A Review Of The Holiday Season's Best New Movies

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Movie critics agree this holiday season features an abundance of high-quality Oscar contenders. Several are based on true stories from "Philomena" and "Captain Philips" to the comedy drama "American Hustle." Joining me in the studio for a review of the season's best films: Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, joining us from the NPR Bureau in New York City, David Denby of The New Yorker magazine, and, joining us by phone from Portland, Ore., Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. He's also the movie reviewer for NPR.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:43
Throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. I'll be interested in hearing about your movie favorites. And, just to let you know, we have clips and previews of some 20 movies on our website, drshow.org. And welcome to all of you.

MS. ANN HORNADAY

11:08:20
Thank -- hello.

MR. DAVID DENBY

11:08:22
Thank you.

MR. KENNETH TURAN

11:08:23
Good to be here.

REHM

11:08:24
Good to have you all with us. Ann Hornaday, I'll start with you. This seems to be an unusually strong year for films. Do you see it that way?

HORNADAY

11:08:38
Indeed. I feel the very same way. And I think it hit me at the Toronto Film Festival this year, which is where a lot of these films sort of get trotted out. And it was such a strong lineup. It just seemed like every screening we were going to was spectacular. And the ambition of these films is so impressive, I mean, at a time when, you know, the narrative has been we're all seeing movies on iPhones and on our home entertainment centers. These are films like "Gravity," like "All is Lost," with real visual ambition that demand to be seen on the big screen, which I think is really encouraging.

REHM

11:09:16
Kenneth Turan, the season actually started in the fall. Wouldn't you agree?

TURAN

11:09:23
Yes. No. They really -- you know, I totally agree with what Ann said. And, you know, it's kind of ironic that we're in a time -- not only is it people watching on small screens, but we're all despairing about what Hollywood is doing. We're all saying in general, you know, the film business is going to hell in a hand basket. I mean, amidst of all this despair, we have all these good films. It's really kind of amazing.

REHM

11:09:43
And, David Denby, let's start talking about one of the ones that moved me the most, which was "Gravity." And I'll tell you, I did see it on a big screen in 3D. I became so emotional at the end of that film and left rather breathless. Tell me how you felt about it.

DENBY

11:10:12
Well, if you see it on a big screen, you feel like you're in space yourself...

REHM

11:10:17
Exactly.

DENBY

11:10:18
...falling into nowhere. And, I think, you know, it has -- it's an adventure movie, of course, and it's funny because of Sandra Bullock. But it's also terrifying. And I think it's at the depths of a kind of -- I don't know how else to put it -- existential anxiety that we've all felt at times. Kurt Vonnegut, in "Slaughterhouse-Five," talks about a dog standing on a mirror who looks down and sees only himself and freaks out. Well, we've all had...

TURAN

11:10:47
We've all had those moods. And here it is embodied with someone out there in space literally nothing around her where there's no up or down. And her own life is sort of spiritually a mess, so...

REHM

11:11:00
Hmm.

TURAN

11:11:00
...it was a perfect embodiment of which she was feeling what we've all felt at a time. So that's -- I think, yes, it was a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. But it had some deeper resonance for a lot of people.

REHM

11:11:08
A deeper resonance, Ann Hornaday.

HORNADAY

11:11:11
Indeed. Agreed on all counts. And I think it shows you, yes, it is a sci-fi action adventure. It's a genre exercise. But then in the hands of a director like Alfonso Cuaron, who is so gifted at leading viewers visually through a space -- I mean, he showed this in the film "Children of Men." He really did it in "Y Tu Mama Tambien," this charming road picture that he did years ago.

HORNADAY

11:11:35
But he can plunge you into a world and then make it logical, you know. And especially in outer space, as David said, where there's no up or down, we always felt we were in the hands of a confident filmmaker. We knew where we were, and then he did take us to this very spiritual place of rebirth.

REHM

11:11:52
All right. Now I'll take you to the second film I've seen this year, which was "Philomena." I wonder how you felt about "Philomena," Kenneth Turan, and the exquisite acting of Dame Judi Dench.

TURAN

11:12:10
Oh, well, I thought Judi Dench was a miraculous -- you know, I mean, she's one of these actresses where we think we know what she can do, and she's not going to fool us, you know. We're going to see the tricks. But she is so good. She is so moving. She really gets inside of us. And, you know, there are aspects of that film that, frankly, didn't work for me, but her performance was not one of them. I thought she was extraordinary.

REHM

11:12:29
Tell me what did not work for you in that film, Kenneth.

TURAN

11:12:34
Well, you know, I have to admit I'm not the world's biggest Steve Coogan fan. And this attempt to lighten the mood and to have him -- and, again, he was the person who had the idea to make this book into a film. So it was clear there was going to be a part for him. But it was jarring for me. There was a film several years ago called "The Magdalene Sisters," which covered some of the same territory, which was really a brutal kind of unremitting film. And I -- that stayed with me longer.

DENBY

11:13:01
I think the point was to keep it light. I mean, I talked to Stephen Frears, the director, and he told me that he gave Steve Coogan and Judi Dench Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" from 1934 to look at to get a kind of bantering relationship without romance, of course without sex...

