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The Danish Girl

Directed by Tom Hooper

      n 1926, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a Danish painter on the verge of becoming famous, lives with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who's also a painter. When their best friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), a dancer, can't find the time to pose for one of Gerda's portraits, Einar agrees to wear women's garments and replace Ulla. Einar discovers that he enjoys wearing women's attire, so he attends an artist's ball in Copenhagen dressed as a woman named Lili whom he claims is his cousin. Gerda allows him to cross-dress, but she becomes upset when she observes him kissing Henrik (Ben Whishaw) at the ball. The more that Einar spends time as Lili, the more he (or she, rather) feels more like his true self and yearns to undergo a highly risky gender-reassignment surgery. Meanwhile, as her married with Einar begins to crumble, Gerda tracks down his childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) in hopes of helping Einar with his gender identity crisis.

      The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff, focuses on Einar's transformation as well as how it affects the relationship between him and Gerda. Although the audience doesn't learn much about Einar/Lili's past other than his friend, Hans, to be fair, The Danish Girl doesn't strive to be an in-depth biopic. Perhaps a documentary about the real-life would explore her childhood and analyze her thoughts/feelings. Instead, what director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon provide you with is a very emotionally engrossing glimpse of what Einar went through and what he was feeling as he became Lili. It's worth noting that not a single scene veers into melodrama.The third act in particular might even make you tear up a bit.

      Fortunately, the convincingly moving performances from everyone onscreen compensate for the screenplay's lack of character depth. Eddie Redmayne gives a bravura performance as Einar/Lili that will ensure that he at least gets nominated once again for Best Actor after winning the award last year for The Theory of Everything . It's absolutely mesmerizing to watch him as Einar transforms, both physically and mentally, into Lili. Alicia Vikander also gives an awards-worthy performance as she captures Gerda's fragility and her passionate love toward Einar (and Lili) with utter conviction. Kudos to the always-reliable casting director Nina Gold for selecting them as well as for the bold choice of including Amber Heard in her best performance to date. The well-chosen musical score by Alexandre Desplat along with the costume design by Paco Delgado help to further enrich The Danish Girl and elevate it into one of the best films of 2015.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Features.
Now playing at Regal Union Square and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.


Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

      Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in captivity inside a 10 foot by 10 foot shed with her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Her captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters the shed every now and then to have sex with Ma. The more that Ma tells Jack about the outside world, the more she's tempted to finally escape the shed, so she and Jack hatch a plan together.

      Room begins in the second act when Ma has already leaves a number of years in the shed since Old Nick had kidnapped her at the age of 17. There's very little sense of the outside world at first except for a small skylight window above them. By throwing you right into the 2nd act, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue provide you with a captivating hook so that you know precisely what the film is about and who the main characters are without having your time wasted. You gradually learn why they're there as the film progresses. The scenes inside the shed capture the claustrophobia and horrors of what it's like for Ma and Jack to be trapped in there---it's as much of a mental trap as it is a physical one.

      The second half of the film feels quite poignant and tender as it shows the aftermath of Ma and Jack's escape and reunion with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) as she struggles to adjust to her new freedom. Many scenes will tug at your heartstrings and cause you to shed some tears, but, fortunately, Room is the kind of tearjerker that genuinely earns its tears. In one particularly well-shot scene, Ma cries upon seeing Jack, but Abrahamson and Donoghue choose to mute out the mother's cries and screams thereby trusting your imagination as an audience member. Had the sounds been shown, it would have been overwhelming; instead it's quietly powerful.

      The heart and soul of Room lies in its heartfelt performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, both of whom are Oscar-worthy. They actually seem like mother and son throughout the film, and the emotions that they convey through their performances are quite palpable. Not since Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam has there been a child actor with as much potential and talent as Jacob Tremblay. Hopefully, he'll get more opportunities to showcase his talents in the future after this breakthrough role.

      Room is also the kind of film that can be seen as an allegory similar to the one about the people chained to a cave wall who venture outside once they become unchained and head toward the sun (enlightenment) in The Republic by Plato. The enlightenment that Ma and, especially, Jack experience upon their liberation can represent any kind of enlightenment that one might experience throughout life. Given that we live in the Age of Stupid or the Age of Technology, perhaps we're all still trapped inside that shed or chained to the cave wall so-to-speak, and we have yet to experience true enlightenment. Ultimately, with its solid writing, directing, editing and acting, Room is one of the best films of the year. Don't be surprised if you'll find it on many Top 10 lists.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

99 Homes

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

      Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father, gets evicted from his family home along with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax). While living out of a motel and struggling to make ends meet, he agrees to work for the very same real estate broker, Mike Carver (Michael Shannon), who had seized his home and evicted him. Little do his mother, son and other evicted individuals living in the motel know that Dennis helps to evict homeowners, many of whom have families and owned their homes for many years.

      99 Homes unfolds much like a thriller and has its fair share of suspense, but along with that it's also character-driven, provocative, profoundly moving and organic. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi deserve to be commended for tackling a sensitive, important and timely issue without resorting to sugar-coating or veering off into unnecessary tangents. Roger Ebert would be proud of Bahrani for co-writing such an intelligent screenplay that remains grounded in humanism. By focusing on the evolving, complex dynamics between Dennis and his greedy boss, Mike, the film remains electrifying from start to finish. Lesser talented screenwriters would have included distracting flashbacks that would explain what happened to the mother of Dennis' child or to Dennis' father for that matter. But, alas, Bahrani and Naderi know better than that: instead, they omit the backstory and exposition while leaving them up to your own interpretation and imagination. Moreover, they avoid painting Mike as a cartoonish villain; he is a human being after all, and a product or perhaps a victim of our poorly and under-regulated capitalistic economy where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If Mike had taken any courses in Economics or Finance, he'd learn what everyone is taught: higher GDP is good. Good for who or whom? It's not good for the economy if growth occurs without including the poor along with it. My very own Finance professor in college said to the class: "Greed is good." and "I like selfishness." Everyone in the class took those statements for granted like the monkeys they they were. I was considering to bring them all bananas on the last day of class, but my conscience got the better of me. Mike would've easily been one of those monkeys had he taken that course. It wouldn't be surprising if underneath his appearance of confidence and strength lies a lot of weakness, shame and sadness, but, again that's up to your own interpretation based on your understanding of human nature. He clearly lost his conscience a while ago while Dennis is in the process of losing his, although you can sense that deep down he's a good person and wants to do the right thing.

      Part of what makes the characters of Dennis and Mike feel so real are the Oscar-caliber, well-nuanced performances by Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. They're both very well-cast and at the top of their game. Garfield sinks his teeth convincingly into a character that's strong yet fragile and vulnerable at the same time. You'll find yourself truly caring about Dennis and feel sorry for him when he goes door to door to evict homeowners. Those scenes are among the most haunting and powerful of film--they're just as heartbreaking as the scenes in Oren Moverman's The Messenger when two soldiers had to go door-to-door to notify families of the death of their loved ones. 99 Homes would probably make an interesting double-feature with The Messenger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Broad Green Pictures.
Now playing in select theaters.
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