November 28, 2015

victoria Greetings again from the darkness. You have surely seen more complex and intricate bank robbery movies, but it’s doubtful you’ve seen one more ambitious from a technical standpoint. In a remarkable achievement of commitment, planning, and technical execution (plus some good luck), director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovler deliver 2 hours and 14 minutes with a single take and a low budget. It’s a testament to the cast and crew, as well as the advancements in digital equipment (mobility and battery life).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, both utilized extended/seamless takes in fascinating manner; however, it’s Mr. Schipper’s film that takes us through multiple locations – a dance club, the streets of Berlin, the roof of a building, a local café, inside a stolen van, back to the dance club, through an inner city escape, and into a luxury hotel. That’s right … each of these puzzle pieces are generated without ever pausing the camera or editing a shot. You might expect nausea-inducing shaky cam, but instead it plays more like we viewers are along for the ride.

Beyond the technical goodies, we get two fine performances from Frederick Lau as the streetwise and smooth-talking Sonne, and especially Laia Costa as Victoria. The titular character is first spotted enjoying a sweaty dance to thumping club music before leaving the club and bumping into Sonne and his group of “real Berlin guys”. It all seems playful enough, but as the flirtations escalate between Victoria and Sonne, we sense things could become a bit more ominous. The first part of the film really allows us to get to know these two as they get to know each other. Victoria’s childhood story explains much about her reactions throughout the ordeal, and it’s also the point that we realize our infatuation with her is justified.

Things do in fact turn ominous for the group, and a criminal act conducted out of desperation leads to a few action-oriented sequences … each impressive in light of the single-shot approach. No CGI as a fallback and no carefully manipulated sets. Instead, the actors and camera must continue, no matter the glitches or obstacles that real time tosses in their path.

Run Lola Run (1998) may be the best comparison for the frantic pace, but in actuality, the film has no legitimate pairing given the 2 plus hours single shot approach. You may choose to see this for the technical achievement that it is, and the guess is you will be equally impressed with Ms. Costa.

watch the trailer:




November 28, 2015

killing them safely Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t tase me, bro”. In 2007, an incident at The University of Florida became a humorous viral sensation when a student, after asking John Kerry a question, was forcibly removed by police. His pleading became a catchphrase, but didn’t prevent his being hit with the Taser. Now comes this documentary from director Nick Berardini, and he pulls back the curtain on the ethics of Taser International Corporation, the safety of tasers, and the protocol and use of this weapon by police officers.

We learn Jack Cover invented the taser in 1969, and it was the Smith brothers (Rick and Tom) who founded the Taser International company in 1993, increased the voltage output, and began marketing heavily to police departments as a safe alternative to firearms. The Smith’s claim the taser is “the biggest revolution in law enforcement since the radio”, though they spend the bulk of the movie giving evasive answers to variations of the question, “Is the taser safe or potentially deadly?”

Director Berardini documents tragic events where police use of tasers ended with suspects dying. Doctors and lawyers chime in, but it’s the testimonies of Tom and Rick Smith themselves that provide a level of creepiness that would complement most any horror film. Actual video footage is shown of not just the Smith brothers numerous depositions, but also of some of the actual events. Two of the most devastating are a man at the Vancouver airport, and a young man stopped for speeding directly across the street from his own house. The latter died after being tased … while his parents looked on. Neither appeared to be an immediate threat to the police officers. The film recounts incidents where kids as young as 6 years old, and women in their 80’s have been hit with police tasers.

Reports show that more than 17,000 Law Enforcement Agencies utilize tasers, and one of the more interesting case studies is that of the Warren, Michigan Police Department. One of the early adopters of the weapon, this police department dropped the taser from use by their officers after a tragic incident. Since then, they have seen no increase in police injuries or shootings, drawing into question the company claim of a safer alternative.

At a minimum, the film should instigate further debates on two key issues: the safety of the weapons, and the training techniques and best use for police officers. The key concern seems to be a direct hit to the chest area which can immediately impact the victim’s heart. It’s frightening to think that police could be Taser-dependent or Taser-happy in using a weapon that may not be safe. We see some fascinating video of macho tough-guy cops being dropped immediately by one second (or less) tasers, but it’s the events with multiple prolonged zaps that seem to cause the biggest concern. Again … this research is necessary and should be done immediately, given the widespread use of Tasers.