REHM

11:13:14
Huh.

DENBY

11:13:19
...but -- and, you know, two people of vastly different temperament and belief and so on.

REHM

11:13:23
Totally.

DENBY

11:13:25
And I thought that was kind of other -- that was sort of what was remarkable about it was the dialectic back and forth of faith and skepticism.

REHM

11:13:34
And at the same time, this underlying spiritual belief on the part of Judi Dench, the mother looking for the son she gave up to the nuns in Ireland. It was such a moving story, Ann.

HORNADAY

11:13:53
It is. And I think it was so easy for this to be derailed at any particular point into something saccharin or into something proselytizing. And I agree with David in terms of the Steve Coogan character. I thought he was crucial not only tonally. But I think he's the proxy for so many of us in the audience who would have a -- might have trouble, you know, understanding her faith.

HORNADAY

11:14:14
You know, I don't want to give too much away, but there's this incredibly moving climactic scene that's just absolutely pivotal. And he -- you know, she delivers this very moving speechlet. (sic) And he is that voice of skepticism that I think is needed to make it a more fully rounded piece.

REHM

11:14:34
Ann Hornaday, she is movie critic for The Washington Post. David Denby, how about "12 Years a Slave"? I gather you think it's a favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars. Tell us why.

DENBY

11:14:51
Well, I'm not sure, of course. But my own choice would be "American Hustle," which I think was the most fun best-made movie of the year. But Oscar members tend to vote up at the time of awards -- not always. But often a comedy generally doesn't make it to the, you know, Best Picture category, except as a nominee. So, I mean, it was -- "12 Years a Slave" is extraordinarily powerful.

DENBY

11:15:19
I have -- I think I have some problems with it. But I think it's obviously the best movie ever made about American slavery. And there are remarkable images in it that I will remember for the rest of my life -- scenes, moments. I think it will haunt a large number of people who see it. I hope more people see it. I mean, box office so far has been okay -- pretty good, actually, but relatively small compared to other commercial -- much more commercial movies.

REHM

11:15:45
Are people scared to see it, Ken Turan?

TURAN

11:15:50
Well, it's funny you should say that because, actually, people are really just -- in the last week out in Los Angeles, I ran into several people who say, you know, I know I should see this film, but I haven't had the nerve to see it yet. Or I've wanted to go. I can't get any friends of mine to go. So people really -- there is a reluctance and kind of a fear of this film.

REHM

11:16:08
What do you think, Ann?

HORNADAY

11:16:10
That's -- I've also heard those. But more, I've heard from people who have seen it and have been so profoundly grateful and affected by it and grateful that they did see it. So I think for all of it...

REHM

11:16:20
And it's based on a true story.

HORNADAY

11:16:23
It is. And, again, and I would organize it under that heading of Must See on a Big Screen. I mean, this -- what the director Steve McQueen does with sound and image, it's a great work of art. And I think it -- that's just one of those movies that really is enriched by a big screen experience. And also, just one more thing, with the Oscar -- I wonder, too, if Hollywood, the insiders that are in the Academy will sort of -- you know, this is such a corrective to those myths that Hollywood was spinning for so long about the American South, that kind of midnight magnolia romantic ideal.

HORNADAY

11:16:57
And this -- the brilliance of this is that it has beauty in it. I mean, it possesses great moments of reflective contemplative beauty but then shows the ugliness that supported that and made it possible.

REHM

11:17:08
The ugliness and the power of whites over their slaves.

HORNADAY

11:17:14
Indeed.

REHM

11:17:15
It was just -- you wanted to say something, David?

DENBY

11:17:19
Oh, no, I was wondering if -- how it's playing in the South, whether people are going at all. I don't know. I was wondering if my colleagues have seen any box office results from the South 'cause I don't know.

HORNADAY

11:17:31
I have not.

TURAN

11:17:32
I have not either, no.

HORNADAY

11:17:32
That's a good question.

REHM

11:17:33
All right.

DENBY

11:17:33
Yeah.

TURAN

11:17:33
Good question.

DENBY

11:17:34
Yeah.

REHM

11:17:34
All right. And, of course, there is the Robert Redford movie, "All is Lost." Some people say the 77-year-old is the frontrunner for Best Actor. What do you think, Ann?

HORNADAY

11:17:49
Oh, I hope so. It is such a strong year for lead actor performances. We have Bruce Dern in "Nebraska," which is another just terrific performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years." I mean, it's really been an extraordinary year for actors in particular. But, that said, Robert Redford is my personal favorite for this. I just think this is a movie -- he's the only person in the film. He carries it in an almost wordless performance. It's a completely physical -- it's really pure screen acting, watching a man solve problems and reveal his character through behaviors. It's just a wonderful piece of work.

REHM

11:18:23
And we'll get reactions from David Denby and Kenneth Turan on "All is Lost" after a short break. Stay with us.

REHM

11:20:01
I have three of the finest film critics in the country with me. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, David Denby of The New Yorker Magazine and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and NPR's "Morning Edition." Here's our first email about "All is Lost." Bill, in Dallas, Texas writes, "I wanted to see this film, but I can't find it in Dallas, Austin or Houston. Did I miss it or is the release very limited?" What do you think, David Denby?

