bought a Zoo

Six months after his wife dies, Benjamin (Matt Damon) quits his job at an LA newspaper and takes his two kids to live in a crumbling country house with a dilapidated zoo attached. Despite his knowing little about zoos, Benjamin decides to rejuvenate and re open it with the help of the unpaid zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).

The movie is based on a true story. Directed and co-written by Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), the film reflects McKenna’s sense of workplace comedy and Crowe’s emotional scope. While there are some problems: it’s blander than Crowe’s previous work, there are a few moments that are too sentimental, and the storyline between the father and his son is too easily ‘fixed’, it’s a good film. It’s authentic enough to feel for the characters and their stories; it provides a few positive existential messages, such as why ask yourself ‘why?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘why not?’ and it reminds us that life is as an adventure worth having precisely because of its ups and downs. Ultimately, Crowe’s particular tone of voice, his talent for finding the poetry in everyday life, his ability to construct a poignant atmosphere with likeable characters, and his skill with actors (Matt Damon is good as an ‘everyman’ here, allowing a paunch and his age to show) are all evident here. This is a light, feel-good movie (Thomas Haden Church is hilarious!) with some worthwhile themes and a great soundtrack.