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a musical rarity
Greetings again from the darkness. Even the grainy concert footage and somewhat muffled audio of the opening clip do nothing to offset the raw energy and power of Paul Butterfield and his blues harp. If you are a blues lover, you are already familiar with his music, and you'll likely learn more about the man. If the blues aren't your thing, it's still fascinating to see someone so talented and committed to their art.
Documentarian John Anderson does a nice job of blending interviews from family members and band members with video clips and historical data, mostly in chronological order. Mr. Anderson also acted as editor of "The Super Bowl Shuffle" video of the 1985 Chicago Bears, as well as numerous projects with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. This time out, he captures the essence of a musical genius not nearly enough people have tuned in to.
Broken into segments (1942-65, 1966-71, 1972-1987), the film takes us through Butterfield's childhood in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, and through his final on stage appearance just a couple of weeks before his death. Along the way, we hear from bandmates like Elvin Bishop and Nick Gravenites, Paul's two sons and his brother Peter, as well as his former wife Kathryn, who describes him as the love of her life. One of Paul's sons shows us the now-vacant lot where the club once stood in which a teenage Paul played with the likes of Howlin' Wolf. It helps us understand where his love for the blues developed, how he formed one of the earliest integrated bands (with Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay), and how the great Muddy Waters became his life-long mentor and friend.
We get to hear the earliest known recording of Butterfield from 1962, and then footage of him at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 (where he debuted a horns section), and of course, Woodstock in 1969. It's the 1965 story that is perhaps the most interesting, as it took an impassioned plea from Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to get Butterfield a spot in the festival, and then he and his band electrified (pun intended) the folk audience with powerhouse blues. This is the same festival where Bob Dylan shocked the audience by "going electric" (with Butterfield's band as back-up). The music landscape shifted from the messages of folk music to a more rebellious and harder sound.
Other interviews include David Sanborn, Al Kooper and Bonnie Raitt ... each more effusive than the other when discussing Butterfield's talent and stage presence. We see Butterfield's own high school yearbook quote, "I think I'm better than those trying to reform me", and we hear a clip from his "Blues Harmonica Master Class" recorded in 1984 (released in 1997). It was 1976 when Butterfield joined The Band's farewell concert for "The Last Waltz" (movie and album), and we hear about Paul's continued and numerous efforts to find the right sound and band in the second half of his career.
Legendary Producer Paul Rothchild, known for his work with The Doors and Janis Joplin, certainly recognized greatness in Butterfield and helped with some of his best recordings. Sadly, the 1980's brought about severe peritonitis which led to various stomach and intestinal surgeries for Butterfield, which in turn, led to alcoholism and drug abuse. We get a clip of Butterfield on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1987, mere days before Paul died of a heroin overdose at age 44. Fortunately for us, the musical recordings live on for a man often described as a force of nature on the blues harp.
fitting forty year follow up
Greetings again from the darkness. I believe the term is 'full circle'. It was 1978, and I vividly recall waiting anxiously for the opening night start of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Now, 40 years later, I've just watched what is likely (hopefully!) the final entry of a franchise that spans between 9 and 12 movies, depending on which ones you count (although, apparently we are only supposed to count the first one and this latest). Carpenter's original film gave us the backstory of 6 year old Michael Myers killing his sister Judith in 1963, and subsequently being confined to a sanitarium before showing up on All Hallows Eve in 1978 for what is now referred to as The Babysitter Murders.
Writer/director David Gordon Green (STRONGER, 2017) and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley make it clear from the start that this is a direct sequel (ignore the others!) to the 1978 original, although having a sequel and its original share the same title is itself a bit confusing. For anyone unfamiliar with Carpenter's original classic (the one that kicked off an entire genre of slasher films), the filmmakers offer up a couple of fame-seeking British podcasters (Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall) to spell out the history and gory details of Michael Myers and Haddonfield, Illinois. Michael has been institutionalized for four decades, never uttering a single word to his doctors ... neither the now-deceased Dr. Loomis nor his protégé Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer mimicking some of Donald Pleasance's oratory style). Thanks to a not-unexpected bus wreck, and the amateurish prank of the podcasters, Michael Myers is reunited with his William Shatner mask (looking a bit rough these days) and sets off to kill innocents and track down his nemesis, Laurie Strode.
The challenges of filmmakers in 2018 versus those in 1978 aren't just limited to disposing of podcasters and teenager's cell phones. They must also be cautious about treating women as victims, and here Laurie Strode is anything but. She has spent these years preparing herself and training her now-grown daughter Karen (Judy Greer) what to do once (not if) Michael Myers returns. Mother and daughter are now somewhat estranged, connected mostly by Laurie's granddaughter Allyson (newcomer Andi Matichak). It's kind of clever how the filmmakers empower the three generations so that together they may face off against the evil that has haunted their family for so many years.
The film has a retro 1970's look and feel, and it is well-served as a tribute/follow-up to the original. Some familiar shots are mirrored and references to the original are noted through the dialogue ... though some of the humor seems a bit forced (specifically young Jibrail Nantambu who is being babysat). The opening credit sequence makes good use of the same font and color scheme from 40 years ago, and the rotten jack-o-lantern coming back to life is a nice touch.
The return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie is what completes this haunting circle. Carpenter's HALLOWEEN was her big screen debut, and though she still tends to go over the-top at times, this obviously would not have worked without the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. In fact, this story is mostly focused on the psychology of Laurie and her PTSD, as we never learn much about what makes Michael Myers do what he does. Others returning from the original film include Nick Castle as The Shape (though James Jude Courtney shares the role this time), and PJ Soles in an all-too-brief and quite memorable appearance. As a veteran cop, and described as the first officer on the scene 40 years ago, Will Patton's character appears to want to be anywhere but where he is (side note: Mr. Patton looks almost identical to Paul Simon these days).
Huge carving knives gleaming (despite the low light) make several appearances, and many of Michael's grisly murders are handled off camera. But don't mistake that for a lack of violence or gore - there is an abundance. Keep in mind that the film is positioned as a direct sequel to the 1978 film, and fans of that classic should be quite satisfied. Even the iconic 1978 theme song is re-worked by John Carpenter, his grandson Cody Carpenter and musician Daniel A Davies. The recognizable notes are a bit slower and bulked up through synth. As with most horror films, it would be pretty easy to point out the flaws, inconsistencies and necessary assumptions, but it's one of the few that actually works if you avoid thinking too much and just "enjoy" the mythology and horror.
