A FIVE STAR LIFE (Viaggio solo, Italy, 2014)

September 16, 2014

5 star life Greetings again from the darkness. Italian movie star Margherita Buy plays Irene, a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world testing picture frames for dust, bed covers for wrinkles, and hotel staff for smiles. Directed and co-written by Maria Sole Tognazzi, the film left me baffled as to why such a talented filmmaker presented such a dead-end trip for the viewer.

Within the first five minutes, we fully “get” Irene and we understand exactly where the movie is headed, provided it follows all overused story clichés (it does). See, Irene has things backwards. She lives in 5 star hotels and takes her brief respites with her nieces, her ex, and her sister. Most of us live with our families and vacation at resorts.

The world class hotels are breathtaking to see, but mostly the movie drags while we wait for Irene’s comeuppance. One segment of the story provides a spark of hope. Lesley Manville (recognizable from numerous Mike Leigh films) appears as a feminist author who lives life to the fullest and preaches realities that strike a chord with Irene. Unfortunately, this plot line is short-lived and the most interesting character disappears as quickly as she arrived.

Irene is single, but maintains a very close relationship with her ex (a very good Stefano Accorsi). Irene has no kids, but periodically spends time with her young nieces. Irene has no close friends, but spends time with her family-centric sister (a very interesting Fabrizia Sacchi). She does all of this without actually committing to living a real life, as she quickly escapes on her next mystery guest mission.

The film begs for comparison to the superior Up in the Air, which allowed for secondary character development … an element only teased in this film. Ms. Buy is very talented, but the script just makes this seem like a luke warm room service meal. We already know that there is no comparison in a dream job versus a dream life.

**NOTE: The Italian title is “Viaggio solo”, which translates to I Travel Alone. There is no good reason for changing the title for its United States release … probably decided by a marketing committee.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DROP (2014)

September 13, 2014

drop Greetings again from the darkness. Much of what I write here contradicts my long maintained stance that a strong story/script is the basis for any movie worth it’s proverbial weight. This neighborhood crime drama does not spin a twisty plot. Nor does it flash fascinating and colorful mobsters. Instead, it’s the acting that elevates the film to the point of neo-noir must see.

By now you have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s final movie. He passed away while director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) was in editing mode. Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a would-be wise-guy who never-really-was.  Now he is bitter and desperate, in a beaten down kind of way. As a farewell, Gandolfini leaves us a final reminder of what a powerful screen presence he was, and what a terrific feel for character and scene he possessed.

Beyond Gandolfini, the real attraction and the main reason to see the film is the outstanding and mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy. In many ways, his bartender Bob is the polar opposite of his infamous Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Quasi-effeminate in his vocal deliverings, and moving with a slow, stilted shuffle, Bob is one of the least imposing guys.  The kind that you would likely look right through. At least that’s the first impression. Hardy is so nuanced, we aren’t even certain when his character transitions and exposes his true make-up. When he does, it’s the highlight of the film.

Noomi Rapace, in yet another intriguing turn, plays local waitress Nadia, who befriends Bob after he rescues an abused puppy. Since the movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue”, it’s no surprise that the main characters each share a need to be rescued. Nadia’s ex-boyfriend is played to full psycho and creepy effect by Matthias Schoenaerts (so great in Rust and Bone, 2012). The scenes between Schoenaerts and Hardy show the movie at its tension-filled best.

As with most neighborhood crime dramas, there are many secrets, local legends, and allegiances in doubt. The players are weary and dream of either better times or ending the misery. Mr. Lehane wrote the novels that led to some other fine films: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. He has a feel for ultra-realistic characters, and his material depends on extraordinary acting for fulfillment. This slow boil benefits from some of the best acting we could ask for.

**NOTE: all due respect to the late, great James Gandolfini … we get a glimpse of him “running” from a crime scene, and his athletic prowess does detract from his otherwise imposing screen presence.

**NOTE: how good must this be if I went the entire review without mentioning Ann Dowd or John Ortiz … two excellent actors who play small, vital roles?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need further proof that Tom Hardy is one of the more talented actors working today OR you bask in the atmospheric neighborhood crime drama genre (this is a good one) OR you just want to see a really cute pit bull puppy.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you find it impossible to “unsee” a glimpse of James Gandolfini running on screen, in spite of his towering presence and acting ability.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


HERO (2014)

September 12, 2014

hero Greetings again from the darkness.  This is a Christian Faith-based message movie designed to encourage more dads to get involved with their son’s activities.  Youth baseball is the game of choice here, placing it right in my wheelhouse (as a long time volunteer youth baseball coach).

