October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!




ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958) revisited

October 4, 2015

Ascenseur pour l’echefaud (France)

elevator to gallows For an introduction to the French New Wave, the first feature film from director Louis Malle is a good place to start. The neo-realism in this crime drama (based on the novel from Noel Calef) was new to film goers at the time, and even more startling was the natural lighting and minimal make-up used to photograph lead actress Jeanne Moreau. Beyond that, the haunting score from the legendary Miles Davis has been best described as “the loneliest trumpet”.

The film jump starts with an emotional and desperate phone call between lovers shown in extreme close-up: Florence (Ms. Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet). The two have plotted to kill her husband (his boss) – war profiteer Simon Carala (played by Jean Wall) – so that they can be together. The details of the perfect murder plan are carried out with the intention of making it appear like a suicide. Unfortunately for Julien, a frantic attempt to hide some evidence leaves him trapped in an elevator. The fallout from this bad break finds Florence believing he has deserted her, and creates a secondary story line involving the theft of his car by a couple of youngsters out for a good time.

It’s here that the film bounces between the three sequences and really capitalizes on Malle’s expertise with a camera. Julien’s frustration in trying to escape the elevator generates the necessary tension, while the exploits of the young couple Louis and Veronique (Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin) find them in a bad-situation-gone-worse when their impromptu party with a German couple (Ivan Petrovich, Elga Andersen) turns tragic. It’s easy to see how Jean Luc Godard was influenced by this young couple for his classic Breathless (1960). But best of all is the wandering woman of despair … we follow Florence as she tries to track down Julien on the rainy late night city streets.  These shots of Ms. Moreau are truly spectacular thanks not just to the lighting, but also the realistic emotions of her facial expressions … we never doubt her feeling of resignation.

Mr. Malle was only 26 when he directed this film, and the follow-up (also with Ms. Moreau) entitled The Lovers, also released in 1958. He had worked as an underwater photographer for Jacques Costeau and referenced this in the film. Malle had a long time marriage to Candice Bergen, and an incredible career that featured three Academy Award nominations (including Atlantic City, 1980). This was Ms. Moreau’s breakthrough film and led to her best known role in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film Jules and Jim. She is still working today at age 87.  She also had a successful singing career, as well as numerous love affairs (Malle, Truffaut, Pierre Cardin, and Miles Davis).

Although there are some details and plot points that might annoy those who pay close attention, it doesn’t take away from the groundbreaking work of a young director who helped change the tone of movies. It’s interesting to note that Florence and Julien don’t share a scene in this film, outside of the opening phone call split scene. Additionally, the contemporary influence lives on through the line “Never leave photos lying around” (or on social media).  A special thanks goes out to The Texas Theatre in Dallas for bringing this classic back to the big screen.

Rather than post a clip or trailer, below is a video showing a young Miles Davis playing along to the film:




October 2, 2015

freeheld Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.

We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.

A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest.  However, this isn’t a story for laughs.  Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.

watch the trailer:


SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

watch the trailer:




September 24, 2015

intern Greetings again from the darkness. A feel-good mainstream movie featuring two big time movie stars will likely have box office success and cause a lot of people to laugh out loud. In other words, the latest from writer/director Nancy Meyers should be celebrated for its entertainment value, rather than picked apart by film critics. Ok, I’ll give it a try.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who just can’t seem to find meaning in hobbies and the leisure life. He applies and is selected for the “Senior Intern” program at About the Fit, a fast-growing online clothing company run by its founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). In addition to being a Type A driven and obsessed-with-details company leader (the type that rides her bike through the office to save time), Jules also has a husband, a young daughter and a fabulous brownstone. What she doesn’t have is enough sleep, any friends, or enough time to enjoy any of the good stuff.  You aren’t alone if a buddy flick with DeNiro and Hathaway seems unusual to you.

At the same time Ben arrives on the scene, Jules is struggling with her investors’ decision to hire a more experienced CEO so that the company can maintain its phenomenal growth. That’s about as deep as the business talk ever gets (but just try to keep track of all the Apple product placements). Jules initially spurns Ben, but of course, he soon becomes invaluable around the office, and while blinking his eyes, becomes her most valued confidant and adviser.

Much of the comedy is derived from Ben’s interactions with the young employees. It’s quite simply a ‘generation gap comedy’ that makes all the points it needs to make without really breaking a sweat: senior citizens are a wealth of knowledge and can bring value to an organization or relationship, young people can learn from elders (it’s OK to shave everyday and dress for success) … and vice versa (computers are our friend), there still exists some animosity between stay at home moms and working moms, stay at home dads face challenges of their own, running a company is hard work both physically and mentally, communication often requires more than a text or email, and staying true to one’s self is not always easy.

Ms. Meyers has brought us other mainstream films such as It’s Complicated (2009) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and she has a feel for presenting the upper-middle class as a punchline for the masses. She likes showing successful people in uncomfortable situations … leaning heavy on awkward, while avoiding dangerous altogether. Her latest is a feel good movie that makes you laugh, without causing you to think about anything in your life that might bring you down. And there is real value in that.