Bikini Moon (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE was released in 1991. It was an incredible documentary that explored the struggles of Frances Ford Coppola in making his classic film APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Although it's totally unrelated to either of those films, this latest from director Milcho Manchevski kept reminding me that we rarely get a peek at just how challenging it is to complete a film, and HEARTS OF DARKNESS is likely the cream of the behind-the-scenes crop.
Director Manchevski directed the Oscar nominated BEFORE THE RAIN (1995), and he, along with co-writer W.P. Rosenthal, deliver an indie-film societal commentary with some not so complimentary observations on certain segments of our populace. Producer Kate (Sarah Goldberg) and director Trevor (Will Janowitz) are in a relationship and are trying desperately to make their name with a documentary that can play film festivals. While filming in a homeless shelter, they stumble upon a woman who calls herself Bikini ... a homeless African-American Army veteran who is desperate to get her daughter out of the social services system. Bikini (Condola Rashad) is a striking, volatile woman with a story - the perfect subject for Trevor and Kate's documentary.
It takes a while for us viewers to get the rhythm of the film. We are watching as a documentary crew attempts to make a film about a woman who may be delusional or bipolar, and at a minimum is a bit unstable. Bikini admits to a nervous breakdown while in Iraq, and is inconsistent remembering to take her medication. However, in her moments of clarity, we recognize her exceptional intelligence and charisma. At other times, we worry about the safety of her and those around her. We even question whether she actually has a daughter and how much of her story we can believe.
While coming to grips with the presentation and what to make of Bikini, we also have to adjust to Trevor, an obnoxious jerk who only cares about making his film - and is willing to exploit Bikini (or anyone else) to get it done. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Kate, who has a heart of gold, even at the expense of reality at times ... she's the stereotypical modern day liberal extremist who wants to save everyone and everything. It's the only way she knows to rid herself of white guilt syndrome.
Cinematographer Joshua Z Weinstein (director of MENASHE) works wonders with the tight residential quarters as well as the numerous urban settings from the streets of New York. Ms. Rashad, whom many will recognize from "Billions", delivers a powerhouse performance as Bikini, though it's a bit of stretch to see someone with movie star looks pulling off the role of someone living on the streets. Cynicism is present throughout, and director Manchevski really wants us to question what is 'truth' ... what happens when the media crosses the line and influences the story ... what is the real story?
First Man (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon's surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man's story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.
Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the LLRV (Lunar Landing Research Vehicle) with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie ... and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen's book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man.
Intensity is on display throughout - whether in a capsule or during family time. Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA's astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.
Proving true JFK's proclamation that the driving force wasn't that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks - all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this. Armstrong's claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family - providing even more insight into the man.
Claire Foy ("The Crown") plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut's wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong's neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Janet, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D'Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.
Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren't overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn't shy away from showing us the "other side" of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey's on the Moon", writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.
The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a "Civilian", unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling's quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it's quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can't help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It's on us to decide if it's worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right ... it is hard.
Living in the Future's Past (2018)
who we are, where we're going
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Susan Kucera and producer/narrator Jeff Bridges are smart enough to avoid cramming another preachy, guilt-laden, 'destroying the world' documentary down our movie-going throats (which is where popcorn belongs). Instead, they deliver a thought-provoking look at who we are, where we have come from, and where are we headed based on our actions and decisions of today.
Breath-taking photography is on display throughout the film - much of it in the beautiful National Geographic style we have become spoiled with over the years. Some of it is even more dramatic and impactful. There are images of the ocean, the earth and of space. When Bridges' familiar and warm voice tells us "The sky itself is not the limit", we realize this movie is something different than expected.
Many experts are paraded out, and they come from various segments of society: Ecological writer and researcher Timothy Morton, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark (if I messed up that title, I hope he forgives me), Ethnobotanist (had to look that up) Mark Plotkin, Astronaut Piers Sellers (since deceased), Physicist Leonard Mlodinow, as well as other scientists, politicians, and professors. The conceptual links between evolution and energy are a bit esoteric at first, but explanations and examples bring clarification.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the presentation is the blend of the scientific with the philosophical. The theory that what we "need" or "desire" drives our motivation on decisions and actions seems more than plausible. It is explained that we are "cultural beings" and our inherent need for group identity leads to the mass consumerism of society.
The difference between adapting to our environment versus controlling it, is made clear by the comparison of bees and ants to our own mega-growth cities. Mr. Bridges' long time home was recently destroyed by the Montecito mudslides, but that fact is not part of the film. Ms. Kucera's film is not a lecture about climate change or how humans are ruining the planet, although it is certainly intimated. Instead, this is more about humanity - what makes us tick and what environmental challenges do we face now and in the future? How do we shift our decision-making from based on our own comfort and convenience to long term sustainability of our species (and others)? The film is presented well, thought-provoking, and yes, quite beautiful to look at.
tried to find the good
Greetings again from the darkness. For those movie-goers who believe there is no need for another comic book movie, you now have People's Exhibit A. This is the 5th Marvel film of 2018 (yep, that's a new one every other month!), and it's the first one proving challenging to say much of anything that is positive or complimentary. The packed house at the screening had very few reactions during the movie, and seemed deflated afterwards.
It should be noted that this is not a Superhero movie, but rather a film based on the Marvel Comic characters and stories of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and it seems they either needed more or fewer. Director Ruben Fleisher (ZOMBIELAND, 2009) apparently worked with what he was given, hoping the stellar cast or the CGI could salvage the project.
The always terrific Tom Hardy (Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) stars as Eddie Brock, a renowned investigative reporter popular for breaking stories of corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, he has a significant lapse in ethics - an unusually forthright comment from Hollywood on today's media. This lapse costs Brock his job, his girlfriend (4 time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), and any semblance of normalcy. While investigating the unimaginable human-alien experiments of megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Brock takes on the powers of the symbiote (Venom) and spends the rest of the movie either trying to control these powers, sitting back and letting the powers take over, or exchanging frat boy dialogue with the possessive being who picked up all nuances of the English language pretty darn quickly.