Familiar faces are sprinkled throughout the production, including Burgess Jenkins and Gregory Alan Williams, both from Remember the Titans (2000).  Mr. Jenkins plays Joe Finn, a local baseball legend, who coached his son David’s (Justin Miles) team to the championship seven years earlier (as seen via flashback).  When tragedy brings Joe back to town, it’s clear David is harboring frustration and anger towards his dad, who had abandoned his family for a job opportunity. David’s bitterness is in the early stages (known as disappointment) and he doesn’t understand why Joe is so intent on “fixing” the problem of uninvolved dads with the team David is coaching.

Social commentary abounds as we recognize many familiar themes – dads that are just too busy, dads chasing the brass ring, dads who have made some poor decisions. It seems many dads are fine with placing the burden on the coach, and vital life lessons have not yet been taught: discipline, respect, good work habits. This message could just as easily been delivered via school teachers, with as many parents hiding behind “you are the teacher” as “you are the coach“. Sure, this message may be simple and obvious, but it’s still an important one.

Director Manny Edwards and his co-writer John Fornoff choose to minimize the role of moms in the story, and instead focus on the active role dads can play in the emotional and physical growth of their sons. The film not only emphasizes how crucial this is, but also how often dads are just too busy advancing a career to even play catch … reminding us of the climactic scene in Field of Dreams.

Peppered with life lessons and parenting advice, the film crosses generations in its plea to dads to embrace the most important role of their lives – that of being an involved and active parent. It also drives home the message that it’s never too late, as Joe tells David, “I can’t go back. I’m here today“.

For more information on the film and to see the official trailer, visit the official website at:

http://www.herofamilymovie.com/HERO_Movie_Official_Site/Home.html


THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

September 1, 2014

november man Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhere there must exist a checklist of the main plot lines for all the spy thrillers and action films ever made. Should you wonder what’s on the checklist, then this is the movie for you. Ambition it does not lack. Striving to be an edgy Bond flick, an action-packed Bourne thriller, and a complex Le Carre mind-twister, the film, unfortunately, excels at none of these … though does manage to be entertaining enough for the pre-fall dead zone (timing is everything).

Pierce Brosnan stars as a retired CIA operative Devereaux, called back into duty 5 years after a mission gone bad (seen courtesy of flashback). His boss Hanley is played by the always interesting character actor Bill Smitrovich, but we are supposed to buy in fully to the mentor vs protégé story line of Brosnan and Luke Bracey (the next in a long line of hunky Aussies).

Geopolitics, inner-office power plays, and mistaken identity all come into play, as do the innocent neighbor, an imperiled young daughter and backroom deals between the CIA and a Russian President-elect (Lazar Ristovski). All of this plus a quietly creepy assassin played by extremely limber gymnast Amila Terzimehic, a revenge-seeking (former Bond girl) Olga Kurylenko playing dress up, the rarely seen/scene-stealing Will Patton, car chases and crashes, gun fights, fist fights, knife fights, computer tracking and sneaky drones. Of course, all of these are on the aforementioned checklist.

Director Roger Donaldson has a varied career with such films as No Way Out, Cocktail, The World’s Fastest Indian (highly recommended), and The Bank Job. This film is based on Bill Granger’s Devereaux novel “There Are No Spies”, and Donaldson’s eye for action sequences are a plus. However, the saving grace here is Mr. Brosnan. He brings an edge that his James Bond never could … he even yells a few times! However, as with most movies, the script makes or breaks, and in this case the plausibility test is flunked, despite the numerous checked boxes.

***NOTE: I can’t help but notice the trend of aging actors (60 plus years old) trying to prove their high testosterone levels in uber-serious action-thrillers – Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, and Denzel Washington (turns 60 this year) come to mind, and of course the most obvious is Sylvester Stallone, who at least plants his tongue firmly in cheek for The Expendables franchise.

