THE JOE SHOW (2014, doc)

December 19, 2014

joe show Greetings again from the darkness. Quick! Name the Sheriff in your County. It’s highly unlikely that you can (unless you also serve in Law Enforcement). In fact, you probably can’t name any real Sheriff currently in office – that eliminates Wyatt Earp and Mayberry’s Andy Taylor. If you can name one, it’s likely to be Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona.  This guy gets as much publicity as a Kardashian, and director Randy Murray spent 8 years following and researching Joe’s antics, record and policies.

The first third of the movie solidifies the case of Arpaio as the “PT Barnum of Sheriffs”. Thanks to his longtime Media Relations Director, Lisa Allen, Sheriff Joe has become the go-to guy for local, and sometimes national news outlets.  We see a never-ending stream of stunts that keep Joe’s face on the tube, his voice on the radio, and his words in print. You may remember the “Walk-a-Con” where he escorted 2500 convicts to the new prison. What made this fodder for cameras?  How about the pink underwear each of the convicts was wearing for the trek! Joe is also known for his “Tent City” of convicts … a cost-saving measure. You might also have seen Joe on shows such as “20/20” or “60 Minutes” as he explained his crusade against illegal immigrants (he was actively enforcing the Arizona state law).

Those interviewed include politicians, journalists, and state employees, Ted Nugent, Steven Segal, Hugh Downs, Larry King and Noam Chomsky. Descriptions of Joe include: flamboyant, tough, media hound, shoot-from-the-lip guy, and bully. It may come as a surprise that he has won 6 elections (the first in 1992), so clearly there are voters who agree with his “prison should be punishment” policy, and are able to overlook the many issues brought up in the final 2/3 of the film.

A change in tone occurs in the movie as we start to look behind the façade of this media hound. A “culture of cruelty” and corruption has led to 150 deaths and $25 million in settlements since he took office. There were an unfathomable 400 sex crime cases apparently swept under the rug to avoid costly investigations. The history of brutality in the ranks, some of it caught on video, is easily tied back to Joe’s attitude. His ability to balance his roles as Law Enforcement officer, master Politician, and media hound was exposed by his latest opponent, Democrat Paul Penzone … but one last publicity stunt allowed Joe to raise a record $8 million in campaign funds.

Director Murray does a terrific job of starting us off with what appears to be just a colorful character, and then leading us down a much darker path of the reality behind the distractions. We see Sheriff Joe criticized for using unreasonable force, ruling through a climate of fear, and abusing the power of his position. Watching how Sheriff Joe responds to this criticism is truly a fascinating psychological character study, and it acts as a reminder of how his addiction to the media is simply a means to an end … the way to maintain his reign and fame.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

watch the trailer:

 


WINTER SLEEP (Kis uykusu, Turkey, 2014)

December 18, 2014

 

winter sleep Greetings again from the darkness. Brace yourself for 3 hours and 19 minutes of heavy listening. Yes, the film was named Palme d’Or at the most recent Cannes, and the dialogue is exceptionally well written, but this isn’t one you can just kick back and enjoy. It requires some effort. The two big “action” sequences involve a 10 year old boy tossing a rock and later, his too proud father dropping something into a fireplace. The real action occurs between the ears of the viewer as we assimilate the moods and nuances and double-meanings that accompany the stream of conversations.

Award-winning director Nuri Bilge Ceylan co-wrote the script with his wife Ebru Ceylan, and that probably attributes to the sharpness and poignancy of the relationships between Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Much of the film is devoted to one of two things: Aydin making himself feel important, or Nihal and/or Necla voicing their opinions on why he isn’t. While that may sound simple, the wordplay and grounded performances often leave us with the feeling that we are eavesdropping on very private conversations.

Filmed in the breathtakingly beautiful Cappadocia region of Anatolia, the geological spectrum contrasts mightily with the near claustrophobic interior scenes that dominate the run time. In fact, when one of the characters does venture outdoors, viewers will find themselves breathing easier and in relief of the stressful intimacy of other scenes.

Hotel Othello is cut directly into one of the more picturesque hillsides of the area, and owner Aydin spends his days locked away in his office, kicking off his latest article bashing societal and morality changes within the village. Aydin has a pretty easy life, as he has inherited the hotel and numerous income producing rental properties from his father. Aydin’s career as a stage actor also adds a bit to his local celebrity (and ego). He fancies himself an important man with an important voice, and never hesitates to broadcast his charitable offerings.