Venom was last seen in the lackluster SPIDER-MAN 3 and was played by Topher Grace. This time out, Venom is the focus and Spidey is nowhere to be found or mentioned ... at least not until post credits (a terrific animated sequence). The CGI is at times very impressive - reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have ordered. Two sides of the Transamerica Pyramid provide a nice visual, however, the effects are not at all consistent. Far too often ... especially the battle between Venom and Riot ...it's just plain messy (like letting a group of toddlers play with black and gray slime).
The film's saving grace could have been the interactions between Mr. Hardy and Ms. Williams, both stellar actors, but the dialogue and situations are so ridiculous that even those scenes don't click. The moments that draw laughter from the audience may or may not have been by design, but there are far too many 'forced comedic moments' that just fall flat.
Composer Ludwig Goransson (CREED, BLACK PANTHER) delivers some nice moments with the score, but the Eminem song over the closing credits sounds amateurish. The film is very loud, and not so much lacking direction as it is burdened with too many directions and misfires. A comic book movie's first priority is to be fun, and this one just isn't much of that. Surprisingly, the film is rated PG-13 rather than R, so the excessive violence (and there is plenty) never actually spills a drop of blood. Perhaps the goal was to make a Marvel movie so uninspiring that BLACK PANTHER's Oscar chances would be enhanced. Otherwise, there's no excuse.
The Old Man & the Gun (2018)
Going in style
Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison's lyrics, "This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end" have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that's true, he couldn't have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.
Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year's indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 "New Yorker" article by David Grann, and it's based on a true story - one that's a bit difficult to believe ... well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way - often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It's the perfect character for Redford's trademark twinkle and grin acting style.
Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence - something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker's "crew" is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as "The Over the Hill Gang" (in contrast to "The Hole in the Wall Gang" from Redford's classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.
Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt's wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell's granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it's understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.
Joe Anderson's cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker's gun once ... and that's in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!
Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford's film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker's prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it's not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he's moving his career off screen, let's bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, "I'm better when I move".
Loving Pablo (2017)
most through her eyes
Greetings again from the darkness. The first two seasons of the popular and critically acclaimed TV show "Narcos" focuses on the Medellin Cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar, and with multiple episodes, it was able to show immense detail in both the man and his business dealings (drug trafficking). In contrast, this feature length film from writer/director Fernando Leon de Aranoa takes more of a snapshot-in-time approach to Escobar's rise to power and the reasons for his downfall.
Based on the memoir "Loving Pablo, Hating Pablo" by Columbian journalist and TV personality Virginia Vallejo, director de Aranoa spends quite a bit of time on the relationship between Escobar and Ms. Vallejo. The reason this works is due to the onscreen (and off) connection between lead actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (a married couple in real life). We see the sparks and feel the sexual energy between them in their first meeting, and then later, both show off their acting talents as times get tough ... she frightened for her life, he as defiant and cold-blooded as ever.
Javier Bardem flashes quite the pot belly for a man known as "Robin Hood" for building houses for the poor, and feared as "El Patron" (The Boss) for obvious reasons. Having grown up in poverty, it was drug trafficking which brought him such power and made him a billionaire. We see his interactions with his wife (Juliet Restrepo) and kids, as well as some glimpses of how he handled his staff and business dealings. Ruthless and intimidating are the two words that come to mind.
The film begins with a sequence from 1993, but soon flashes back to a 1981 party at Escobar's immense compound ... and yes, the zoo animals did roam on site. We are informed this is the real beginning of the Medellin Cartel, and by 1982 we learn they made it "snow cocaine in the U.S.". Remarkably, Escobar was elected to the Chamber of Representatives of Columbia, and we watch him quote Nancy Reagan to his son ("Just say no") as he explains cocaine to the young boy.
Ms. Cruz shines as Virginia Vallejo, who allows herself to get caught up in the power and money ... foolishly thinking she can stay above the fray. Since the film is inspired by the true events recounted in Ms. Vallejo's book, there are quite a few chilling moments - maybe none more dramatic than Escobar's gift to her of a handgun and his corresponding monologue. The film covers New York City and then Panama, all while Peter Sarsgaard plays the DEA agent tracking Escobar's movements.
We see 1991, when Escobar turns himself in and heads to jail - all so he can restructure his business within the confines of what might better be described as a resort ... one which he presides over. After his escape from a military prison in 1992, an all-out war breaks out on the street, and we know the end is near.
Look, Pablo Escobar was a despicable man running a despicable business. He's so mean, he even abuses a plate of spaghetti in one scene - that's just the kind of guy he was. If you know the basics of his story, the film isn't likely to teach you much. It's really just a dramatization of one of the most infamous (and successful) drug traffickers we've seen, although the recreation of his death scene does a superb job in capturing the detail of the famous photograph. He's not a guy we really care to learn about, however, since much of it is told through Virginia Vallejo's eyes, we at least get somewhat of a human and personal perspective.
A Star Is Born (2018)
the circle of stardom
Greetings again from the darkness. This is the 4th iteration I've seen of A STAR IS BORN. First there was writer/director William Wellman's original version in 1937 which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, had 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March (he playing a veteran actor and she a starlet). Next came the 1954 remake with James Mason and the fabulous Judy Garland (he playing a veteran actor, she an upcoming singer/actress). Both were nominated for Oscars, and the film was directed by George Cukor (10 years later would win an Oscar for MY FAIR LADY). 1976 brought the second remake (third version), this one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It won a Best Song Oscar for Paul Williams, and was directed by Frank Pierson, known best for writing the oft quoted line "What we've got here, is a failure to communicate" from COOL HAND LUKE (he also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for DOG DAY AFTERNOON). So perhaps it's understandable that 81 years after the original, Bradley Cooper chooses this familiar story for a generational update and his directorial debut.
When it's announced that a new version of this story is being made, the obvious first question anyone asks is 'Who did they cast?" Many were surprised when it was learned that Bradley Cooper had cast himself, and that Lady Gaga would take on the female lead. Sure, we all know Bradley Cooper as an Oscar nominated actor from SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) ... but can he SING? And yes, many had seen Lady Gaga in TV's "American Horror Story", but could she possibly carry a major film - sans heavy make-up and gimmicky stage gadgetry?
