An Exceptional Performance By Julianne Moore

In the new film Still Alice we watch the beautiful and vivacious Julianne Moore deteriorate, disintegrate, and disappear right before our eyes.

A celebrated linguistics professor at Columbia University, Moore prides herself on being articulate, innovative, and well respected by her colleagues. Her life is built around her love of words. But at the age of 50 she is suddenly and unexpectedly assaulted by a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who wrote and directed the film from a novel by Lisa Genova, handle the accelerated pace of the disease with delicacy and sensitivity, but even so, it is a heart-breaking experience to watch.

Bolstered by the tender support of her husband, Alec Baldwin, and her three grown children, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish, Moore struggles with her fears, her frustration, and her desire not to burden her family. But of course the inherent family disagreements become exaggerated as she attempts to guide her family in directions that she believes will be beneficial to them.

For example, she continues to badger her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), an actress, to go to college to acquire “a skill that she can fall back on” if her acting career doesn’t work out. Lydia, who is in love with her chosen profession, sees Moore’s beseeching as a sign that her mother doesn’t believe in her ability to make a successful life in the theater and, full of resentment, she leaves New York for Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Moore’s mental deterioration has become apparent to her students and, in their evaluation of her teaching skills many deliver a devastating critique. Shocked that they are aware of her deteriorating condition, she accepts the inevitable and eventually allows herself to be dismissed from the university.

Although the film treats her symptoms gently, she exhibits many that those who care for Alzheimer’s patients will recognize. She periodically becomes hostile, and she asks the same questions again and again just minutes after she has received the answer.

In the end, this vibrant woman has become the ghost of her former self. She can barely talk and she is nearly unrecognizable physically. And so the question subliminally posed by the film’s title becomes significantly relevant: Is Alice still Alice if she is no longer present?

Still Alice is playing in a few select theaters in Los Angeles in time to be considered for the Oscars which, despite an exceptionally strong group of contenders, Julianne Moore deserves to win.

The film will open wide in a few weeks.

If It isn’t War, It’s A Bore

In the summer after she graduated from college, my daughter Dena volunteered for a short stint with the Israel Defense Force. She was posted to a naval base outside Haifa, but because she didn’t speak Hebrew she was assigned to applying bright red paint to the curbs on the edge of the sidewalks of the base so that nobody would dare to park there. And in the afternoon she went to the beach.

I couldn’t help thinking of this as I watched Talya Lavie’s brilliant new film Zero Motivation. The biggest hit of the year in Israel, nominated for 12 Ophirs, the Israeli equivalent of American Oscars, and named the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, Zero Motivation is a wry and poignant look at the tedious work done by the women behind the lines.

Way behind the lines. The movie is set at a small military base a million miles from nowhere, with nothing around in the bleak southern desert but the distant mountains, some dried-out fauna, and a lone camel. Even the color-saturated photography can’t make these surroundings appealing.

Stuffed into a crowded, seedy office are five young women serving their mandatory two-year term in the military. They are the staff of the Human Resources Office, and each one has an official title that is more nonsensical than the last. For example, Daffi, our ditzy heroine, brightly played by Nelly Tagar, has a high-falutin title that identifies her as the office’s commander in chief in charge of document shredding.

Daffi’s best friend, Zohar (a tough, mean-spirited kibbutznick played by Dana Ivgy), willfully promotes havoc when she isn’t being mesmerized by the games on her computer. Or dying of boredom.

As writer/director Lavie has explained, “Israeli women may of course serve in more glamorous roles…but I wanted to focus on us office girls, the unseen and mostly-ignored majority whose contribution is lacking any social or symbolic value.” (See my daughter’s job description, above.)

But they have their dreams. Daffi is obsessed with trying to get posted to Tel Aviv, but she is thwarted at every turn. Zohar is humiliated by being the only woman she knows who is still a virgin. And Rama (Shani Klein), their platoon commander who aspires to be promoted and to have a significant military career, has two things working against her: she is useless as a commander, and Zohar and Daffi keep screwing things up.