***NOTE: If you would like to see Mr. Brosnan give an edgy, offbeat performance in a better film, I recommend The Matador (2005)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have wondered how Pierce Brosnan would have fared in the Daniel Craig “Bond” films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping for a clever spy thriller in the mold of Le Carre’.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FRANK (2014)

August 31, 2014

frank Greetings again from the darkness. Most movies fit pretty easily into a genre: drama, comedy, action, etc. This latest from film festival favorite Lenny Abrahamson is tough to classify. It begins with silly and funny inner-dialogue from an aspiring musician/songwriter (Domhnall Gleeson), transitions into a dark dramady with complex characters and dialogue, and finishes as a bleak statement on mental illness and the music business.

That’s more than I would typically disclose, but some have described the film as an outright comedy and I find that unconcsionable. If you are expecting a laugh riot, you will not only be disappointed, but are likely to miss the unique perspective provided.

The screenplay is written by The Men Who Stare at Goats collaborators Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Clearly inspired by the late British comedian and musician Chris Sievey (and his character Frank Sidebottom), Mr. Ronson’s work with Mr. Sievey is the driving force. It’s also the reason Gleeson’s character is emphasized over Michael Fassbender‘s titular character who dons the paper mache head for the bulk of the movie. This script decision probably keeps the film from reaching greatness.

The exceptional and attention-grabbing first 15 minutes set up a movie that dissolves into an exploration of the creative process within mental illness … Franks states numerous times that he has a certificate (certifiable). There is also an ongoing battle between art and commerce, as waged by Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s character and that of Gleeson. Social Media power is on full display as this avant-garde performance art band gathers a huge following prior to ever really producing any music.

Fassbender is somehow exceptional in his “masked” performance, and it’s very interesting to see Ms. Gyllenhaal in a different type role. Gleeson lacks the charisma to carry the film, but the supporting cast of Scoot McNairy (who I think should have played the Gleeson role), Francois Civil, Carla Azar (Autolux drummer) and Tess Harper all deliver and prevent the film from drooping.

Without seeing Frank’s facial expressions, we witness his transformation from mystic/guru to an unstable and socially uncomfortable dude striving for likability, but unsure what the term really means. Must artists suffer for their art? Why does society latch onto the newest social media gimmick? What is creative success and why are so many afraid of it? The film begs these and other unanswerable questions. Certainly interesting, but definitely not 90 minutes of laughter.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have always had a secret desire to be a rock star wearing a giant paper mache head at all times (and who hasn’t?) OR you have an interest in the role of creativity in treating mental illness.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are expecting some gimmicky comedy like Ted … though this one is funnier than Howard the Duck.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE ONE I LOVE (2014)

August 20, 2014

one i love Greetings again from the darkness. Starting out with a typical marriage counseling session, director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader lull us into a movie-going comfort zone based on our experience with such Hollywood fluff as Hope Springs and Couples Retreat. All that should be said at this point is … not so fast, my friends!

A crumbling marriage and the subsequent lack of success with communication, leads the therapist (Ted Danson) to recommend a weekend alone at a private country estate. The twists and turns that await Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), take marriage counseling to an entirely new spectrum. Sophie wants to reignite that early relationship spark and Ethan just wants things back to normal.

The setting does justice to the legend of beautiful California real estate, but things aren’t all they seem as Ethan and Sophie bounce back and forth between the main house and guest house. It’s in these moments where the big relationship questions are addressed … and the script is smart, funny, creative and dark. It’s not likely anyone can watch this without having some inner dialogue, and probably even some real discussion afterwards.

Mark Duplass (“The League“, Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men“) not only carry the film, but also take on significant responsibility with wide-ranging personality traits and subtle physical changes. Duplass is exceptional and easy for most guys to relate to in how he handles the challenges. While I’ve never been a big fan of Ms. Moss, her performance here is quite impressive. Whether “together” or “apart”, they complement each other nicely.

The closest comparison I have for this one is Ruby Sparks (2012), but this one will have you questioning what makes a relationship work and what should we really expect from our partner. The idea of recapturing that initial spark is absurd and immature, but that doesn’t lessen the need for realistic expectations. For the first feature from director Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) and writer Justin Lader, the unique and creative approach to such a complex topic make them filmmakers to keep an eye on.

**NOTE: I found the film very well done and quite thought-provoking until the last 15 minutes or so.  One of the twists kind of knocked me off the rails and raised too many questions that this little film just couldn’t address, much less answer. Still, that doesn’t stop me from recommending it to my fellow indie movie lovers. During the Q&A after the screening, director McDowell admitted that they completed filming in 15 days, and that most of the sound and dialogue was recorded live.  The unusual and effective score was, of course, added later.

watch the trailer:

 


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