The audience reactions are in. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga blow away the 1976 version, and where they rank versus the other two versions, comes down to personal preference. Mr. Cooper delivers an odd, yet effective, performance as the boozy, aimless rocker Jackson Maine. Not only does he mimic Sam Elliott's speaking voice and cadence, his performance seems purposefully close to that of Kristofferson from 42 years ago. The great Sam Elliott does play Cooper's (much) older brother, so the oratory choice makes some sense ... it's just a bit off-putting at first. Cooper is believable as the rocker thanks to his stage presence and charm. We never doubt Jackson Maine is a rock star.
The most stunning and pleasant surprise here is Lady Gaga as Ally. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. In fact, her songs and singing are the highlights of what is a terrific film that should have wide appeal. The first song she sings, "La Vie en Rose" (made famous by Edit Piaf) is quite simply jaw-dropping in its beauty. Ally is a pretty grounded woman from humble means. She works as a waitress and sings whenever she can ... having been held back from pursuing her dreams by a well-meaning father (Andrew Dice Clay) who says she doesn't have the looks to be a star. Ally has a Carole King "Tapestry" poster on her bedroom wall, and we soon learn she could probably sing most any song from that classic album and make it her own. When Jackson and Ally meet, a complex romance and professional partnership forms. We know those rarely end well. As Jackson shuns his protective brother, battles an ever-worsening hearing issue and a self-destructive drinking problem, Ally tries to remain loyal to the man she loves ... even as her own career explodes down a path Jackson barely recognizes.
In addition to the aforementioned Dice Clay (surprisingly subtle here), there is a musical duet with Marlon Williams (in the Roy Orbison tribute) and Presley Cash, and surprising supporting characters played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin. Probably not as surprising, Jon Peters is listed as a Producer on the film. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Peters, he was once a hairstylist to celebrities and in the early 1970's fell in love with Barbra Streisand. His first credit as Producer was for her film ... you got it ... A STAR IS BORN (1976).
Mr. Cooper does a nice job tackling such a large scale and familiar project for his first directing gig, and we are certainly appreciative of his avoiding inclusion of Streisand's "Evergreen", and instead showcasing the talents of Lady Gaga. It's likely Lady Gaga will receive a bit more credit for her acting than is probably deserved (an Oscar nom is possible), but her impact on the movie cannot be understated. Bradley Cooper's next project as actor/director has been announced as BERNSTEIN, where he will play the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Kudos to Cooper for dreaming big!
A Crooked Somebody (2017)
here to help
Greetings again from the darkness. The lust for fame is really just a plea for acceptance. In director Trevor White's film, the lead character, Michael Vaughn, wreaks of desperation for acceptance ... from the public, from his associate, and mostly from his Pastor-Dad. Unfortunately, the path Vaughn chooses is simply the first of many bad decisions. In fact, the film is really a chronicle of the downward spiral of Michael Vaughn's bad decisions.
Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in "Mad Men") plays Michael Vaughn, a psychic who tours the country peddling his book and his "act". And yes, it's an act. It's such an act, that it could be considered a scam. However, Michael focuses on connecting the living with their beloved dead ones, so his (sparse) audience is filled with those who want to believe he is legitimate. His assistant-associate-accomplice-would be and one time lover is played by Joanne Froggatt. Her job is to prevent Michael from becoming despondent over the lack of book sales, and also to be his audience-plant when a session gets stalled.
The bulk of the story revolves around Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr), a man who believes Vaughn has connected to a man Nathan killed. In trying to clear his conscience, Nathan wants Vaughn to use his talents to help Stacy (Amanda Crew), the now-grown daughter of the man Nathan killed. Instead of focusing on "helping" those involved, Vaughn seizes the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight ... gaining notoriety as the psychic who helped solve a long-ago murder case. And no, this isn't the final bad decision Vaughn makes. He manages to make things much worse.
Real life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Vaughn's parents - the one's he so wants to win respect from. The script from writer Andrew Zilch offers some pretty decent on screen tension, though it strains a bit too much in places - even with a worthy and relatable central idea. It's human nature to desire acceptance (especially from loved ones) ... though it takes a flawed personality to strive for fame and celebrity (especially at the cost of core values). Here's hoping you don't see too much of yourself in Michael Vaughn.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Audiard's streak continues
Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news - bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it's announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn't so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.
This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy - although it's too darn funny to be an outright drama.
A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It's beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father's footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can't imagine not doing what they do.
The brothers have been contracted by 'The Commodore', a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways - remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.
This is kind of a road trip film ... only it's on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it's kind of a buddy film ... only it's two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers' mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.
It's such an unusual film, and it's presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he's done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.
All About Nina (2018)
Winstead owns it
Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It's really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.
We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo's brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It's quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It's southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for "Comedy Prime" - a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).
In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California "New Age" type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom's friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).
When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina's constantly confused state (I don't believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act ... and it's a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.
Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it's her performance that keeps us onboard ... even as we question her character's stability (and incessant hair tussling).
Black '47 (2018)
the face of Hugo
Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don't tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland's Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film's title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate - nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.
Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O'Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).
Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain's personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator - and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney's former commanding officer.
Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney ... a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving's great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville's dead eyes ('like a doll's eyes').
The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath ... one of which brings a twist to the phrase "pig-headed". Feeney's time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney's knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.
Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford ("Vikings"), and Sarah Greene ("Penny Dreadful"). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man's drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country ... while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn't escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.
Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty ... only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we've rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it's clear the guns misfired more often than this production.
pride and sacrifice
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes as parents, despite our best intentions, we create unnecessarily difficult challenges for our children to pursue their dreams. In the case of Seyna's father, his pride is what threatens her next step.
Seyna (played by Grace Seri) is a student who has just earned high marks for her diploma and is now ready to study politics at the next level. To be accepted, she must present her father's French residency card. Their family are immigrants from Cameroon and are forever burdened with two nationalities ... and sometimes two is the same as none.