The story is told in a straightforward style, moving through life in chronological order. No flashbacks or sudden surprises. But Lavie has divided the action into three distinct vignettes. The first is about a new recruit whom Daffi latches onto, insisting that the girl is meant to be her replacement when she (Daffi) transfers to Tel Aviv. But the girl has an agenda of her own which leads to tragedy.

In the second episode Zohar decides to do something about her virginity and she approaches a young man who is happily obliging. It’s a hilarious episode, but it also ends badly.

Having followed the women through their enlistment, the film ends with their return to the rest of their lives. Each receives her appropriate desserts, but Daffi, with her relentless determination to be transferred to Tel Aviv, transforms herself, almost inadvertently, into something she neither anticipated nor particularly craved: a professional soldier in the IDF.

Zero Motivation is a beautifully realized film. Most definitely a “must see”. It makes its Los Angeles debut at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles, on January 16th.

A Very Jolie Weekend

I spent the weekend with Angelina Jolie.

On Friday night I watched her transform herself from a wicked witch into a fairy godmother. It was Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty, complete with monsters and sassy creatures with gossamer wings, and ever-sparkling skies.

The film was Maleficent, and the beautiful Ms. Jolie was less than magnificent. She was also less than beautiful, with her massive black horns, Spock-like ears, and cheekbones implanted with what looked like chopsticks. She also wore lipstick that was too red for her face and made her lips look abnormally bloated. Moreover, she pouted a lot and her smile was never anything but sinister.

Maleficent was okay if you like fairy tales, and it was certainly more engaging than A Walk in the Woods.

On Saturday night I saw a spectacular movie that Angelina Jolie wasn’t in. Instead, she did a masterful job of directing it.

The film was Unbroken, and it was actually a Holocaust story transposed to the Far East. It was the true story of Louis Zamperini and the horrors he endured on his way to, and in, Japanese prison camps during World War II.

A biography, written by Laura Hillenbrand, called A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption became a harrowing screenplay by the multiple award-winning Coen brothers, and the film was shot in Australia with a band of actors mostly unknown in the United States.

Playing Zamperini was a handsome, earnest Jack O’Connell as an Army bombardier being shot out of the skies—twice. The second time he and two crew members survived, struggling to board a yellow lifeboat. The rest of the crew sank with the crippled plane.

Flashbacks interspersed throughout the film indicate the kind of boy Zamperini was. He was a troublemaker, picked on by his schoolmates because his parents spoke only Italian. But fortunately, he had an older brother who set him straight and worked ceaselessly to help him become a champion runner. That training paid off when Louie went to Germany to compete in the 1936 Olympics.

Meanwhile, back in the lifeboat, Louie and his two crewmates boiled in the unrelenting sun, caught fish and sharks and albatrosses and ate them raw, trapped rainwater for drinking, and drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days.

One of the men eventually died, but Louie and his buddy Phil lived to be rescued by Japanese sailors. Although “rescued” is hardly the word for it, as they were trundled to prison camps where the guards rivaled the Nazis in their cruelty.

The head guard, Sgt. Watanabe, especially resented Louie for his prowess as an Olympic athlete and took every opportunity to beat him and leave him unconscious, lying in the dirt with his wounds.

Ironically, the man who played Watanabe is a Japanese rock star who had never acted before, but Jolie saw in him a presence that would fit perfectly into the role. His name is Miyavi, and he became the very personification of a vindictive psychotic.

Eventually, Zamperini came home, but he took many years to get over his PTSD and during that time he lived as a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. Finally, at an assembly run by Billy Graham, he changed his life and became a born-again Christian. From that time on he spent the rest of his life devoted to his faith and seeking redemption.

He also returned to Japan to forgive and reconcile with his one-time torturers. Except for Watanabe, who refused to see him.

He also returned at the age of 80 to carry the torch on the last leg of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Louis Zamperini died on July 2, 2014, at the age of 97.