DENBY

11:20:45
Well, this is the problem with smaller films, that they don't get to a lot of places where they should get to. And it makes all of us worry a great deal that, you know, our efforts to sell something when we love it could be naught if people can't get to get it. My God, if you can't see it in a major market like Dallas, I'm really unhappy. Now, it may have come and gone five weeks ago, just after it opened or six weeks ago, and that may be the answer. If it gets some nominations it'll probably come back. That's what I would say.

HORNADAY

11:21:20
And that is sort of the dark side of this, plus, you know, this embarrassment of riches. We have so many good movies opening in this time period that a few are just going to burn off. You know what I mean? It's going to be Darwinian. And I think it probably succumbed to that. I mean there just aren't enough screens. And especially when you have behemoths like, "The Hobbit" and "The Hunger Games" muscling everybody out.

REHM

11:21:43
Interesting.

HORNADAY

11:21:44
It's a very competitive environment.

DENBY

11:21:46
And there's no reason that "All is Lost" couldn't have been opened in the summer or even last spring. It was shown at Cannes last May. This is the studio's doing, to push everything into the awards season. Although, Woody Allen gets by with opening his movies in the summer. Certainly Kate Blanchet will be nominated for her performance.

HORNADAY

11:22:05
And look at "The Butler."

REHM

11:22:06
Yeah.

HORNADAY

11:22:06
"The Butler" did beautifully well in August…

DENBY

11:22:08
"The Butler."

HORNADAY

11:22:08
…which is historically sort of not such a great time to open a film.

DENBY

11:22:11
Rick Linklater's "Before Midnight." That opened earlier in the year. It's not this year end -- it also makes our jobs difficult, but we won't get into the parochial issue.

REHM

11:22:22
Yeah, Ken Turan, why is Robert Redford so good in this movie?

TURAN

11:22:31
Well, I think he really felt this role, you know. I mean the producers have said that they worried -- he insisted on doing a lot of his own stunts. And they said, my God, what if he falls off and, you know, the movie's over. Have the stunt man do it. He said no, no, he wanted to do it. I think he got deeply into this role and you can feel that on screen. He really became this person, kind of lost at sea. And it's very, very powerful, very, very effective. And he brings the lifetime of associations we have with him onto the screen with him.

HORNADAY

11:22:58
Exactly.

REHM

11:22:58
So, again, a kind of spiritual delving into one's self, as he's all alone.

HORNADAY

11:23:07
Absolutely. This is the motif of the year, is this alienation, isolation. We're going to be getting to a few other -- you know, "Captain Phillips," I think you could argue. "Twelve Years" is that. It's a man plunged into this alien world. It's definitely been a trope.

REHM

11:23:25
Talk about "Captain Phillips," Ann, and the controversies surrounding that film.

HORNADAY

11:23:31
Well, I'm not as familiar with the actual controversy. I mean I thought it was just a terrific film. It's Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks, and ensemble of Somali actors, one of who…

REHM

11:23:41
Who were fabulous.

HORNADAY

11:23:42
They were fabulous. Most of them came from Minneapolis, Minn. The supporting actor, Barkhad Abdi, is being nominated for lots of awards. Rightfully so. He's just did a terrific job. And Greengrass has really perfected this style of very immersive, subjective filmmaking. Sort of putting the audience right into the action and having a very strong point of view, but not editorializing. That's a difficult needle to thread and he does it consistently well.

REHM

11:24:09
Again, based on a real-life story. But, David Denby, since the movie came out crew members of that ship have criticized the film as being inaccurate in its portrayal of Phillips as a fearless leader. Comment, please.

DENBY

11:24:31
Well, I think I prefer what I'd see on screen to what actually happened. So these kinds of reports suggest that no account of a real military action is ever entirely accurate and filmmakers have to create a story, of course. What's fascinating to me is the amount of ambiguity that is in the movie, it's not simply a good guy versus bad guy film. The Somalia pirates are themselves being terrorized by war lords and in some ways, I mean, it's a heartbreaking moment when a guy says, "I'd like to immigrate to America," as he's holding an American captain prisoner.

REHM

11:25:15
Exactly, exactly.

DENBY

11:25:18
I mean if that isn't the strangest line in the movies this year I don't know what is. So I'm not worried so much about what actually happened, but how effective the so-to-speak fiction is that we see on screen.

HORNADAY

11:25:29
Also, I would never characterize him as a fearless leader in this movie.

REHM

11:25:33
Yeah, right.

HORNADAY

11:25:33
I mean his character is anything but fearless. He is not a terribly nice guy. I wouldn't even qualify him as a hero. He's a survivor. He survives this ordeal, but those last several minutes of the film, which we're all talking about completely put the lie to any kind of false heroics.

REHM

11:25:51
Ken Turan, it has been said that that last scene, when Tom Hanks really breaks down, was totally authentic to Tom Hanks and not to the character.

TURAN

11:26:07
Yeah, well, I think that, as David said, the film has a duty to itself. I think films by their nature really kind of don't necessarily completely, accurately duplicate reality. You know I worked at The Washington Post when "All the President's Men" came out. And it just felt strange. Even though it was duplicating my reality, it didn't feel real. So I think it's one of the best things Tom Hanks has ever done, those last few scenes.