Augustin Ruhabura plays the proud father who is forever frustrated that he is "not French enough". Seyna sneakiness and overcoming yet another obstacle prove how committed to her cause that she is. Sacrificing and fighting for one's dreams sometimes requires the swallowing of pride. Writer/director Josza Anjembe does a nice job of capturing this in this 24 minute directorial debut.
tension done brilliantly
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen begins his film with a long, slow pan shot across a deserted beach until we see the waves rhythmically rolling in and out. It appears to be a most peaceful setting, but instead it's actually the set up for one of the most intense and emotionally shattering short films ever.
Marta Nieto and her mother Blanca Apilanez are hanging around the apartment on what's a typical day for them. When Marta's answers a call, an unimaginable horror unfolds via cell phone. On the other end is her 6 year old son. He's on holiday with his father, Marta's ex. Only her son tells her, as his cell phone battery is dying, that dad left him and now he's alone on a beach ... he thinks it's France, but could be Spain.
Marta and her mother juggle cell phones as they try to track down the father, while keeping the young boy as calm as possible. It's a captivating and stunning performance by Marta Nieto, and a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Mr. Sorogoyen. It may be the most unsettling 19 minutes of movie I've seen, and if it had gone any longer, it might have become truly unbearable.
The President's Visit (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. I don't often look to Lebanon for comedy films, however, director Cyril Aris co-wrote this script with Mounia Akyl, and it's not only good for some laughs, it also carries quite a message in its brief 19 minute run time.
A small rural fishing town in Lebanon is the setting. Nino, a grown man, lives with his mother and runs a soap shop in town. He gets very little respect from the local fishermen, who often try to take advantage of his meek manner. Faoud Yammine plays Nino, who also is attracted to a local beauty played by (co-writer) Mounia Akyl. Nino fumbles his way through their interactions the way a teenage boy might.
One day Nino gets a phone call at the shop. The country's new President is on a mission to "clean up" the government - rid it of corruption and greed. What better marketing campaign than stocking up on soap from a local businessman, and Nino has been chosen.
The gag here is that Nino is supposed to keep the visit a secret. Of course once he tells his uncle, the gossip tree lights up and human nature takes over. Hilarity and self-interest ensues. The film makes a statement about our attraction to power and willingness to do whatever necessary to make ourselves look important to those we deem as powerful. So Mr. Aris film is simultaneously funny and a bit sad.
Un moment d'égarement (2015)
France wears it well
Greetings again from the darkness. In 1977, French Producer-Writer-Director-Actor Claude Berri directed a film version of his own original screenplay entitled IN A WILD MOMENT. In 1984, director Stanley Donen's (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) final feature film was an Americanized remake that inexplicably left Mr. Berri as uncredited. Perhaps that's how Berri preferred it, since Donen's BLAME IT ON RIO was atrocious and nearly unwatchable despite a cast that included Michael Caine and a 21 year old Demi Moore. This third iteration, directed by Jean-Francois Richet (who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Lisa Azuelos) does credit Berri, and returns the material to France where it's a better fit.
Best friends Antoine and Laurent take their teenage daughters Louna and Marie (who are also best friends) on holiday to Antoine's childhood home in the Corsica countryside. The house is a bit rustic and neglected, has spotty (at best) internet, includes a family burial plot, and is miles from town. The only neighbor is an elderly gentleman and his roaming dog. The girls aren't nearly as taken with the serenity as their dads seem to be.
Both dads are loving and protective of their daughters, though the usual teenager-parent squabbles occur regularly. Watching the interactions between the dads and daughters, between the two men, and between the two teenagers is quite entertaining and exceedingly believable. Of course, the core of the story is what happens in one "wild" moment when Laurent is simply being supportive of Antoine's daughter Louna - and her teenage crush of the older man shifts into seduction. A late night naked frolic on the beach crosses the line that should never be crossed. Laurent instantly regrets the action, and Louna falls "in love" like only a teenager can.
The rest of the movie becomes an uneasy dance of lies, threats, insinuations and betrayals. Most of it is handled with a comedic intentions, and that compounds the feelings of queasiness and disgust that we have towards Laurent and his unacceptable and unforgivable (and illegal) actions. We see the two men frazzled for much different reasons. Though he doesn't know the identity of the "older man" who took advantage of his daughter, Antoine is obsessed with tracking him down and making him pay. On the other hand, Laurent is desperate to keep the secret from his friend, and that forces him to play along with Louna's taunting games.
Two of France's biggest stars, Vincent Cassel (MESRINE) and Francois Cluzet (THE INTOUCHABLES, TELL NO ONE) play Laurent and Antoine, respectively, while Lola Le Lann (age 19 during filming) and Alice Isaaz are Louna and Marie. Mr. Cassel and Ms. Isaaz are especially effective - he in a no-win role, and she leaving us wanting even more characterization.
Though it was filmed more than 3 years ago, it's now getting a second life. Original writer Claude Berri is probably best known for his stellar work on JEAN DE FLORETTE and MANON OF THE SPRING, and we can't help but think his script would work better in contemporary times if the comedy turned much darker and made it abundantly clear that Laurent's actions were entirely unacceptable - instead of leaving his response to young Louna's come-on as understandable. The film is produced by Thomas Langmann, the son of Claude Berri, and kicks off with the beautiful and familiar version of "La Mer", a 1946 song by Charles Trenet.
Life Itself (2018)
cross-contient ripple effect
Greetings again from the darkness. The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a "downer" period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that this latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman ("This is Us") is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas - with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.
It's highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It's a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won't debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn't mean it can't also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.
Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled "The Hero" and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator - a recurring theme throughout. It's also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.
Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan's face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to "The Gonzalez Family" of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier's boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione's olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle ... or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson's place after Chapter 1 is revealed.
Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back - to "stand up" after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.
White Rabbit (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. You have probably not met anyone like Sophia. I certainly haven't. She's a Korean-American performance artist who uses various personalities/characters in her "act". She also lives alone in Los Angeles, and bikes everywhere ... collapsing after a full day that consists of some mixture of delivering public diatribes, crafting her latest bizarre YouTube video, fulfilling her current TaskRabbit assignment, or trying to connect with a fellow human being - one that's not someone else's toddler requesting a horseback ride.