Aydin lives at the hotel with his much younger wife Nihal, and his recently divorced sister Necla. The dysfunction abounds as none of the three much respect the others, and manage to express this in the most incisive, passive-aggressive ways possible. There are two extended (each pushing 30 minutes) exchanges that are unlike anything you may have ever seen on screen. One has Necla letting Aydin know what she thinks of his articles, while the other has Nihal finally coming clean with her feelings of being held back, emotionally captive. Both scenes are captivating and powerful, yet voices are never raised and facial expressions are crucial. This is intimate filmmaking at its best and most uncomfortable … psychological warfare would not be too extreme as a description.

Conflict is crucial for a dialogue-driven film. Some of the best include My Dinner with Andre, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and 12 Angry Men. These are the type of movies that cause us to study all the subtleties within a scene … not just what is said, but how it is said and how the message is conveyed. Pride, loneliness and despair run rampant through the characters here and the philosophical discussions force each to lay bare their soul.

For so little action, an undercurrent of wild emotions flows through every scene. In addition to the three leads, there is a character named Hamdi (an Islamic teacher/advisor, played by Serhat Mustafa Kilic) who plays the role of peace-keeper and mediator. His constant smile is but a mask he is forced to wear in his role, and I found his character the most painful of all to watch.

The title may be interpreted as either a “hibernation” or “sleep-walking through life’s final stages”, and both fit very well. The hotel provides a cave-like hiding place for Aydin, as he pretends to play his final role – that of an important man in the village. There are some truly masterful moments in the film, and it’s easy to see why it appeals to only a certain type of film goer. Inspired by the short stories of Chekhov (“The Wife”, “Excellent People”), as well as the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Voltaire, means the viewer is investing emotionally in characters quite full of resentment and oh so dishonest with themselves. It’s an undertaking that is difficult, but does offer the opportunity to test one’s listening skills and ability to read body language. It also comes with wisdom such as … Donkeys lead camels (you’ll have to watch the movie!).

***NOTE: as a caution, there is a scene that could be considered animal cruelty. There is an ongoing investigation into whether a law was broken.

watch the trailer:

 


INSIDE THE MIND OF LEONARDO (2014)

December 17, 2014

inside the mind of leonardo Greetings again from the darkness. Whenever you start to feel confident – even a little cocky – about how good you are at your job, stop for a moment and consider Leonardo da Vinci. How is this for a dose of humility? Even today, Leonardo is still considered one of the foremost painters, sculptors, inventors, engineers and mathematicians. This despite no formal education … and dying almost 500 years ago! It makes you wonder what he could have accomplished with computers and the internet.

History Films and director Julian Jones were provided access to Leonardo’s private notebooks, drawings and journals … more than 6000 pages that range from shopping lists, to mechanical inventions, to nature drawings. This Docu-Drama is presented in the unique manner of casting actor Peter Capaldi (“Dr Who”) as the interpreter of Leonardo’s words and works. He facilitates the movements between Leonardo’s childhood (as an illegitimate kid) in Tuscany, his move to Florence at age 16, his nearly two decades in Milan, and subsequent return to Tuscany where he spent 15 years painting a merchant’s wife … a painting now known as the “Mona Lisa”.

Playing very much like an educational tool designed for junior high and high school students, the film is also is an engaging way to present some insight into history’s single most observant and curious deep thinker. We see and hear Leonardo’s thoughts on war strategy and weapons, the geometrics of the human face, tips on fitness (“eat only when hungry”) and of course, his obsessions with human flight and anatomy. Beyond that, the journals offer a taste of his sense of humor and thoughts on sexual desire. It’s clear his thoughts bounced from topic to topic, and his sense of wonder created a never ending flow of ideas. While we often term it observation and analysis, Leonardo’s words are translated into experiencing something and then seeking out the cause. Newly filmed images are blended with Leonardo’s own drawings to keep the viewer on track.

Vitruvian Man is one of the more iconic images seen throughout society, and Leonardo’s painting “The Last Supper” has been copied and reproduced frequently. Although he died in France at age 67 having finished only 21 paintings, and having most of his inventions survive in theory only, the breadth of his knowledge and writings explain why the phrase “Renaissance Man” was coined to describe Leonardo (as well as Michelangelo). The film offers an entertaining and engaging introduction to Leonardo da Vinci, and today’s “thinkers” will undoubtedly be inspired to learn more.

watch the trailer:

 


WILD (2014)

December 14, 2014

 

Wild Greetings again from the darkness. The best movies expertly provide a visual representation of quality writing. However, the film medium is somewhat limited, and especially struggles, in displaying the complexities of human introspection … something the best writers are able to capture with words on a page. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (An Education, High Fidelity) are simply unable to capture the guts of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” – despite the likely Oscar nominated performance of Reese Witherspoon.

It’s quite likely, given the steady stream of rave reviews, that my lack of connection with the film is firmly planted in a small minority of movie goers and film critics. On the bright side, it’s a real pleasure to see Reese Witherspoon follow-up her no frills supporting role in Mud with a strong portrayal of uber-flawed Cheryl.

The story picks up with Cheryl getting ready for her 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995. Her lack of trail experience is obvious from the unwrapped, shiny new contents of her “monster” backpack. While walking alone with her thoughts, memories are triggered by such things as a song, a horse, and even a phrase. It’s through these flashbacks that we learn the reasons for Cheryl’s trek towards self-discovery. The illness and death of her beloved mother, a childhood marred by an abusive father, her own crumbled marriage brought on by her promiscuity (“I cheated on him a lot”), and her attempts to dull the pain through heroin abuse, have led Cheryl to the trail head of re-discovering her true self.

Cheryl’s mother is played by Laura Dern (a terrific performance) and while her inspiration is obvious, there is one especially poignant scene that takes place in the kitchen … Bobbi tells Cheryl that she fully understands their plight, and refuses to let that define her life. That powerful scene is negated by the awkward and unexplained relationship Cheryl has with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), the underdeveloped best friend support shown from an intriguing Gaby Hoffmann, and the voice mail connection with her brother (Keene McRae). More of these key people and fewer flashbacks might have allowed us to better relate to Cheryl as a person, rather than someone who hasn’t dealt well with a few life obstacles.

The familiar guitar strumming of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” is heard throughout, as are numerous literary quotes that Cheryl used to leave her mark in the trail journals. There are, of course, similarities here to other films such as Into The Wild, 127 Hours, and Eat Pray Love. Also present is the element of a solitary woman in the wilderness … every male presence is greeted with anxiety from Cheryl, especially in contrast to the warm greeting she offers another female hiker.

The biggest missing link for me was Cheryl’s apparent epiphany. We witness a couple of emotional breakdowns along the trail, plus big time blisters, damaged toenails, rain and snow, and nature’s beauty. What’s not explained is her personal growth and self-discovery – the moment when Cheryl put the past behind and went “above her nerve”.  While her desire and efforts are commendable, the real story would be her inner thoughts … those conversations going on inside her brain (and in the book) that led to a conclusion of which we aren’t privy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a likely Oscar performance from Reese Witherspoon (including frequent use of the F word)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a damaged toenail makes you nauseous

watch the trailer:

 


THE BAREFOOT ARTIST (2014, doc)

December 14, 2014

barefoot artist Greetings again from the darkness. Those who strive to make the world a better place deserve their moment in the spotlight. Lily Yeh is an artist with whom you may be familiar if you’ve ever stumbled upon the Village of Arts and Humanities in northern Philadelphia. Perhaps you have seen her beautification projects in other parts of the globe – Rwanda, Kenya, Taiwan, Mexico or numerous other areas that once desperately needed a facelift.

Ms. Yeh is a spry 70 year old who was born in China and college educated in the United States. Her father was a general in the Chiang Kai-shek army, and was a natural leader and brilliant war strategist. Because of this, she was raised in prestige and with respect. Much of her early motivation came from her father’s inspiration and she clearly worshipped him. It wasn’t until Lily had her (beautifully detailed) landscape paintings ignored by the public in favor of the pop art of the 60’s did she come to realize that true art must come from within. And thus began her journey of self-discovery.

The film is co-directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub. Mr. Traub is Lily’s son from a failed marriage, and as with many documentaries, his closeness to the subject is both a blessing and a curse. The film is a bit awkwardly divided into two segments. By far the more interesting is the story of Lily’s global work in bringing “art to places lacking in beauty”. One of her projects is a memorial for a mass grave in a Rwandan Genocide Survivor’s Village. Her efforts turn a shabby lean-to into a beautiful setting for reflection and peace.

The other story line plays as more of a home movie than a documentary. We follow Lily as she chases her father’s history through his journal entries. His writings take her back to her birth country of China as she uncovers a family secret that leads to more surprises. It’s understandable why co-director Traub sees the value in documenting this, but it doesn’t really play for the rest of us.

Lily Yeh is a fascinating woman who has made a real difference in many part of the world. She states “beauty is intimately engaged with darkness” and follows through on her vision. When the movie concentrates on Lily’s philosophy and wisdom, we get gems like “broken places are my canvas”. Her personal journey of self-discovery is where her value lies. She confesses that she “was the one who needed help” and “was missing something”. Bringing art and beauty to those places and people lacking, is what allowed Lily to find her own center. And that’s a beautiful thing.

watch the trailer:

 

 


EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

watch the trailer:

 

 


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