HORNADAY

11:26:35
Here, here.

DENBY

11:26:35
Yeah.

TURAN

11:26:35
Which I also think -- I mean it's starting to come out that this was not in the original script, that this was something they kind of decided to do while they were shooting, which makes it even more extraordinary.

REHM

11:26:43
All right. Our first email from Steve, in Dallas, "What does your panel think of the movie "Her?" Ken Turan, I gather you liked it a lot.

TURAN

11:26:56
Oh, yes, yes. No, I think this is, you know, Spike Jones has not made many films. I think this is his fourth, but they're all unusual. They all make you think and they all come at things from an unusual angle. And this film, which is a futuristic film about a man played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with his operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. This is just a thoughtful film. This is a playful film. This is kind of a romance and a horror film, in a sense of what it shows us about where we're going. I thought it was quite an exceptional film.

REHM

11:27:24
What did you think, Ann?

HORNADAY

11:27:26
Agreed. I just think it's just a gem. And, again, it's another one of these sort of isolated guys sort of contemplating. It's set in the slight future, is how I think Spike Jones puts it. And so it's L.A.-filmed in its most sort of futuristic, surreal way. I mean there aren't any special effects to speak of or any sort of artifice, but it just puts our current reality into this speculative realm that is utterly convincing. It creates this world that is completely convincing in terms of where we might be going with technology in our virtual lives merging with our real lives. And, yeah, it's thoughtful, it's smart, it is funny, and it is Joaquin Phoenix in a way that we have not seen him maybe ever, if not lately.

REHM

11:28:11
David Denby, tell me about Joaquin Phoenix's sort of character in this role. He's alone because he's just left a marriage; is that correct?

DENBY

11:28:26
Yeah, he's too withdrawn for his emotionally demanding wife played by Rooney Mara, who you only see briefly. And, yes, he's withdrawn into himself. And he writes letters for people who don't communicate at all. That's his job. He writes lover letters and letters within families back and forth between people. And as everyone has said, even though it's set in the future, it's really meant to be about the present. It's really meant to be about a time when people -- and I've seen this in teenage kids -- withdrawing from fleshly and spiritual and emotional romantic relations with each other into this kind of solitude that's electronically enhanced.

DENBY

11:29:13
So it's a very sort of satirically prescient movie about where we are and where we're going. It's also a beautiful piece of design. I think I'd want to say that, too.

REHM

11:29:26
But you know that sounds kind of scary to me, as you describe it, David.

DENBY

11:29:32
Well, if you go into a teenage lunchroom at a high school…

HORNADAY

11:29:40
Or any sidewalk, walking down the street in Washington or New York, where everybody's buried in their phones and bumping into each other.

REHM

11:29:45
Indeed.

DENBY

11:29:45
Yeah, they're all communicating -- rather than with talking or looking around or experiencing anything in their immediate presence.

REHM

11:29:52
Kenneth, what did you think of…

TURAN

11:29:52
I think it's supposed to be scary.

REHM

11:29:54
It's supposed to be scary.

DENBY

11:29:56
Yeah.

TURAN

11:29:57
Yeah.

HORNADAY

11:29:57
But it's also very tender. There's a tenderness to it that I think -- and even maybe the lyricism. And I agree with David about the design. It's just gorgeously, meticulously designed so it's just a…

REHM

11:30:06
Interesting.

HORNADAY

11:30:06
…visual treat.

DENBY

11:30:08
And how can I get to meet Scarlett Johansson, though, as my…

HORNADAY

11:30:11
There you go.

DENBY

11:30:11
I mean do I have to…

HORNADAY

11:30:13
Hang out long enough and they'll invent her.

REHM

11:30:15
All right.

DENBY

11:30:15
Do I have to reboot my computer?

REHM

11:30:18
I guess.

HORNADAY

11:30:19
You go, control, alt, delete, David. Control, alt, delete.

REHM

11:30:20
I guess.

DENBY

11:30:22
Is that it? All right.

REHM

11:30:23
And another movie that's generating controversy is a Cannes award winner, "Blue Is the Warmest Color." Ann?

HORNADAY

11:30:35
Yes. I saw that very late at night at Cannes. And it was -- we're speaking of immersive experiences. This takes you into the life of a teenage girl experiencing her first love, who happens to be an art student, an older woman. And if follows this love affair and, again, plunges you headlong into that passion, which is physical, but it's also quotidian. It's just their day-to-day lives together. And you know when I watching it I was sort of taking it in and I wasn't quite processing it right away. I went home and went to sleep and the next day I found myself thinking about this young girl and wondering how she was. So I realized that she had gotten under my skin.

HORNADAY

11:31:17
You know there was something about spending that much time in this highly-charged moment of this young woman's life that had burrowed its way into my consciousness somehow.

REHM

11:31:27
Ken Turan, I gather it's got an NC-17 rating that could hurt its audience reach?