As a side note, Taser International is still in the taser business, but their biggest revenue source is now police body cameras. Say what you will, but the company is certainly opportunistic.

watch the trailer:



November 24, 2015

victor frankenstein Greetings again from the darkness. If a filmmaker is going to mess with the classics, there are two paths of creativity from which to choose: stay true to the original, or put a new spin on it. In this case, the classics in question are the nearly 200 year old novel from Mary Shelley (1818) and the nearly 85 year old movie from James Whale (1931). The filmmakers doing the messing are director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John). The spin they chose was (in theory) to tell the story from the perspective of Igor, the loyal assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that immediately presents a problem … since the title they chose was not “Igor”, but rather Victor Frankenstein. The film does begin with Igor’s backstory in the circus as a hunchbacked clown/amateur doctor, and the character does provide some early and late narration. The conundrum stems from the fact that pretty much everything else in the movie is centered on the mad scientist, rather than the skilled apprentice/partner.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor and James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein (not Fron-kin-steen, in a nod to Mel Brooks), and both actors seem to be doing everything possible to bring energy and enthusiasm to a movie that can’t seem to decide if it’s a reboot or a reimagination or simply an origin story. Radcliffe effectively uses his physicality as the circus clown who is so mistreated and misunderstood, and McAvoy is such a hyper-active mad scientist that I’m sure his fellow actors many times were inclined to advise “say it, don’t spray it”.  McAvoy does seem to be having a grand old time playing the brilliant yet unhinged young doctor-to-be, and to his credit takes a much different approach than Colin Clive when he gets to the infamous line “It’s ALIVE!”

The best parts of the movie are the intricate and amazing sets, the monster himself (albeit too brief), and the expert use of classical music and film score. The circus sets are colorful and active, while Frankenstein’s soap factory home/laboratory is fascinating and creative, and the final Scotland castle on a cliff is breath-taking. Pulleys, chains and cranks are everywhere … as is an incredible amount of body parts, organs and fluids.

After a very well done circus opening, we are jarred with a seemingly out of place action sequence involving a slo-motion chase and fight scene that seems to be attempting to mimic some of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie stunts. Here they are unwelcome and ruin the flow. Another aspect that seems forced and unnecessary is a romantic interlude between Igor and a trapeze artist (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). It feels like an add-on to remind us that it’s supposed to be Igor’s story. Additionally, Andrew Scott plays an intriguing Scotland Yard Inspector who is every bit as obsessed with his faith-based beliefs as Victor is with his science-has-no-bounds stance. A story told from the Inspector’s perspective might have worked, but instead it comes across as another add-on. Another add-on is the filthy rich and very devious fellow med student (played by Freddie Fox) who agrees to fund the experiments, but mostly the character is an after-thought necessary to move the plot along. Wasted is the always menacing Charles Dance, who has but one scene as Victor’s strongly disapproving daddy.

A combination of the romance, minimal role of Igor in the grand finale, the medical school bumbling, the clunky Inspector involvement, and the all too brief monster appearance makes the film all but impossible for viewers to connect. They tell us twice “You know the story … a crack of lightning, a mad genius, and an unholy creation”, but the reality is, the fact that we know the story, makes this one all the more disappointing. It’s fun to look at, but is lacking the depth and soul that has allowed Shelley’s book to stand up over two centuries.

watch the trailer:


TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:



November 19, 2015

brooklyn Greetings again from the darkness. A popular proverb “Home is where the heart is” is filled with truth … unless the heart belongs in two places. Such is the case with Ellis, an Irish girl who leaves behind her family and homeland to discover the new world opportunities afforded by 1950’s America. The film is based on the popular and critically-acclaimed novel from Colm Toibin, and is directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There? 2008) with a screenplay from Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education). It’s a blend of romance, drama, and self-discovery, while also examining a couple of diverse cultures from lands separated by more than 3000 miles (and a big ocean).