Unbroken opened in Los Angeles on Christmas Day and can currently be seen in theaters all over the city.

Three Films for the New Year

Three mediocre films this week. I’ll review them briefly so you can spend the new year not going to see them.


This is a documentary about Edward Snowden and the efforts he made in order to make the world aware of the clandestine intelligence and surveillance activities of the United States government.

His motives appear to be sincere and he comes off as a determined patriot. But although he identifies himself as “neither traitor nor hero; I’m an American”, many of his countrymen think of him as a traitor.

The film follows him from his initial contacts with journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the man from The Guardian newspaper, Ewen MacAskill.

He rendezvous with them in a hotel room in Hong Kong, but instead of discussing the “juicy tidbits” and shocking revelations contained in the documents, he describes in mind-numbing detail the technological machinations that enabled him to secure them. And the camera remains with him in the hotel room as he waits for his colleagues to fly back and forth across the world and get his message out.

The rest of his story, the 39 days of waiting in the Moscow airport for the Russian government to approve his request for asylum and the events that followed, is told mostly in voice-over. But at the end, through the kitchen window of his Moscow apartment you catch a glimpse of his long-time girlfriend, who joined him in exile. It’s the only personal shot that gives you a sense of Snowden as a real human being.

Citizenfour is an interesting story told blandly and with little drama. Which is probably the way a story as significant as this one should be told. But it makes for a helluva dreary movie.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent isn’t really a terrible movie. After all, how bad could a movie be that has Bill Murray in it?

This one, however, has all the “Bill Murray shticks” we’ve seen a thousand times, and the story is a predictable rehash of “lonely boy being mentored by an irascible, irresponsible, retired reprobate” who is hired to “babysit” him by his harassed, newly divorced mother, Melissa McCarthy.

There are the requisite scenes of drinking, sex, and visits to the race track before Murray abandons his shabby lifestyle and becomes a mensch that even a mother could love. And the boy, of course, thinks of him as a saint. Very very gooey.

Into the Woods

Nobody is indifferent to Stephen Sondheim. You either love him or you hate him. In his new sci-fi fantasy fairy tale, Into the Woods, everybody sings his songs except the audience. There’s not one that you can remember the tune to, let alone the words. For my part, his only memorable song is “Send in the Clowns”
from A Little Night Music.

In Into the Woods he and James Lapine make a mishmash of the tales of the brothers Grimm. The stories were grim when they were originally published in 1812 and made even grimmer by the Sondheim-¬Lapine musical on Broadway in 1986. Lapine wrote the screenplay for the film (directed flamboyantly by Rob Marshall) that opened this Christmas. Lapine transmogrified it in accordance with directives from Disney, the studio that produced it.

Disney objected to the implied sexual relationships between Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). The studio also didn’t like the excessive violence and the grisly deaths of so many of the principals. But many of them died anyway, even though they were played by actors who deserved better.

Among the cast were Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother, James Corden as the Baker, MacKenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel, Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and Tracey Ullman as his mother. And whirring around stirring the plot was The Witch, an over-the-top Meryl Streep.

The various stories intertwined in the woods, which were creepy, and revolved around The Witch, who was prone to offering curses and making inexplicable demands.

Besides the fact that the film was more than two hours long, it disintegrated into a dark morality play in the second half, punishing everyone for their perceived wicked actions or intentions. Not a fairy tale at all. Children would find it grim, not Grimm.

All these films are currently playing in theaters around Los Angeles.

It Was No Game They Played

It’s nominated for five Golden Globes, but its star is a machine. A big, clumsy one—and it’s not even animated.

The film is The Imitation Game and the machine was named Christopher by its creator, Alan Turing. It was, in fact, the first computer, and for many years computers were called “Turing machines” in recognition of the genius who is considered “the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.”

In this spectacular film Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as an obsessive, humorless, distant individual, awkward and with almost no social graces. He expresses himself literally and doesn’t seem to understand that his conversation often appears rude and insensitive. His attention is focused internally and he doesn’t seem to blink. In fact, he exhibits many of the behaviors that are usually associated with Aspberger’s Syndrome, although that possibility is not suggested or implied in the film.

