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:

 


THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

August 18, 2014

expendables3 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether you saw the first two in this series will directly correlate to whether you head to the theatre for this third entry. The filmmakers’ attempt at attracting a younger audience by adding a “new” crew and dropping to a PG-13 rating backfires, and will not provide the legs this franchise needed for more installments.

The regular old geezers are back: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li (briefly), and Arnold Schwarzenneger. In addition, we get new “old” blood in the form of Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammar, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, and the dominating presence of Mel Gibson as the bad guy. The young blood comes in the form of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, boxer Victor Ortiz, and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey. The blandness of the newbies simply steals valuable screen time for the old folks, and the movie suffers because of it.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, comes courtesy of the all-time champion screen hog: Mr. Stallone. We understand that this  franchise is his baby, but why field an all-star team if you won’t let them play? Stallone gets a ridiculous number of close-ups and probably three times the dialogue of the runner-up. Snipes gets some time early in the film, replete with a reference to his real life prison sentence for tax evasion, and Ford and Arnold get in a few shots, but the only savior here is Mel Gibson. It’s a reminder of just how good he can be on screen … if we could only forget what a horrible person he can be off screen.

There is no need to go into detail on the plot or describe any of the characters. You know what you are getting if you buy a ticket. It’s just a shame the film’s direction and script aren’t at the level deserving of a cast that includes: Rambo, Mad Max, Blade, Conan, Han Solo, Hercules, Zorro, The Transporter, He-Man, and even … Sideshow Bob!

**NOTE: while Bruce Willis demanded too much money and does not appear this time, there is a Die Hard reference with the “other” Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi)

watch the trailer:

 

 


LAND HO! (2014)

August 17, 2014

land ho Greetings again from the darkness. Extra credit goes to the writer/director team of Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz for their indie spirit and unique character-driven adventure – a rare Iceland based comedy. The former Film School classmates bring color of personality and color of terrain to the forefront.

Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) are former brothers-in-law, once married to sisters. The polar opposites are each battling loneliness and aging, and Mitch (the gregarious one) basically forces Colin (the reserved one) into a spontaneous vacation with him to Iceland. After this, we watch what amounts to a an AARP Road Trip Buddy film.

Mitch’s bravura masks his loss of purpose and fear of mortality, while Colin mostly just shakes his head at each vulgar thought spoken without filter by Mitch. Despite the obvious differences in personality, the two come across as real guys soaking up the adventure. While Colin enjoys his solo hike that ends with a dip in the hot springs, Mitch sips his scotch while pestering a honeymooning couple (one of which is played by well known cinematographer Ben Kasulke) with questions about their private time in the room. He means no harm, he just thrives on fun … whether it’s his or someone else’s.

Mitch and Colin have a definite on screen connection, and what makes this fascinating is that while Paul Eenhoorn is an established Australian actor, Earl Lynn Nelson is a real life retired surgeon who has only recently begun acting. Mr. Nelson’s comfort in front of the camera is obvious whether he is telling his much younger cousin she has a “hot ass”, or toking on weed at the hotel. Many long time actors would have struggled in this role, but Nelson … while not always likable, leaves no doubt about his quest for fun.

Other than the two lead actors, the landscape of Iceland is a key to the look and feel of the film. The panoramas are beautifully filmed, and if somehow a few people actually see the film, it would not be surprising if Iceland tourism spikes. Though the film offers no real life lessons, and offers little in defense of “getting old sucks”, this little senior citizen character study is a worthy entry into the “gray cinema” genre, and a reminder that every morning we wake up … we are “not dead yet”!

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

August 13, 2014

hundred foot journey Greetings again from the darkness. Comfort food gets its name from the level of familiarity and satisfaction it brings us. It’s the opposite of “Innovation. Innovation. Innovation” that plays a conflicting role in this story as we follow the culinary advancement of the young chef Hassan. Director Lasse Hallstrom long ago mastered the art of tapping into the emotional heart strings of viewers (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat), so his films can easily be viewed as the movie version of comfort food … they deliver what’s promised with no unnecessary surprises.

From the novel by Richard C Morais, the screenplay by Steven Knight (Locke) serves up exactly what we expect and satisfies our taste for slick and sweet entertainment, with characters who are both likable and learn their life lessons quickly. Even the backstory of tragedy that brings Kadan family from India is told in a near painless (and improbable) flashback manner as the family goes through airport customs.

While their travels and heartbreak could have been the story, we instead are front row for the cultural battlefield of a snooty French provencial restaurant vs friendly Indian family home-cooking … 100 feet apart. A snooty French restaurant with a Michelin star requires the ever-present condescending high society Madame Mallory as the movie’s “villain”. Of course, when played by Helen Mirren, we know immediately that bad will soon enough turn to good. The driving force behind her transformation is Papa, played superbly by Om Puri. Stereotypes abound, but at least there is some humor blended so as not to be overcooked.

The real basis for the movie is the extraordinarily talented young chef Hassan (played by Manish Dayal). His skill in the kitchen folded in with his overall niceness make it impossible for Madame Mallory or her sous-chef Margueritte (Charlotte Le Bon) to avoid taking notice in their own ways.

The cultural differences certainly could have been played up and further examined (Indian market vs French market), as could the backstory of all involved – the Indian family and Madame Mallory. An added level of depth and mystery could have been added if, say Catherine Deneuve had been cast in the Helen Mirren role (box office draw was obviously key to her casting). More detail could have been provided for Hassan’s time in Paris as well as what occurs with his Papa while he is away.

This is new Disney following the traditional Disney template.  The movie and the story go exactly where we expect it to go, providing the level of enjoyment and satisfaction that we demand from our comfort food. And there’s nothing wrong with a big serving of that from time to time.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


AFTER (2014)

August 13, 2014

after Greetings again from the darkness. Family dynamics often make for entertaining movie fodder. The possibilities are endless and source material is in full supply, given that most of us have enough stories to write our own book! This latest from director Pieter Gaspersz drops us right in the middle of the Valentino family, and all the bickering, conflicts and secrets that any one family can generate.

The script is from Gaspersz’ wife, Sabrina Gennarino, who also stars as daughter Maxine, one of the key characters in the film. You will probably recognize her along with many of the other actors who make up the family, though you may not recall all the names. Kathleen Quinlan plays the mother, and it doesn’t take us long to realize everyone is tiptoeing around her – we just aren’t sure why. Her husband is played by John Doman, and he is the most difficult character to connect with because he coddles his wife and basically ignores his (grown) kids … even Christian (an underrated Pablo Schreiber), the son who has taken over the family stone business.  Adam Scarimbolo plays Niky, the family screw-up (well, one of them anyway).  Niky is lost in life, and it’s obvious the conflict with his dad must be resolved before he can really grow up. Aunt Kat (the mom’s sister played by Diane Neal) is apparently around to help out, but she spends most every day chugging booze.

While it may sound like an impossible family to understand, there are moments that strike an emotional chord and make the film quite watchable. There is some choppiness in the presentation, but it’s beautifully filmed by Jonathan Hall, and pretty solidly acted by the entire cast. The themes of loss, grief, deception, and family (mis)communication are sometimes far-fetched, and other times spot on. The father’s concern about “protection” for his daughter comes across as a bit awkward, until the big reveal towards the end. At that point, we all understand what he means by protection and why he had his doubts about her fiance (played by Darrin Dewitt Henson).  Until the reveal, there are times it plays like an extended episode of TV’s “Parenthood“, but in the end, the puzzle is mostly complete and the payoff is satisfactory.

 


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