TURAN

11:31:37
Well, yeah, and it might help it in home video. You know, these things always cut a number of ways. I mean it's quite explicit sexually and the real controversy around this film is whether you feel these long and explicit sex scenes are exploitative or honestly emotional. And reaction has been all over the map and you can't tell who's going to feel what about this film in that sense.

REHM

11:31:58
What do you think, David Denby?

DENBY

11:32:01
I didn't think it was exploitative at all. There is a fair amount of sex, but it's certainly not a sex film. As Ann said, it's about a young girl's life from being 17 into her 20's. And it's about her family and it's about teaching in classroom. And it's about a lot of things.

HORNADAY

11:32:19
It's social class.

DENBY

11:32:20
It's definitely about social class, about a working class or lower middle class girl maybe and an upper middle class artist. That becomes clearer as the movie goes on, that that's part of what's -- well, I don't want to give it away. But it has at its center this wrenchingly unhappy love affair that I guess many of us have had when we were young, that obsessional love affair. And I think it's meant to be just the first chapter of an ongoing narrative.

REHM

11:32:50
Interesting. David Denby.

DENBY

11:32:52
Yeah, we'll see what happens next.

REHM

11:32:53
He's staff writer, film critic for The New Yorker Magazine. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots more films to talk about, but we've also got folks who'd like to join us. 800-433-8850. First let's go to Florence, in Kerrville, Texas. You're on the air.

FLORENCE

11:33:21
Diane, good morning. And thanks for taking my call. How are you?

REHM

11:33:26
Of course. I'm fine, thank you.

FLORENCE

11:33:30
Great. Your voice sounds good. I have vocal paralysis and I appreciate your efforts in keeping going. That's great.

REHM

11:33:38
Thank you.

FLORENCE

11:33:40
I did want to talk about "Captain Phillips." I'm the daughter of a late merchant mariner from King's Point Academy. He spent his career as a chief engineer in the ships from before World War II through Vietnam. My husband's a military man himself, Coast Guard.

REHM

11:34:05
Okay.

FLORENCE

11:34:07
We both thought the film in a lot of respects was exceptional in terms of the story and in terms of Tom Hanks's portrayal of the captain of the vessel. Their primary objective is safety of crew, safety of the ship and if at all possible get the cargo to the next place.

REHM

11:34:39
All right. Thanks for calling. What about that, Ann?

HORNADAY

11:34:41
I agree that part of the appeal of this film to me was just the workings of the ship. It really takes you through. It reminded me of that wonderful movie by Peter Weir, "Master and Commander," where you saw the workings of the ship…

REHM

11:34:57
Fabulous.

HORNADAY

11:34:57
…almost as a hive. It was this finely-run hive of activity. And it's the same thing on this merchant marine ship and Captain Phillips. I mean it's just this meticulously calibrated machine that everyone knows their role in and it does capture it. I'm glad to hear that she thought it captured it authentically because I felt like it did, too.

REHM

11:35:17
Ken Turan…

DENBY

11:35:18
I think, however…

REHM

11:35:20
Go ahead, David.

DENBY

11:35:22
Nevertheless, one of those cargo containers may have dropped into the ocean and stove in the side of Robert Redford's little boat.

HORNADAY

11:35:29
True, exactly, exactly.

REHM

11:35:32
Okay. Ken, and you wanted to add something.

TURAN

11:35:34
Yeah. No, they actually went to tremendous trouble. The ship that it is filmed on is the sister ship of the actual ship that this happened on.

REHM

11:35:41
Oh, I see.

TURAN

11:35:42
So this is identical to the real ship. So, again, this kind of authenticity was very, very much in the filmmakers' minds.

REHM

11:35:49
And speaking of authenticity, what about the Mandela biopic, "Long Walk to Freedom," Ken Turan? Do you think we learned new things about Nelson Mandela?

TURAN

11:36:04
Oh, gosh, I don't know if I'd say that, but I think Idris Elba's a spectacular actor. You know, like most of us, I've admired him since "The Wire." And it's great to see him playing Nelson Mandela. I mean this is kind of a conventional biopic. This is, you know, I don't know that it's going to be up for a lot of awards, but seeing him embody Mandela made it a worthwhile experience for me.

HORNADAY

11:36:25
I agree with that. I don't think that it broke any ground formally, but I do think, in terms of the story, there were a few things about his early life that, you know, I think it does a very good job of not -- it's not hagiography. I mean it shows the shadow material, both in his life and especially in Winnie Mandela's life. So I admired it for that.

REHM

11:36:42
You did? And the story itself?

HORNADAY

11:36:46
The story, you know, look, it's one of the most compelling stories of our age. And I agree with Ken that Elba did a fantastic job. And Naomie Harris did a wonderful job as Winnie. So I think that those elements are very much in place.

REHM

11:37:00
Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, David Denby of The New Yorker Magazine, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times and NPR's "Morning Edition." Short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your emails, your tweets. I look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

11:40:01
And welcome back. We're talking about films with three of the country's most important and well-known film critics, Kenneth Turan of Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition. David Denby, he's staff writer and film critic for the New Yorker magazine. Ann Hornaday, movie critic for the Washington Post. Lots of people want to hear you talk about "American Hustle." What do you think, Kenneth Turan?