Despite Turing’s quirky mannerisms, however, Cumberbatch makes him a sympathetic, and even lovable, character.

And so, this unique man, who was acknowledged as a superior mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, computer scientist, and mathematical biologist found himself plucked up by the British government and deposited at Bletchley Park, the secret site where the British were attempting to decipher enemy code messages during the Second World War.

Charged with staffing a special team, Turing prepared a mind-boggling crossword puzzle that applicants were ordered to finish in five minutes or less. The first one to complete the puzzle was a young woman, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley in the film. She became part of the motley group that worked with Turing to break the “impossible” Enigma code by which the Nazis communicated with each other during that critical time.

The Enigma was a fearsome machine whose settings were completely changed every 24 hours, and the different combinations into which they could be diverted numbered in the hundreds of millions.

Several years later, after Turing and his group had finally broken the code, they learned that a group of German ships was on its way to destroy a British convoy. Turing insisted, however, that his team not warn the convoy of its pending destruction because that would reveal to the enemy that the British had broken the Enigma code and were able to intercept their messages. This deadly scenario was repeated a number of times, but many other lives were saved because in the end it was estimated that the work done by Turing and his group at Bletchley Park was responsible for shortening the war by two to four years.

Because the work at Bletchley Park was so highly classified, Turing was never acknowledged or celebrated during his lifetime. But now there are academic buildings, streets and highways, and statues bearing his name and likeness in cities not only in Britain but all over the world. There are also countless seminars and lectures bearing his name, and the Turing Award, given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery, is the computer community’s most coveted award, considered comparable to the Nobel Prize.

And the recognition for Turing continues: books, plays, and television have told his story, and now this lush, intelligent, and beautifully presented film, directed by Morten Tyldum from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, will, hopefully, win filmdom’s highest accolades. The Imitation Game has been nominated for Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score.

But perhaps the most touching assessment of Turing and his work was penned by his Bletchley colleague, Hugh Alexander, who wrote:

“In the early days he was the only cryptographer who thought the problem worth tackling and he was primarily responsible for the main theoretical work… It is always difficult to say that anyone is absolutely indispensable but if anyone was indispensable it was Turing.

“The pioneer’s work always tends to be forgotten when experience and routine later make everything seem easy, and many of us felt that the magnitude of Turing’s contribution was never fully realized by the outside world.”

The Imitation Game began a limited engagement in selected theaters in Los Angeles on November 28th, but is scheduled to open wide on Christmas Day.

Photo: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turin in The Imitation Game

Andy and Fletcher and All That Jazz

Whiplash is a misleading name for this film. It conjures up deadly car chases and crashes and someone paralyzed for the rest of his life. But the actual film is a far cry from that kind of theme. Whiplash is a popular jazz piece written by Hank Levy, a composer/saxophonist who wrote for Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the 1950s and for Don Ellis in the ‘60s.

The film deals with Andy Neiman, an ambitious young drummer who sees himself as this generation’s Buddy Rich. So he is not terrifically surprised when he is accepted into what is considered the best music school in the country.

Ironically, Miles Teller, who plays Andy, is, in real life, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which is also considered one of the finest schools of its kind in this country.

No matter how rigorous the Tisch School is, however, it would certainly not tolerate a music professor like J.K. Simmons, who plays Terence Fletcher, an angry, violent, and abusive martinet. Fletcher leads the school band by pushing everyone to their limits and beyond, and he motivates them by hollering in their faces, cursing them, and even physically assaulting them.

Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed this film, claims that the story is factual—that everything that happens in the movie happened to him or one of his buddies when they played in their high school band.

Chazelle’s “villain”, Fletcher, expresses his belief that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “good job!” It leads a player to believe he has done his best, he says, and to relax his efforts when he ought to be striving to do better.