Sophia is played by Vivian Bang, who also co-wrote the script with director Daryl Wein (co-writer with his now-wife Zoe Lister-Jones of LOLA VERSUS). Ms. Bang is herself a performance artist, so we can assume much of this is cultivated from her daily life. As Sophia explains to her mother in one scene, "It's not art that people can buy." We first see Sophia screaming silently into the portable P.A. system she totes around while sporting a snow white wig and white jump suit. She is standing in the middle of a grocery store and then proceeds to tell "her" story about immigrating to this country (it's a story, but not really hers). The shoppers mostly ignore her. You might question why she is screaming silently or why she picks a grocery store (or public park) as a venue. The answers unfold slowly.
Sophia has multiple interactions with Victoria (Nana Ghana), an African-American photographer of roughly her same age. The two women hit it off, with Sophia being very attracted to Victoria. As their friendship builds, and "signs" possibly misconstrued, Sophia admits to learning English by watching John Hughes movies - explaining her Valley Girl accent and overuse of "like" (a disservice to Molly Ringwald). The chemistry between the two actresses is terrific and we actually would have enjoyed a bit more, especially after yet another bombshell rocks Sophia's world.
An awkward movie audition, the use of cheese puffs and powdered sugar for YouTube videos, and a misplaced confrontation with a former lover/partner all lead us to better understand Sophia (and Ms. Bang) seeking validation of her work. On a couple of occasions she says "Can you hear me?" We might be trying, and Ms. Bang might have something of value to offer, though this film merely offers a tease. We sense there are similarities to the very talented Miranda July, only with differing missions. The excellent soundtrack is an added plus, and we will just have to sit quietly (without screaming) to see where this takes Vivian Bang.
A Greater Society (2018)
for all of the Roses
Greetings again from the darkness. President Lyndon Johnson used the term "The Great Society" to describe the series of domestic programs designed to minimize poverty and racial discrimination, and offset the medical obligations of seniors (through Medicare and Medicaid) in the U.S. It was compared to FDR's "The New Deal" (including the Social Security Act of 1935). Co-directors Craig Colton and Stacy Goldate titled their film as a twist on these programs, because the focus is the actions of some senior citizens who fight for the programs that are needed to protect their demography.
The Wynmoor Retirement Community in Broward County, Florida was developed in 1973, and marketed to seniors in New York and the entire northeast as a wonderful place to live out those golden years in warm weather and with modern amenities. A funny thing happened along the way ... the residents of Wynmoor changed the politics of the area. And therein lies the most important message of the film: senior citizens can wield substantial political power through organization and commitment. Keep in mind that many of these folks are more than 90 years old. One of the most interesting that we meet is Rose. She was born in 1916 during Woodrow Wilson's term in office.
Those we meet range from children of the depression era to children of the 60's, and though that's quite a diversity in sociological upbringings, it's clear that they embrace the need to engage politically ... even, and perhaps especially, these days. The cameras follow these men and (mostly) women as they strive to "get out the vote" for the 2014 midterm elections and the Florida gubernatorial race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist.
Most of those we get to know are hardcore democrats, but there is one conservative gentlemen thrown in for contrast. Despite his being well spoken and educated on the issues, he gets little camera time. Co-directors Colton and Goldate are both highly successful editors, mostly on TV projects. Their expertise in how to put a movie together is obvious, as even though it's slowly paced, that pace seems to mirror the process of these volunteers so dedicated to the political cause.
Broward County Public defender Howard Finkelstein offers recurring commentary during the film, but it's really the Wynmoor residents who are the most interesting. We see the generational changes occurring within the community as new residents replace the older ones. The New York Jewish community is fading while there is an increased Latino presence. The challenge is for Wynmoor to retain the political power and dedication that has long defined it. In what is really a tribute to their efforts, the film acts as a kind of "how to" in gaining community involvement; though it's Rose who gets the last word by reminding us of the message of "My brother's keeper".
White Boy Rick (2018)
Father, Son and FBI
Greetings again from the darkness. When "based on a true story" appears, we can usually bank on either a hero or criminal as the subject. A good person, or a bad one. With this story, we get a teenager who is basically a good kid, but one who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. It's likely to test your empathy and judgment. Director Yann Demange ('71) brings us the story of young Richard (Rick) Wershe, Jr through a script from writers Andy Weiss and brothers Noah and Logan Miller.
We begin in 1984, the height of the "Just Say No" era, when Rick (a terrific debut by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a 14 year old living near poverty with his dad and older sister. Mom walked out years ago. Rick helps his dad in the firearm resale business (some legal, some not). Richard Wershe, Sr is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is outstanding as the dreamer who desperately wants a better life for himself and his kids. Unfortunately, the man simply lacks the capacity to do better. Sister Dawn is played by Del Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), and Dawn is an addict who leaves/escapes home with her boyfriend. This is most definitely not "The Brady Bunch".
Detroit was in the midst of a rapid and tragic decline, and the east side where Rick lived had already hit bottom with crime, violence, drugs and poverty. Rick's teenage resume would read firearms dealer, known gang associate, FBI informant, gunshot victim, cash-flowing drug dealer, baby daddy, rescuer of sister, and server of life sentence. It was quite a run for someone who hadn't yet celebrated birthday number 20.
Director Demange shows us how two sides were played against the middle, with Rick being stuck in the middle with no hope for escape. We even see a TV clip of SERPICO for a bit of foreshadowing into life as an informant. What makes the film work, beyond the remarkable true story, is how each of the main characters is humanized to the point that we understand what makes them tick. Dad (McConaughey) is a dreamer who thinks he can sell enough guns to finance a chain of video stores that will be successful enough to keep his family together. Daughter Dawn tries to escape her "loser" dad by numbing herself with drugs and running off with the first guy that will take her. Son Rick takes advantage of his ability to create trust by trying to serve his father, a drug kingpin, the FBI, and himself. These three all seem to have good hearts and best intentions, but nothing every really works out for them - despite dad being a glass-half-full kind of guy
This is also a story of contrasts ... especially between black and white in many situations. We learn the difference between 'black jail time' and 'white jail time', and the FBI obviously chose Rick because he was a white kid who infiltrated a black crime ring - he even gets invited to the local skating rink to hangout, and to Las Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight. There is also the way Richard Sr sees himself as "above" the criminals as he protests the proliferation and danger of drugs, while then turning around and selling guns to those who peddle drugs. Selective morality.