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis in a performance that is sure to garner much Oscar talk. It’s only been 8 years since Ms. Ronan exploded onto the screen as 13 year old Briony in Atonement. In this current role we watch her blossom like a flower as she grows from a timid and reserved shop girl with a bleak future in Ireland, to a fully-realized woman with much spirit and hope. On that journey, she experiences many life obstacles including seasickness, homesickness, catty and envious housemates, heartbreak and romantic awkwardness … all while dealing with the overwhelming nature of her new world.

Director Cowley makes some interesting visual choices. We begin with a muted color palette and mostly close camera shots of Ellis’ life in Ireland. This “closed in” feeling continues through her crossing of the Atlantic. However, once she steps through the blue doors of Ellis Island, the world opens up with wide shots and shocks of bright colors. These contrasts blend together in the third segment where Ellis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy. The look of the film at any given time mirrors the mood and circumstance of our lead character.

Ellis struggles to adjust to the United States, both in the bordering house run by the colorful Ms. Kehoe (a terrific Julie Walters), and in the ritzy Bartocci store where she clerks for a demanding supervisor (Jessica Pare’, “Mad Men”). Ms. Kehoe provides her girls with such life guidance as “Giddiness is the 8th Deadly Sin”. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to meet Tony (a breakout performance by Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a pleasant and polite local Italian plumber who is enchanted by her. Their time together provides a wonderful comparison piece for today’s courtship vs. that of the 1950’s.

The movie is beautifully paced, filmed and acted; however, there are some issues to fight through with the story and details of the main character. Her return to Ireland introduces Jim Ferrell (solid work from the ever-evolving Domhnall Gleeson), and just like that, Ellis is confused about Tony’s line: “This is where your life is”. This time of confusion for her, creates similar type confusion for viewers as we either understand her uncertainty, or question it. This distracts a bit from some of the impactful elements like her transition from clueless fish-out-of-water on her first cruise, to strong mentor for an Irish girl much like her younger self on a later trip. The script has more than a few of these moments of gold, and Saoirse brilliantly nails each.

watch the trailer:




November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

watch the trailer:



November 19, 2015

black panthers Greetings again from the darkness. Black lives matter. We hear the phrase frequently these days, and director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Summer) takes us back 49 years to the beginning of the Black Panther Party, and then walks us through the rise and fall. Rather than the usual textbook approach that focuses on the famous photos of angry black men wearing leather jackets and berets while toting firearms, this is a much more comprehensive look at the complexities of the organization and its members.

The familiar names of the Black Panther leaders include Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Fred Hampton. Despite the fact that first hand interviews weren’t possible with the big three – Newton and Cleaver are no longer living, and Seale declined the opportunity, there are some fabulous video clips and photographs, many of which have been rarely seen.

It’s the interviews with former Black Panther members that provide the most insight. Their stance is that the original plan was a non-violent approach to bring attention to police brutality and the lack of equality in Black America. Many social programs were started to assist kids and the poor, but things turned more aggressive when the passive approach didn’t yield the desired results. Newton studied the laws and realized open carry was permitted on public property, and that’s where most of the famous photos originated.

The segment on J Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence plan for the FBI to do what was necessary to prevent the expansion of the Black Panthers is one of the film’s best. Hoover even described them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (yes, this was during the Vietnam War). He was especially concerned about the rise of a “messiah”, and that led to what most consider the assassination of Illinois chapter leader Fred Hampton while he slept.

Oakland is widely accepted as the central hub of the Black Panthers, and it was surprising to learn that “most” members were teenagers and a majority were female. The interviews with the former members are fascinating and void of any pomp or bluster … just matter-of-fact recollections. What really stands out is just how media savvy the leaders were. They understood how to get headlines and bring attention to the issues.

We also learn that Jane Fonda hosted fundraisers and meetings, and we see a clip of Marlon Brando supporting the Black Panthers. These celebrities brought legitimacy to the organization, but didn’t stop the fracture that occurred when Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver began feuding over the best direction. Seeing clips of Bobby Seale running for Mayor of Oakland in 1972 certainly brought a contemporary feel, as the black voter registration drives continue to this day.

As one of the former members states “making history” was “not nice and clean”. We learn that more than 20 former Panthers are still in prison today, and the parallels between the mid-60’s and the movement for equality today are undeniable. Director Nelson offers an informative education without preaching or romanticizing the Black Panthers.

watch the trailer:




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