Andy, who is young and impressionable, takes up the challenge and sets out to wow his teacher. He becomes more obsessed than ever with his drums and practices with them incessantly, until his hands are raw and bleeding.

Not being a drum aficionado, I can’t tell how good a drummer Miles Teller, who plays his own drums in this film, actually is. But I can vouch for the fact that he is a really fine actor.

As is J.K. Simmons, who is both intimidating and convincing, and curiously compelling. The two men play off each other exquisitely and both have been nominated for Golden Globes for their work.

Another fine, subdued performance is rendered by Paul Reiser, who has aged beautifully since his days as a befuddled husband in the wonderful TV sitcom Mad About You. In Whiplash he plays Andy’s father who, in a telling scene at the dinner table, disparages his son’s hero, Buddy Rich, for his dissolute life and death at 34. To which Andy replies indignantly that he would rather die at 34 and have people talking about him at the dinner table years afterwards than live to an old age and have nobody remember him.

When Whiplash premiered at the 2014 Sundance Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. If it isn’t overshadowed by some of the “bigger” entries, it might do well at this year’s Academy Awards as well, although that seems quite a stretch, given the caliber of this year’s competition. For what it’s worth, though, my money is on J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

You can find Whiplash in limited release at select theaters in Los Angeles.

Photo: Miles Teller and his drums

The Piper Plays A Merry Tune

When May Lee Davis was looking for a pizzazzy name to reflect her ascending career as a standup comedian, she was suddenly inspired by a large neon sign that identified the Santa Monica Pier. She added a well-placed P, and just like that, May Lee Davis became Monica Piper.

Piper is still going strong. Her latest performance was commissioned by the Jewish Women’s Theater and tells the story of her life in hilarious detail. The one-woman show is called Not That Jewish and can be seen at the JWT in its new venue at The Braid in Santa Monica.

She talks about her father, a vaudevillian who encouraged her by passing on his particularly Jewish shticks, and her mother, who specialized in making chopped liver. “So when a Jewish person asks ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’” Piper says.

She tells of her marriage to a blond, blue-eyed Gentile god and her mother-in-law’s wedding invitation which announced her handsome Harvard-educated lawyer son’s marriage to “a short Jewish girl who smokes.”

At that point, Piper says, she didn’t know which was worse, “being Jewish or being short.”

So, after she and the god divorced, she became an English teacher, but, she says, she “couldn’t handle the money or the prestige.”

Moving on, she studied improv with Second City in Chicago and then, going solo, she became one of Showtime Network’s Comedy All-Stars and landed her own Ace Award-winning Showtime Special, No Monica…Just You.

After being nominated for an American Comedy Award as one of the top five female comedians in the country, she went on to write for Roseanne Barr on the hit sit-com Roseanne.

She also wrote for Mad About You, Veronica’s Closet, and Duckman, won an Emmy for the #1 children’s animated series, Rugrats, and developed and wrote series for Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network.

Then, with her usual “Jew ne sais quoi”, she married again, to another blond, blue-eyed Gentile. “It could have worked out,” she explains, “if he’d been an entirely different person.”

She talks about her neighbor, whose dog was named Get off the fucking couch. “And isn’t that a coincidence,” she says. “Her husband was named that, too.”

She talks about having a yard sale and finding that “a blouse I had spent $100 on no one would buy for a quarter.”

And then, with her biological clock ticking, she decided, at 41, to adopt. Her son Jake, now a young man, provides additional spice to her story, as she tells of the challenges of being his mother and bringing him up alone.

She also tells, with great poignancy, of the death of her father, her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and her own battle with cancer. “So what do Jews do in times of crisis?” she asks. “They complain!”

But there is little complaint from Monica Piper. Turning adversity into comedy and idiocy into irony, she presents her life with no holds barred, and, despite the vexations, she appears to have enjoyed every minute of it.

And so will you.

Monica Piper in Not That Jewish will continue at The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave., #102. In Santa Monica on Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 pm through December 21st. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit www.jewishtheatreorg, for tickets.