The FBI recruits Rick to feed them information by threatening to arrest his dad. He is coerced into the world of selling drugs and then later railroaded by the Feds so that they could wash their hands and walk away "clean". Because of their influence, Rick is later sentenced to life in prison for non-violent offenses. Of course, he was surrounded by violence, and even the victim of it, but it begs the question of whether the punishment fit the crime. We are never sure if we should feel empathy for Rick, disgust at the system, or frustrated and fed up with a society that set this into motion.
The supporting cast runs deep. Bruce Dern and the rarely seen Piper Laurie are Rick's grandparents, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane play the influential FBI agents. This marks a 25 year reunion for McConaughey and Cochrane from their appearance in DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Also appearing are RJ Cyler ("I'm Dying Up Here") as Rick's friend Boo, Brian Tyree Henry as a detective, and Eddie Marsan and Jonathan Majors as drug dealers.
A surprising amount of humor is mixed in with the gritty crime stuff and family struggles. There is even a comical FOOTLOOSE moment at the drive-in - providing yet another contrast between blacks and whites. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe ("71) works wonders in some of the least appealing settings you'll likely find in a movie, and his approach perfectly complements our personal conflicts on who to pull for throughout this quagmire.
American Chaos (2018)
listen to them
Greetings again from the darkness. Politics in the United States is an embarrassment to any citizen who is paying attention these days. And by "these days", I'm referring to at least a couple of generations, if not even more. The bickering between and within political parties is more closely related to playground arguments than debates among statesmen. The most effective wall being built is the one between the two sides - it's a wall that has little to do with reason or "the greater good", and everything to do with standing steadfast in one's belief that an opinion is a fact that should be shared by all. Enter stage and film producer Jim Stern ... a self-described political junkie.
Mr. Stern grew up in a house of "Kennedy Democrats" and all but worships former President Barack Obama. He opens his film with clips of past Presidents, dating back to Theodore Roosevelt, and states his purpose as a desire to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump. It's an admirable mission, and Mr. Stern is to be commended as one of the few extremists (on either side) willing to listen to what the other side is saying. It's 9 weeks after the election, and Stern is in the audience for Obama's farewell speech. He (Stern) has tears in his eyes, as the man he so admires is being replaced by one who inspires little faith or respect.
We now flashback to 6 months prior to the election. Stern paraphrases Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and pledges to try and understand the other side by getting to know their point of view. His road trip takes him from Florida to Cleveland to West Virginia to Arizona. Stern's approach is to present himself as a neutral interviewer so that folks don't get defensive, and instead just open up about their views. He speaks to a man who is a legal immigrant from Cuba, a Midwest Pastor who is every bit as adamant in his beliefs as Stern is in his own, a conservative radio talk show host in Arizona who eloquently states her case, and folks in West Virginia who just want the coal mines back up and running so that they might escape poverty. One of the men he speaks with is part of the infamous Hatfields and McCoys feud, and he admits to voting for Obama twice - but is now convinced Trump is the best hope for rescuing the state's economy.
Stern uses the ongoing campaign as the structure for his road trip and story, and doesn't shy away from admitting Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables" speech was a turning point ... as was the last minute renewing of the FBI investigation into her actions. But since we know all of that, what is most fascinating here is listening to regular folks ... voters ... providing insight into their viewpoints. These mid-America citizens are tired of politicians being bought and sold. Trump was saying what these people were thinking - he was reaching out to (mostly white) disaffected voters. Stern is stunned at the ovation Trump receives at the Republican convention in Cleveland. He is surrounded by tens of thousands of Americans who don't believe what he believes. It's a powerful moment for him and the film.
"They hate her (Hillary) and they hate Obama too." Stern is hit with the harsh reality that his idol is not idolized by all. His most accurate statement is that blue state voters and red state voters simply do not understand each other. With so many of one group clustered in California and the northeast, while the others are spread across the middle of the country, it's really no surprise that these citizens have different views and needs. It's also not surprising that since the "mainstream media" is equally clustered in those two geographic areas, that information distributed is skewed towards those views and issues. Abortion and gay rights appear to be non-factors in his discussions, while jobs, corruption and illegal immigration are what matter.
Again, Mr. Stern is to be commended for letting these citizens speak their mind. It's a nice contrast to another high profile documentarian renowned for editing to prove his own well-publicized views. Stern's brother was a key negotiator in the Paris Accord, so he certainly has a personal stake in the drastic political change. In fact, we often see his true emotions despite his ability to remain impartial to those speaking on camera. Election night with violin music is a bit too much, but for the most part, Jim Stern and Atticus Finch work together here to enlighten the "other" side.
A Simple Favor (2018)
an odd mixture of mystery and folly
Greetings again from the darkness. In the vein of Gillian Flynn/David Fincher's GONE GIRL and Paula Hawkins/Tate Taylor's THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN comes yet another vanishing woman mystery. This latest is based on Darcey Bell's novel (screenplay by Jessica Sharzer), only this time the biggest twist comes with the selection of Paul Feig as director. That's right, the director best known for BRIDESMAIDS and other comedies, tackles a 'whodunit and what did they do'.
Neurotic Mommy Vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mother to a young son, and she's the overly perky and perfect mom that causes other parents to sneer and snark behind her back. She's also so desperate for human connection that she's willing to befriend Emily (Blake Lively), the martini-guzzling fashion industry executive who is a hands-off mother to Stephanie's son's friend. We soon learn that martinis and playdates shouldn't be mixed.
Stephanie and Emily share dark, personal secrets. Emily discusses the financial woes she and her husband Sean (Henry Golding, CRAZY RICH ASIANS) are experiencing, even though they live in an ultra-modern mansion. He had success with his first novel, but has been hit with writer's block since marrying Emily. Those secrets pale in comparison to what Stephanie unloads, leading Emily to anoint her with a crass (though quite accurate) label that no one would relish. Of course we later uncover Emily's truly dark (and deadly) secrets go far beyond possible late payments on the mortgage.