TURAN

11:40:42
Well, you know, I was just charmed by this film. David O. Russell is on a real roll as a director. And he makes these kind of wild and crazy films that kind of cohere by the end, which I think is just remarkable. I mean, I think this film was kind of like a big corral. His characters are going far and wide.

REHM

11:40:55
What's it about?

TURAN

11:40:58
Well, it's about a scam. You know, it's about something that's based, I guess, loosely on Abscam -- on what happened in Abscam where congressmen and a senator were convicted for bribery. It's about a kind of rogue FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper who kind of gets some power over a pair of con people played by Amy Adams and Christian Bale. And he tries to manipulate them to his own nefarious ends. I just was completely charmed by it.

REHM

11:41:24
What about you, David?

DENBY

11:41:26
I haven't been able to stop talking about it ever since I saw it. I think this is the most enjoyable movie in several years. The whole thing just -- as Kenny says, just flows together. It's like a piece of music the way one scene leads to the next, one theme leads to the next, one performance leads to the next. It's just marvelously orchestrated, and yet it feels free and loose and easy and wild. I mean, there are things in it your eyes pop open. Did he just say what I think he just said? That kind of thing. Did he just do what I just saw him do? And yet when you think about it afterwards it all fits into place.

DENBY

11:42:04
And it's about deception and self deception, which it suggests is what essentially makes the world move. Not money, but bull of various qualities. And it's about acting itself. It's about the pleasure in acting and in posture. And you have here maybe five of the, you know, best young actors in Hollywood rounded up. I don't think you could find a better cast if you went back to, you know, Paramount and MGM in 1936. I don't see how...

REHM

11:42:31
So I guess you guys like this movie.

DENBY

11:42:33
I guess I liked it, yeah.

REHM

11:42:34
Yeah.

HORNADAY

11:42:35
And you know what I love about it is that we were just talking about how authentic Captain -- you know, the fetish for authenticity that's been taken hold in recent years. And Russell just throws that away. I mean, he very gleefully tells us some of this really happened, but a lot of it didn't. And it's loosely based on Abscam, but then he just sort of takes the Mickey. And I -- it's -- like David said, it's a liberated -- liberating piece of work. And I just love that he kind of thumbed his nose at this latest rage for authenticity.

REHM

11:43:03
And here's a Tweet from Holly. She says, "So many great male roles in movies but hardly any for women who are still relegated to second banana for the most part."

HORNADAY

11:43:18
Well, that -- it's interesting because I think that has been sort of a blind spot, even though Sandra Bullock sort of single-handedly between "The Heat," the comedy that came out this summer, it was a huge hit, and then of course carrying "Gravity" on her shoulders. You know, that's -- we have "August: Osage County" coming out soon that has some very toothsome roles for female actors like Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. But by and large, yeah, I think that is a blind spot.

HORNADAY

11:43:45
Although this year I was really knocked out by some female directors. Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" was one of my top favorites with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and one of James Gandolfini's last performances. Wonderful sort of observant contemporary romantic comedy. Lake Bell made a really impressive debut with "In A World." And then my top favorite was Sarah Polley, "Stories We Tell," a documentary about her family life that was just brilliant, beautiful, beautifully-constructed film.

REHM

11:44:16
And Kenneth Turan, tells us about "The Invisible Woman." I gather this comes out limited distribution on Christmas Day. You like it a lot.

TURAN

11:44:29
Oh, I do, I do. This is a personal favorite of mine. You know, this is a story that's directed by Ray (sic) Fiennes. It stars Ray Fiennes as Charles Dickens. This is about a part of Dickens' life that was hidden for a while. He had a mistress for 13 years that most people did not know about. And, you know, this is kind of what I'm looking for in film. This is an emotionally honest film. This is a really compelling story, well acted, just really takes you inside people's lives in a way that's riveting.

TURAN

11:44:56
You know, this is kind of what I go to the movies for -- one of the things I go to the movies for. But, you know, this kind of classic filmmaking, you really don't see that that much. You see people pushing envelopes in different directions but this is a kind of old fashioned moviemaking just for my money, spectacularly well.

REHM

11:45:12
Have you seen it David?

DENBY

11:45:15
Yeah -- no, I think it's a beautiful period piece. And Ray Fiennes in the early part of the movie when he's -- when Dickens is putting on amateur theatricals and charming the hell out of everybody and is the life of the party, gives away to a different Ray Fiennes as he falls in love with this woman who's less than half his age. Now you have to realize this is Charles Dickens who, at the age of 45 or 46 when the movie begins, this is the most famous man in England.

DENBY

11:45:42
He's not only that, he's the most famous benevolent man in England who has been raising money to help prostitutes of setting up a home for fallen women. You know, this kind of mid-Victorian obsession. And so then what happens? He falls in love with a girl who's less than half his age. So he's in a very awkward position. That's what's fascinating about the movie and morally how he handles that.

DENBY

11:46:08
One of the -- unfortunately he gets less vivacious as he falls in love. And he's not as funny at the end as if, you know, somehow being romantically happy dried up your sense of humor. I don't know if I believe that but it was a curious change in the conception of the character.