Ok, I tried, but there are some things that must be pointed out. There was so much of Ms. Meyers’ script that was begging to be pushed to the edge and analyzed from a societal aspect. Her specialty is rounding off the corners so that no one gets hurt, and because of that the film is bereft of conflict … the single most important element for a meaningful scene. For example, the conflict between Jules and her husband occurs in a hotel room, which would be fine except … only one of them is there!  Also, we never really get any of the story from Ben’s perspective. Instead, we are just to believe that his Gandhi-like influence on co-workers is the only reward he seeks. I also found myself bothered a bit in the quick glimpse we get into Ben’s personal life. He blows off the advances of Linda Lavin and pursues Rene Russo … understandable, but a bit off-putting given that this female writer chose to have him hook up with the 11 years younger character, rather than the one closer to his own age.  There are many other similar type issues that warrant discussion, but that’s why it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this one, rather than asking “what if?”

watch the trailer:




September 24, 2015

stonewall Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatized versions of real life events are always a bit tricky, and hindsight often proves it’s best left to the documentary format. However, sometimes, a dramatized version helps us more easily relate to, and empathize with, those who were involved. That seems to be the approach taken by director Roland Emmerich in his re-telling of events so important to him and the LGBT movement … the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are often cited as the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. Of course, there had been many previous clashes between gays and police, as discrimination was so extreme that these folks were labeled as mentally ill, and it was actually unlawful for gays to be hired for many jobs. On the streets of many big cities there existed a melting pot of minorities and the LGBT community. Many were young and homeless, and did whatever necessary to survive. So how best to tell this story?  Director Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz put blonde, white, Midwestern, pretty boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) front and center.  How insulting to those involved.

To his credit, Emmerich does cast actors of various races in many roles, and he does seem to treat this as a sincere tribute or homage to those street kids who finally pushed back. Unfortunately, it’s these characters that seem to be the drag on the story. Despite such names as Queen Cong, Little Orphan Annie, Quiet Paul, and the inclusion of real life activists as Marsha P Johnson (Otoja Abit), Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) … and other key players like Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) and Deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) … the film comes off more like a staged musical sans music. Street life here is more gloss than grit, and the closest thing to a developed character is Ray, played with aplomb by Jonny Beauchamp (“Penny Dreadful”).

Having the Columbia University-bound pretty white boy as the focus might make it easier for mainstream audiences to connect, but it skims over the real struggles going on at the time. We see Danny at home with his worried mother, observant little sister (Joey King), and macho football coach/father (David Gubitt). Everyone is uncomfortable over what is not being said, and the breaking point occurs when a tryst with the star quarterback becomes public knowledge. Just like that, Danny is booted from home (Indiana, not Kansas) and lands on the streets of New York. The comparisons to Dorothy (gay icon Judy Garland) and the Land of Oz are obvious, and repeated numerous times for those a bit slow on the take.

Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn are the main settings. The mob involvement is noted, as is the desperation of the community, the use of flop houses, and the long-standing “quiet” demonstrations. Even the practice of gays trying to “fit in” to society – to prove they belong – by wearing suits and acting “normal” is addressed. The riots are reduced to a single evening in the movie, and of course, the pretty white boy gets to heave the first brick. As a ‘roots of the movement’ film, it’s hard to believe this film won’t create more anger and frustration than thanks and awareness. Fortunately, there are many exceptional books and yes, documentaries that provide a better perspective on the events that occurred more than 45 years ago. We do see the first Gay Liberation Parade held the following year in honor of the riots – a tradition that continues today. The closing credit sequence catches us up on the key activists, and even provides a startling statistic: 40% of today’s homeless youth are LGBT.

watch the trailer:



MISUNDERSTOOD (Incompresa, Italy, 2015)

September 23, 2015

misunderstood Greetings again from the darkness. Asia Argento is a multi-talented filmmaker – actress, writer, director and producer. Her father is Dario Argento, well known for directing gialo horror films, and her mother is Italian actress Daria Niccolodi. Add in her grandmother, who was famed documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, and it’s understandable why Asia has created (with co-writer Barbara Alberti) this semi-autobiographical story of Aria … a young girl struggling with self-absorbed parents and a world where she doesn’t seem to fit.

It doesn’t take long before we realize the film is poorly titled. “Abused and Mistreated” or “Sucky Parents” would be more accurate. Aria, wonderfully played by Giulia Salerno, is a very observant, tougher than we might expect, skinny kid who is fifth in the household pecking order behind her bombastic parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gabriel Garko) and her two older sisters (Carolina Poccioni, Anna Lou Casoudi).  Aria has a good friend at school, but is mostly an outcast due to her superior essay writing ability and her semi-famous, but rarely present parents.

Featuring one of the more dysfunctional family dinners you’ll ever see, the filmmaker’s deft touch allows us to pull for Aria as she is booted from her mom’s house, and then from her dad’s … and then the cycle repeats. Realizing that a connection with her parents (or sisters) will never be more than surface, Aria adopts a wild cat named Dac and proceeds to tote him everywhere. Dac’s blackness plays off the color surrounding others – especially her flashy dad and always pink sister.

Being as this is Italian cinema, the characters are always emotional (sometimes way up, sometimes way down), periodically violent, and always passionate. Aria is the tortured young soul simply trying to survive this coming-of-age story with a socially and morally unacceptable parental structure. It’s so apparent that with some semblance of love, Aria would fully blossom.

There are flashes of levity, including the dad’s over-the-top superstitions, and the expert use of Lou Christie’s “Two Faces Have I”, that provide us a glimmer of hope. However, when Aria says “There are many ways to cry”, we know those flashes and that glimmer are all but gone. Though the film is set in 1984, Aria’s plea for us to “Be Nice” is as timely today as ever.

watch the trailer:



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