As the two ladies bond, we get the feeling that Emily is playing some type of game with the always-cheerful Stephanie, though to what end we aren't sure. One day, Stephanie does Emily a "favor" and then Emily disappears without a trace or word. The days pass and a sexual energy develops between Stephanie and Sean, while Stephanie users her Vlog as a tool in her amateur sleuthing.
It's tough enough to pull off a mystery, but a mystery-comedy is nearly the unicorn of cinema. Director Feig is at his best in the comedic moments - especially those featuring banter between Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Lively. Their scenes together are the highlights of the film ... well, those and the French pop soundtrack, including "Ca S'est Arrange" over an opening credit sequence that is itself, worthy of admission. The film is oddly structured, yet still entertaining. Act I is really a dark comedy and budding friendship between polar opposite personality types, while the rest is a messy mystery with some interesting elements.
Strong support work comes courtesy of Andrew Rannells, Aparla Nancherla, Kelly McCormack, and Jean Smart, though two standouts are Rupert Friend ("Homeland") as Emily's boss and a character seemingly straight out of ZOOLANDER, and Linda Cardellini ("Bloodlines") as an unhinged artist tied to Emily's past. The downside is that most of these scenes add to the comedy-sketch feel, which clashes so harshly with the mystery element that the sharp edge needed in the script becomes quite dulled.
Most every director dreams of being Hitchcockian, and that dream tends to push them towards this genre. Unfortunately, most end up disappointed, their films end up disappointing, and the genius and difficulty of what Hitchcock achieved is reinforced. It's clear Director Feig is a fan of the genre, as he includes nods to DIABOLIQE, GASLIGHT, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and even Nancy Drew. However, acknowledging classic noir isn't enough to qualify for the label. The film has its moments, Ms. Kendrick is once again stellar in her role, and most viewers will find it entertaining despite the messiness.
The Children Act (2017)
not a courtroom drama
Greetings again from the darkness. There are some actors who are so talented that they elevate most any material to a watchable status. Emma Thompson is one of the few. She is an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and for Best Actress (HOWARD'S END), and her career is comprised of interesting characters ... many made so because of her performance. The film is directed by Richard Eyre, who has two terrific films in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006) and IRIS (2001), and adapted from his own novel by Ian McEwan (ATONEMENT, ON CHESIL BEACH).
We are introduced to British High Court Judge Fiona Maye as she announces her opinion on a case involving conjoined twins. As an expert in family law cases, Judge Maye is respected for fairness and decisiveness. Just as the reality of her crumbling marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) hits, she is drawn into yet another case where emotions (and media) are running high. Adam (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK) is in dire need of a blood transfusion, which his Jehovah's Witness religion and parents will not allow.
It's at this point that we believe we are in for a stressful courtroom drama facing religious intricacies. However, there is very little to the court case - only the highly unusual step of the judge visiting the sick minor in the hospital. The highly anticipated moral dilemma never unfolds, and instead we get an oddball friendship, ever-creepier stalking sequence, and emotional unmasking. It's a bit of a letdown. Are we to believe that Judge Fiona Maye is conflicted about anything? She doesn't appear to be. She made up her mind to focus on work, and only seemed to have forgotten to mention this to her husband, whose wants push him towards infidelity.
Jason Watkins has a terrific turn as Nigel, the judge's meticulous assistant who is there in good times and bad. The story could be viewed from a woman's perspective on how the dedication to career comes with a cost, but that same cost would likely be paid by a man in this situation as well. The title of the film is specific to a British law in dealing with aspects of minors, making the court case even less suspenseful than we might think. It's not a courtroom drama per se, and it doesn't dive deep enough to be a look at a dysfunctional marriage, and it's simply too bland to be the study of a workaholic carrying guilt over never having kids - shouldn't this issue have been resolved by now, given the age of this couple? It's a crazy "R" rating over one line of dialogue, and it's really Ms. Thompson's performance that provides the only reason to see the film.
Another Time (2018)
less time would have been enough
Greetings again from the darkness. Dating back to H.G. Wells' 1895 book and 1960 film THE TIME MACHINE, time travel has long been a favorite and familiar trope for filmmakers and writers. It's been a central topic for comedies (BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE), science fiction (LOOPER, INTERSTELLAR), oddities (PLANET OF THE APES, DONNIE DARKO), adventures (BACK TO THE FUTURE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), and romance (SOMEWHERE IN TIME, ABOUT TIME).
Since time travel has crossed many genres, it only makes sense that a filmmaker looking to tackle the topic would understand something new must be brought to the party, if a new project can hope to have any appeal. Director/writer Thomas Hennessy and co-writer Scott Kennard attempt to blend romance with a dose of science and philosophy, but unfortunately, even as a low budge B-movie, it just comes across as a lackluster effort with a too-simple script. I'm not familiar with director Hennessy's TV work on "Bugmashers" and "Ten for the Chairman", but his background as a cinematographer should have at least resulted in a more visually impactful film.
Justin Hartley ("This is Us") stars as Eric Lazifer, a successful Account Manager who saves his money, watches science shows on TV, and is easily "bored" by the married women who hit on him in bars. So, Eric is a fiscally conservative Brainiac who looks like a male model ... clearly a rough way to go through life. Eric's best bud Kal (James Kyson) serves as the comic relief, and is one of the few who bring some energy to their role. A recent company acquisition has Eric's boss (Mark Valley) mandating he iron out the details with that firm's leader Julia, played by Crishell Stause (Mr. Hartley's real life wife).
It's pretty easy to see where this is headed. Eric falls hard for Julia. However, she fails to swoon for his ice cream-philosophy-romance recipe since she is already engaged to a great guy. So Eric does what any guy would do ... he tracks down disgraced Physics professor Dr Joseph Goyer (Alan Pietruszewski) so that Eric can travel back in time to meet Julia before she connects with her fiancé. It's a solid and logical plan with very little chance for something to go wrong (!). If the story was ever on track, it's here that it really flies off the rails. Watching Eric assist the Physics expert with solving unsolvable equations is just a bit too much.
On the bright side, this segment allows Eric to meet a bartender named Ally, played by Arielle Kebbell. Ms. Kebbell definitely brings a welcome screen presence to this otherwise uninspired project. The soap opera look and feel likely relegate this one to the world of streaming, where, if it's lucky, it might find some time travel obsessed viewers.