REHM

11:46:27
I just want to remind listeners, we do have trailers up on our website drshow.org of all or many of the movies we're talking about. Let's go to Jennifer in Winchester, Va. You're on the air.

JENNIFER

11:46:50
Oh, thank you so much. I'm so -- I'm just really enjoying the conversation.

REHM

11:46:54
Good.

JENNIFER

11:46:55
I love movies. I grew up -- I'm about 60 years old. I grew up watching, you know, foreign films and independent films. And I just saw a film in New York called "Some Velvet Morning" by Neil LaBute. A very small film and it has a lot of really strong -- Mr. Denby was talking about pleasure in acting. It's Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve. And I love all the movies that you're talking about. I'm just wondering if there's space or what do we do about getting some of these really interesting different great small works out, you know, to the public.

DENBY

11:47:35
That's a problem. It's a big problem.

HORNADAY

11:47:35
Well, you know, it's interesting. We, over the summer, decided at the Washington Post that we would start reviewing On Demand offerings because in the last few years, especially coming out of Sundance, so many deals have been made for movies that are either being released, you know, day and day in theaters and On Demand, and in some cases, only On Demand. And this is only going in one direction, folks. I mean, you know, so it used to be that On Demand was considered kind of a -- you know, a bin for less-than-stellar work. But that's -- quality is no longer the case. So we decided to...

DENBY

11:48:08
Well, how do you -- Ann, how do you decide -- where do you draw the line? How do you decide what to review and what not to review because there are dozens.

HORNADAY

11:48:13
We decide -- well, I know, exactly. Well, it's curated. I mean, you know, we can't do everything but it's just our effort to bring work -- either work that people will be curious about like "The Canyons" for example, the Lindsay Lohan movie, or stuff that we want to advocate for. And I actually did review "Some Velvet Morning" a couple of weeks ago when it became available, because I agree with the caller.

HORNADAY

11:48:36
It's an -- you know, it's about acting too. It's a great example of two fine actors. But then the kind of subtext, you know, as the movie develops, it's about acting and about deception and self deception much in the way of "American Hustle." So it's a really fine piece of work that was not going to be available in theaters in Washington. And I felt like our readers might want to catch up with it On Demand.

REHM

11:48:55
One film...

DENBY

11:48:56
Diane, this -- can I just add into this...

REHM

11:48:57
Sure.

DENBY

11:48:58
...something very important, which is that individual theaters in small cities and small towns are -- of course they've been challenged for years, right, by malls and everything. But there's -- the final death knell for them is that they have to change their projection from film to digital. And that can cost anywhere from 50 to $100,000. So I want to encourage our listeners to support your local theater. If you want to see Neil LaBute's new film or any small film, you know, before you can get it online or in a DVD or something like that, but you want to see it on a big screen, you're not going to see it in a mall, you know, ten miles out of town. You're going to see it in your small local theater.

DENBY

11:49:42
And without community support, a lot of those places just cannot cut it anymore.

REHM

11:49:47
But there are fewer and fewer of those here in Washington.

HORNADAY

11:49:49
Right.

DENBY

11:49:49
And they're -- yeah, and they're going to go, yeah. It's terrible. I hate it.

REHM

11:49:54
Talk about the --

TURAN

11:49:55
Also, you know, I've actually participated in fundraisers for these small theaters. You know, a lot of these theaters are fighting back. They are raising money for digital conversion and it's really kind of creating the community -- this crisis is helping to create a community of like-minded people who really love these films and care about them.

REHM

11:50:08
Absolutely. What about the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street," Ann?

HORNADAY

11:50:14
Wow.

DENBY

11:50:15
Oh, god.

HORNADAY

11:50:17
I'm going to kick it over to David for that. No, this is Martin Scorsese's latest. It's opening Christmas Day. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as another -- this is another fact-based drama based on a man named Jordan Belfort who in the '90s bilked his investors.

REHM

11:50:33
He made something like 42 million in a year.

HORNADAY

11:50:37
Yeah, in a year, yeah. I mean, it's just this -- it's a really Bacchanalian excessive portrait of Bacchanalian excess. I -- you know, I haven’t finished -- I've started my review. I haven't -- I never know really what I feel until I've written, so I'm a little bit hesitant to pronounce. But it's a very troubling movie.

REHM

11:50:56
What do you think, David?

DENBY

11:50:58
Oh, I dislike it and I'm a big Scorsese fan. I think it's a fake. By that I mean under the guise of being a satirical attack on this obscene, disgusting, over-the-top, profane sexist behavior on Wall Street. It is itself an example of over-the-top obscene, profane, disgusting. There's no distance on the character at all. And Leo DiCaprio just comes at you for three hours selling himself. And you feel like cowering under the seat because most of the time he's a jerk.

DENBY

11:51:34
Now I did not feel that way about Ray Liotta's character in "Goodfellas" 25 years ago. This is an inflated version of that same rise -- precipitous fall story but with an almost hysterical over-emphasis as if Scorsese was saying, I may be 71 but I'm still king.

REHM

11:51:54
All right.

DENBY

11:51:55
You know, I'm going to out-Tarantino Tarantino. I'm going to make the wildest, craziest movie you've ever seen. And it really, I think, is oppressive.

REHM

11:52:03
All right. To Ken in Woodburn, Ind. You're on the air.

KEN

11:52:09
...wonderful. Thank you. I admire and savor your conversation. I wanted to inquire about a movie that we saw that I thought was a compelling movie called "Book Thief." And secondly, I wondered -- I read the adjective schmaltzy attributed to "Saving Mr. Banks" and wondered if you agreed with that. Because I earlier agree with the admiration you reflected about Tom Hanks' ability.

REHM

11:52:32
Ann.

HORNADAY

11:52:33
Well, unfortunately I was on assignment the week that they were screening "The Book Thief." And in our profession -- I don't know if David and Ken can relate to this -- but if you've missed it in previews then, you know, it's gone baby gone until you take a break and catch up with things.

REHM

11:52:46
What happened, David, did you see it?

DENBY

11:52:50
Yeah, I wasn't crazy about it . It's an attempt to do the Nazi period from within Germany in a different way than it's been done before. The life inside a family where there's a Jewish person hiding from the Nazis. And it seemed to me to soften the whole violence and hysteria of the period more than I wanted to see it softened. It feels like it's always snowing and it's always pretty. So it's -- it may be a relief from other movies but I wish it were stronger than it is.

REHM

11:53:24
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Kenneth Turan, what about "Saving Mr. Banks?"

TURAN

11:53:34
Well, that's an interesting film. You know, to me this is a story of the kind of -- the battle between P. L. Travers who wrote the Mary Poppins books and Walt Disney who desperately wanted to film them. And she did not want them filmed. She was a very eccentric woman. The first shot you see in the film has a book by Gurdjieff, this great mystic. So clearly any woman who's reading Gurdjieff is not going to be getting along with Walt Disney.

REHM

11:53:55
...with Walt Disney. Oh, I love it. That's quite a contrast.

TURAN

11:54:01
But I thought Emma Thompson was wonderful. I mean, the film was problematic to me but I really enjoyed Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. She's got all these kind of killer lines and I just went with her. And the rest of the film, you know, I was just so-so with, but she was terrific.

REHM

11:54:15
What do you think, Ann?

HORNADAY

11:54:16
I agree. I mean, that's another example of a fine female -- a good female lead performance of this year. But it's got a very unwieldy structure. You know, it's constructed as the story of Disney and Travers in 1960, 1961, I can't remember which here. And then there are lots and lots of flashbacks to her early life. I mean, so many that it sort of -- it takes a while to adjust to that rhythm. Even though I think the flashback story works and I think the 1960 story works. But I'm not sure that constantly cutting back and forth is always so comfortable.

HORNADAY

11:54:50
But it's just a -- it's a really compelling story about this creative clash and this kind of unmovable object and the ultimate irresistible force which was Walt Disney.

REHM

11:55:00
And David.

DENBY

11:55:01
Diane, I wanted to kick her.

TURAN

11:55:04
So did the Shermans. Get in line.

DENBY

11:55:07
Yeah, she's supposed to be very intelligent, very exacting, eccentric. But I thought she was unbelievably rude to these guys at Disney who were just trying to make a show. And she's so snooty, I felt like, you know, kick her in the shins and tell her to get back on boat. Of course, you know, I don't care whether Mary Poppins got made or not, but I guess I had no rooting interest in the end of the story.

TURAN

11:55:35
There you go.

REHM

11:55:36
And finally as one who was around when the first "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" when Danny Kay starred in it. Seeing the trailer of this one did not impress me. Have you all seen it? Have you see it, Ann?

TURAN

11:55:57
Yes. Yep, and that's also opening on Christmas Day. And, yes. I mean, it definitely -- Ben Stiller stars in it and also directed it. And it absolutely departs from the story that most of us are familiar with.

REHM

11:56:10
Exactly. How'd you feel about it, David?

DENBY

11:56:14
There's some interesting and funny stuff about it. I mean, Walter Mitty's fantasies can now be done digitally so they're much wilder than anything that you saw in the late '40s Danny Kay version. There's some -- but it -- it's awfully repetitive. It's about the last issue of Life magazine, and the people who closed the magazine come off as terrible jerks. And there's the same joke over and over and over again.

REHM

11:56:38
I see.

DENBY

11:56:38
And finally Walter Mitty becomes a real life kind of action hero racing into -- it becomes rather conventional. Beautifully shot.

TURAN

11:56:46
Beautifully shot. Absolutely.

REHM

11:56:47
Okay.

DENBY

11:56:48
If you want to see what Iceland looks like, then I'd recommend this movie.

TURAN

11:56:53
Great scenery.

REHM

11:56:53
All right. We're going to have to leave it there. So many of the movies we could talk about. David Denby, Kenneth Turan, Ann Hornaday, thank you so much.

DENBY

11:57:04
Thank you.

HORNADAY

11:57:04
Thank you.

TURAN

11:57:05
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

11:57:05
And to all of you, we're going to take a bit of a Christmas break. We'll be bringing you lots of our favorites on rebroadcast between now and New Year's Day. We'll be back with you on January 2 with a live program. Thanks so much for listening. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. I'm Diane Rehm.
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