BEFORE THE FLOOD (2016, doc)

October 23, 2016

before-the-flood Greetings again from the darkness. Ten years ago Al Gore became a climate-change icon thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary An Convenient Truth (from director Davis Guggenheim). With this updated warning, the climate change crown is passed to Leonardo DiCaprio, and rather than just speak to the topic, he takes us on a worldwide journey to show us the effects.

The film is bookended by DiCaprio’s speech to the UN general assembly after he was named UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change. It’s a reminder that the mega movie star has long been an environmental activist … and yes, before you scoff, he does acknowledge that his carbon footprint is probably larger than ours (an obvious understatement – unless you also travel by yacht and private jets, and own multiple mansions).

DiCaprio’s personal story about Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” hanging above his crib (seriously, how many parents think this is acceptable artwork for a toddler?) acts as a visual to his message that we are on the path of virtual destruction to the earth that we now know.

The power of celebrity in on full display as DiCaprio scores interviews with such luminaries as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, President Obama, Elon Musk, John Kerry, and even Pope Francis. There is also a clip of his long-ago interview with then President Clinton (Bill, not Hillary). However, it’s not the talking heads that have the most impact here. Rather, it’s the first-hand look at the Canadian Arctic, the disappearing glaciers of Greenland, the sunny day street flooding in Miami, the destruction of Indonesian Rain Forest to capitalize on the palm oil market, and the eroding coral reefs. The film plays like a Tim Burton Travel Channel series … each stop more nightmarish than the previous.

His passion is obvious, though his knowledge less so. DiCaprio understands the power his celebrity brings, and he joins with director Fisher Stevens (known mostly for his acting, but also an Oscar winning director for The Cove, 2009) in this attempt to bring the urgent message to the masses. As they state, we are beyond simply changing lightbulbs, and the key is a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy … a shift that China (not the U.S.) has taken seriously.

With generic solutions like “consume less” and “vote better”, the film mostly avoids controversy … though it does acknowledge the slick and well-funded ‘campaign of denial’ by those who profit mightily from a fossil-fuel dependent world. We see an impressive map/video screen tracking ocean currents, temperatures, etc. and there is a chart comparing electricity usage by U.S. citizens vs other countries (we are energy hogs, in case you weren’t sure). The ending message hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years … “It is all up to us”.

watch the trailer:





October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

watch the trailer:





October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

watch the trailer:




October 15, 2016

doomed Greetings again from the darkness. Most people over age 30 remember the release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the sequel to his 1989 hit. The film’s budget was $80 million, which seems remarkably low compared to the $250 million (or more) budget of today’s superhero and comic book film adaptations. Putting all of that in perspective, and providing the best ever look at low budget filmmaking, comes this documentary from director Marty Langford. It’s a look back at the ONE million dollar production of Marvel’s iconic The Fantastic Four (the same year as Batman Returns), and how backroom negotiations provided a stake to the heart of those involved.

We are shown a quote from Stan Lee: “The movie was never supposed to be shown to anyone.” It’s a quote that we understand by the end of Langford’s story, but still makes little sense. In 1992, producer Bernd Eichinger realized his rights to these famous Marvel characters were expiring at year end. He contacted the master of “B” movies, Roger Corman, who gave his production team one weekend to come up with a workable plan. What followed was the “movie magic” that we rarely glimpse. Even with that low budget, the script was written, the movie was cast and shooting began (with no rehearsal) … the ultimate rushed production.

The documentary connects the dots between Eichinger, Corman, Troma Entertainment, Marvel Studios, Neue Constantine Films, and Avi Arad; however, the real heart and soul comes courtesy of the interviews with the actors and production crew who were so involved. Looking back with nostalgia, pride and frustration, these folks clearly represent the “get it done” attitude that is so crucial in low budget filmmaking. Their disappointment in never having the film released is evident a quarter century later in their words and their faces.

In what could be described as a conspiracy … though more appropriately as yet another clash in the age old art vs. business battle … the cast and crew were manipulated into believing the film would be released. Many made publicity appearances at festivals, and a trailer was cut and shown in many theatres. Unfortunately (for all but a few), the production was merely a ploy to drive up the demand and cost for the rights … as Avi Arad envisioned a slick, high-budget version of the franchise (there have been two failed versions in the years since).

Some of those interviewed include director Oley Sassone, editor Glenn Garland, Joseph Culp (Doctor Doom, son of Robert Culp), Jay Underwood (Johnny Storm), Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards), Rebecca Staab (Sue Storm), Michael Bailey Smith (Ben Grimm), and Carl Ciarfalo (The Thing). We mostly get the viewpoint of those who were so close to the film, though there is a brief clip of Roger Corman claiming he was under the impression that it was a legitimate film project … this despite his healthy cash out.

Since a copy of the film was “rescued” by the director and editor, it has become something of an urban legend among the comic book fan base … a cult film that never had its day on the big screen. The best comparison might be a bootleg version of a deep cut of a Springsteen song in the 1970’s. Everything gets released today, but in those days, studios had a way to control what was seen (and what wasn’t). This is a well made documentary on an unusual topic – and a reminder that the artists just want their work seen, while the business side just wants the money.



October 13, 2016

american-honey  Greetings again from the darkness. Movies are often classified according to genre: comedy, thriller, romance, drama, etc. Writer/director Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, 2011) pays little attention to such labels, and seems to take immense pleasure in spotlighting a segment of society that rarely gets the silver screen treatment. Rather than bring us yet another lawyer, cop, teacher or writer, Ms. Arnold demands we pay attention to a group of misfits.

Our introduction to Star (Sasha Lane) comes from inside a dumpster as she and her young siblings are diving for food behind a grocery store, and afterwards hitchhiking for a ride back home. A chance parking lot meeting with an energetic young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads Star to take some drastic actions … including joining Jake and his traveling troupe of free-spirited cohorts as they drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions and staying in cheap hotels. In between fabricated sales pitches, there is much alcohol, drugs, hip hop, and sex.

Jake is the top salesperson, but it’s Krystal (Riley Keough) who supervises the group with threats, punishment and insults. She understands this is a captive audience with few options … even asking Star “Will anyone miss you?” That question is at the core of what keeps this group together. The van gang is the only community to which they belong – the closest thing to family they have. The handbook’s stated purpose may be to “make money”, but fundamentally, these folks just want to fit in somewhere.

Director Arnold takes a quasi-documentary approach (similar to last year’s Tangerine) that delivers a realistic feel to a world most of us have little knowledge of. Seeing these scam artists bounce through suburbs and rural areas, willing to take advantage of most anyone along the way, generates both empathy and disgust. By design, it’s Star with whom we most relate. She clearly has a conscience, but is as naïve to the world as she is sensitive to her own desires. A simple question (used twice) is a kick in the gut to viewers, and the dreams and hopes of these misfits are most puzzling of all.

The use of music is exceptionally well done, leaning heavily on hip-hop and Rihanna (twice). The titular Lady Antebellum song has its moment, as does Darth Vader philosophy and a few flying creatures. Though the run time is entirely too long for an indie that really doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, we don’t mind too much since we are watching the birth of a new star. Sasha Lane makes an incredible debut, and though the director “discovered” her on spring break in Florida, the natural talent here runs deep. I’m not sure of the market for this film, but it seems obvious Ms. Lane has a much brighter future than her character – or any of the others riding along in the van.

watch the trailer:



October 13, 2016

certain-women Greetings again from the darkness. This is surely one of the most intriguing movies of the year that is about women and by a woman. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has adapted the short stories from Maile Meloy into a film with 3 segments focusing on the daily perseverance of three women in small town Montana (including a rare Wyoming joke).

The first segment has lawyer Laura Dern returning to the office after an … umm … “long lunch meeting”. Waiting for her is her client played by Jared Harris (“Mad Men”). The frustration between the two is palpable. Things take a turn for the worse as the sheriff calls Dern to the scene where Harris has taken a hostage at gunpoint. The issues on display here include the lack of respect for a female attorney, her unsatisfying personal life, and the one-way trust that can happen in times of desperation.

In the next story, we follow Michelle Williams and her husband James LeGros as they meet with a lonely elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonis) and offer to buy some limestone blocks that have been sitting on his property for decades. The subtlety of the conversation embodies the missing respect and power of Ms. Williams’ character.

Emotions are exploding beneath the surface in the third segment featuring horse handler Lily Gladstone as she stumbles into a class being taught by Kristen Stewart, and is immediately captivated by the smart young teacher. Where this attraction leads is further commentary on the challenges faced by those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives.

The above recaps don’t come close to capturing the extraordinary quiet and stillness that director Reichardt uses in an emotionally powerful manner. These three women are all intelligent and filled with both pride and visceral disappointment … each quietly suffering, yet trudging forward with the emptiness each day brings. They each have a feeling of isolation – even if they aren’t truly alone, and failed or lackluster relationships certainly play a role.

The acting and cinematography (film, not digital!) is as expert as the directing. Ms. Gladstone is truly a standout by saying few words out loud, but speaking volumes with her open and pleading eyes. The nuance of each scene is where the most interest is, and the overall mood of the characters and tone of the stories overcome the fact that we are plopped into these lives with little or no backstory. As each one softly crashes (two figuratively, one literally), we understand these are the faces of strong women who will continue to do what’s necessary … even if that’s shoveling horse poop. The film is dedicated to Ms. Reichardt’s dog Lucy (a key to her personal and professional life).

watch the trailer:



BLUE JAY (2016)

October 8, 2016

blue-jay Greetings again from the darkness. Mark Duplass is the master of awkward. As a writer he excels in awkward encounters, awkward conversations, awkward situations … and awkward people. He can even create awkward out minimalism – two people in a simple and normal environment.

A bearded Mr. Duplass stars as Jim, a seemingly normal guy who has returned to his small hometown to pack up his mother’s house after her passing. While at the local market, he bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda, played by Sarah Paulson, who just happens to be in town visiting her expectant sister. Their awkward grocery aisle reunion leads to a very unusual … and yes, awkward … evening.

First time director Alexandre Lehmann uses his extensive experience as a cinematographer, and a black & white motif, to create a beautifully filmed story that is both simple and layered. Only one other actor appears in the movie … one scene with the great Clu Galager (“The Virginian”, The Last Picture Show) as a local merchant who provides a link to the past for Amanda and Jim. The bulk of the time is spent in Jim’s mother’s house – a literal time capsule that allows for reminiscing for the two former lovers.

Amongst the old familiar clothes, photos, letters, books and audio tapes, Jim and Amanda somehow progress to a bizarre form of role playing/play acting as if they had married young and were now celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. You guessed it … awkward. Dinner, dancing, acting silly, jelly beans, Annie Lennox and cutting loose leads them to an awkward bedroom encounter. This moment finally produces an explosion of emotion which uncovers the long-buried source of their break-up … shutting down their fantasy game of recapturing the past.

It would be pretty easy to compare the film to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) or Before Sunset (2004), and though it has more in common with the latter, this one comes across more raw and melancholy than those more celebrated films. We never once doubt this situation could play out, but the only word to describe two former lovers exploring “what could have been” is … awkward. It’s a captivating movie to watch and yet another feather in the cap of Duplass Productions.

watch the trailer: