AD ASTRA (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Astronaut Roy McBride’s pulse rate may never go above 80 bpm, but mine certainly did during the opening sequence which features a stunning and spectacular space fall. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. Roy has trained his entire life for this work; however his true mental state is only revealed slowly throughout the film’s run. After witnessing his actions and hearing (through narration) his thoughts, we are left to decide what we think of Roy … stoic hero or simmering psychopath? Either way, he’s haunted by a past that has rendered him mission-focused and the world’s worst party guest. The film takes place in the not-too-distant future.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, in what may be his career best (and most inward-looking) performance. Roy is the son of NASA hero Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of The Lima Project – a decades old mission to Neptune tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life. The elder McBride has long been assumed dead with no signals or response signs in many years. A recent power surge that threatens humanity has been traced to Neptune, and now Roy is being used as bait to track down his rogue astronaut father and prevent him from causing further damage.

Roy’s assignment requires him to journey from Earth to the Moon to Mars and, ultimately, on to Neptune. Along the way, he travels with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford’s, who is sent along to make sure the son doesn’t acquiesce to the father. Of course, it’s a nice touch to have Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland together again in a space movie 20 years after SPACE COWBOYS, a more upbeat adventure. Here we see a populated moon – yet another place we humans have messed up – replete with turf wars. There is also a shootout in a space capsule, and an unscheduled stop that provides shocking visuals and causes a shift in the crew.

James Gray, who directed the vastly underrated THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) delivers a space film with terrific visuals and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, that examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he’s not present. The film has an unusual pace to it. There are a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy’s inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving Liv Tyler, and it’s his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests.

Ruth Negga (LOVING) has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, and her encounter with Roy provides him with yet more background on his father. It’s easy to recall both APOCALYPSE NOW (only with Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY given the isolation, questionable mental state, and mission-gone-wrong. The cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK) is outstanding, and never allows us to forget Roy is in space … with danger present in every moment. The title translates “to the stars”, and it’s true in every sense.

Mr. Gray has delivered a thought-provoking big budget science fiction film. It has incredible special effects, but the personal story packs even more punch than the galactic adventure. Many will compare this to other space films like CONTACT, GRAVITY, and FIRST MAN, but this one requires more investment from the viewer, as it’s the character study that resonates. This is Brad Pitt’s movie (he’s in most every scene), and the ties to his father are never more evident than when he (and we) see The Nicholas Brothers performing in black and white on that monitor. If a daily psychological profile was required for each of us, it would be interesting to see how much work would actually be accomplished. Now, imagine yourself stationed in space and just try to keep your heartrate below 80!

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LORO (2019, Italy)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Silvio Berlusconi is a former Prime Minister of Italy, having served four times. He is also a billionaire businessman who has been deeply involved with Italian politics for more than 20 years. Berlusconi is in his 70’s and has been convicted of tax fraud, accused of conflicts of interest, and is well known for his brash and charismatic personality, as well as his scandalous personal lifestyle and numerous controversies. None of that is required information prior to watching the movie since it’s described as a “fictional” account, but it does help to have a basic understanding of the man.

It should be noted that the film was originally released as Part 1 and Part 2. The international version I watched has been edited to 151 minutes, almost one hour shorter than the two parts combined. It begins by following Sergio Morra, a charming hustler and schemer played by Riccardo Scamarcio (JOHN WICK 2). Along with his wife Tamara (Euridice Axen), he runs a prostitution and escort ring of beautiful young ladies … each willing to show and do whatever is necessary to obtain money, drugs, and a career or rich husband. It becomes apparent that Sergio really wants a chance to meet with “him”, Silvio Berlusconi, in hopes of some type of business partnership. Sergio’s meeting with Silvio’s lead mistress Kira (Kasia Smutniak) cracks the door that he so wishes to enter.

Sergio throws a party at Villa Morena, the home next to Silvio’s sprawling Sardinia country estate. Decadence and wild activities abound, as does dancing by the swimming pool to the thumping Italian techno music. There seem to be no rules, or even etiquette, at the party where nudity, drugs and booze are commonplace. The party gets Silvio’s attention and he agrees to meet with Sergio. It’s at this point where the film shifts to its second narrative. No longer focused on Sergio, the story becomes all Silvio.

Toni Servillo delivers a tour de force as Silvio Berlusconi. Sure, he is masked in make-up to capture the look of someone trying hard to look younger than they are – but that’s exactly what Silvio did (and does). Mr. Servillo manages to become the larger-than-life figure that commands attention in every crowd and every room. Elena Sofia Ricci plays Veronica Lario, Silvio’s wife. We witness their crumbling marriage and the unhappiness she has each day. Silvio’s process with everyone, including his wife, is to shift into smooth political salesman mode. In fact, one of the greatest scenes of all movies this year has Silvio re-capturing his early days as a real estate salesman as he pushes a non-existent apartment on a lonely housewife. The scene features fascinating acting, writing and filmmaking in one fell swoop.

Director Paolo Sorrentino is best known for his Foreign Language Oscar for the fantastic THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013). This film is more extreme and harsh than that one was, and Sorrentino co-wrote this script with Umberto Contarello. Frequent collaborator Luca Bigazzi delivers terrific cinematography. At times the film looks like one lavish fashion shoot. The score and music come from Lele Marchitelli and play a crucial role throughout. Italy is presented here as having declined into a state of hedonism with mass debauchery. It’s uncomfortable watching women stoop to these levels in hopes of being recognized and rewarded with some type of affirmation – either a better career, more wealth, or whatever their dreams might be. A powerful man is there to take advantage of such insecurities. The film touches on Silvio’s political power and the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake. Much of the film focuses on the overall amorality of those involved, and though the actions of these folks might go against our own standards, we will admit that filmmaker Sorrentino has a knack for making something so vulgar still look darn good on screen.

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CORPORATE ANIMALS (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Patrick Brice is building a career on films that leave us with an unsettled, even conflicted feeling on whether we should “like” them or not. He certainly has little time for ‘normal’ characters, and heroic behavior rarely enters a scene. His latest is written by Sam Bain (PEEP SHOW, and son of Emmy winning director Bill Bain), and it fits perfectly into the offbeat comedy realm of Mr. Brice’s previous two CREEP films (with Mark Duplass) and THE OVERNIGHT (2015).

The film kicks off was an advertisement (in the pre-production stage) for Incredible Edibles, a bio-friendly company that produces edible cutlery (a comical visual). Featured in the ad is the company’s ruthless CEO Lucy, played by Demi Moore. Lucy has arranged a Team Building outing for her employees in the mountains of New Mexico. The expedition is led by Brandon (Ed Helms, THE HANGOVER), a Bear Gryllis type who easily evaluates the team’s incongruent pieces. After advising against Lucy’s demand for the “Advanced” trail, Brandon gives in since ‘the check has cleared’. He proceeds to lead the team on a repelling adventure down into a stunning cavern.

Just when it looks like the “advanced” trail was the right call, a cave-in occurs, trapping the team with no escape route, and little food or water. It’s at this point when we realize that most of Lucy’s management style seems to have originated in a ‘get tough’ management book from the 1960’s. She has no real instinct on how to treat people, and mostly just bullies and tricks them. Ms. Moore’s character and performance could easily be viewed as a spoof of her DISCLOSURE role with some uncomfortable laughs. We even get a Harvey Weinstein punchline.

Noticeable right away is the terrific comedic cast. Lucy’s team consists of Jess (Jessica Williams, BOOKSMART), Freddie (Karan Soni, DEADPOOL), Derek (Isiah Whitlock Jr, CEDAR RAPIDS), Gloria (Martha Kelly, “Baskets”), Billy (Dan Bakkedahl, SWORD OF TRUST), May (Jennifer Kim, “The Blacklist”), Suzy (Nasim Padrad, ALADDIN), and intern Aidan (Calum Worthy, “American Vandal”). This is an exceptionally talented group of funny people who know how to deliver a line. Some of the funniest moments are the ‘throwaway’ lines being uttered in between the main dialogue. That’s where the real comedy gold is buried, so listen closely.

Although the film is a comedy, it also boasts some elements of horror and suspense. Lucy’s twisted idealism is the basis for some of this, as is the team’s situation as things become more dire (think ALIVE blended with any workplace comedy). We learn the company is teetering on financial failure, and as one might expect in a confined area, workplace resentments and true feelings begin to rear up. The script never quite takes on business satire, focusing instead on personal reactions to a bleak situation. Even Gary Sinise and Britney Spears are included in the comic elements, and while some will find this to be a fitting midnight movie, others will once again be left wondering what to make of Patrick Brice’s films. And maybe that’s the point.

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THE GOLDFINCH (2019)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The challenge after watching this movie is deciding whether it needed more time or less. With a run time of two-and-a-half hours, that may seem like a ludicrous question, but Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize (fiction) winning 2013 novel was almost 800 pages long, covering many characters and spanning more than a decade. What to include and what to omit surely generated many discussions between director John Crowley (the excellent BROOKLYN, 2015) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Oscar nominated for the fantastic TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011).

13 year old Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a bomb explodes leaving Theo dazed in the rubble and his mother dead. An encounter with an injured stranger causes Theo to take a painting and flee the museum. Theo proceeds to hide the artwork as the family of one of his schoolmates takes him in. The painting is “The Goldfinch” by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius. In the first of many parallels separated by time, we learn Fabritius was killed (and most of his work destroyed) in an explosion. In fact, it’s these parallels and near-mirror-images are what make the story so unique and interesting … and so difficult to fit into a film.

When Theo’s long-lost drunken shyster father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his equally smarmy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), they head to the recession-riddled suburbs of Las Vegas. It’s here where Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard, Richie from the two IT movies), a Ukranian emigrant living with his dad (yet another parallel). The two boys become friends, partaking in drugs, alcohol, and shoplifting. Another tragedy puts Theo on the run. He finds himself back in New York, where he takes up with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the partner of the stranger from the museum.

All of this is told from the perspective of young adult Theodore Decker, played by Ansel Elgort (BABY DRIVER). We see him bunkered in a hotel room contemplating suicide. The story we watch shows how his life unfolded and landed him in this particular situation. And it’s here where we find the core of the story. Circumstances in life guide our actions, and in doing so, reveal our true character. Theo carries incredible guilt over his mother, and his actions with Hobie, regardless of the reasons for doing so, lead him to a life that is not so dissimilar to that of adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard, DUNKIRK) when their paths cross again.

Other supporting work is provided by Ashleigh Cummings as Pippa, the object of Theo’s desire, Willa Fitzgerald (played young Claire in “House of Cards”) as Kitsey Barbour, Theo’s fiancé, as well as Denis O’Hare, Peter Jacobson, and Luke Kleintank. As a special treat, Oscar winner Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour in what feels like two different performances. When Theo is young, she is the cold, standoffish surrogate mother who takes him in; however when older Theo returns, her own personal tragedies have turned her into a warm bundle of emotions in need of pleasantry. It’s sterling work from an accomplished actress.

The segments of the film that resonate deepest are those featuring Oakes Fegley as young Theo. Fegley was so good in the criminally underseen WONDERSTRUCK (2017), and here he conveys so much emotion despite maintaining a stoic demeanor. It’s rare to see such a layered performance from a young actor. Of course the film is helped immensely by the unequaled work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mr. Deakins finally won his first Oscar last year in his 14th nomination. Trevor Gureckis provides the music to fit the various moods and the two time periods. All of these elements work to give the film the look of an Oscar contending project; however, we never seem to connect with the older Theo, which leaves a hollow feeling to a story that should be anything but. Instead we are left to play “spot the parallels” … a fun game … but not engaging like we would hope.

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LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE (2019, doc)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This may be a conventionally-structured documentary profiling a well-known person, but that person possessed extraordinary talent, and her story deserves to be told … or better yet, heard. Parkinson ’s disease has robbed Linda Ronstadt of her celestial vocal gift, but co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman succeed in proving how dynamic she was as a singer, and also how she influenced so many others.

The film opens with the audio of Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett introducing her on their respective TV programs, while a montage of magazine covers and album covers remind of us of her once immense and widespread popularity. We then take a journey through Ronstadt’s childhood. Her grandfather invented the electric stove and electric toaster, and music played a significant role in all family gatherings. She describes how, as a young girl in Tucson, the radio was her “best friend in the world” as she listened to music from both sides of the border.

In 1964, at the age of 18 and the urging of her musician friend Bobby Kimmel, Ronstadt moved from Tucson to southern California to join a community of musicians. She rented a flat in Santa Monica for $80 per month – a price point that barely secures a meal at a decent restaurant in the area these days. Thanks to The Byrds, folk rock was exploding on the scene. Ronstadt sang back up on Neil Young’s huge hit “Heart of Gold”, and she, along with many others, performed regularly at The Troubadour. It’s here where she crossed paths with Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and JD Souther, the latter of which became her boyfriend, songwriter, and producer.

The steady stream of interviews includes Henley, Browne, and Souther, as well as LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn, Asylum Records founder David Geffen, Bonnie Raitt, producer John Boylon, the legendary Ry Cooder, Cameron Crowe, Karla Bonoff, and (former Beatles) agent and producer Peter Asher. Most memorable are the recollections of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, who collaborated with Ronstadt on the 1987 Grammy winning album “Trio”. Ms. Parton’s segment is especially insightful as she contrasts her own instinctive singing style with that of Ronstadt’s analytic and perfectionist approach. Ms. Harris is featured in a clip of herself performing at a very young age, and she’s quite emotional when discussing Ronstadt’s gift.

It’s quite fascinating to follow the number of shifts in her career and musical style. After achieving so much as a folk and pop singer, she was incredibly successful in country music, and as a tribute to her mother’s favorites with American Standards arranged by Nelson Riddle. She also mesmerized with the operatic songs in “Pirates of Penzance” and stunned the music industry with her best-selling album of Mexican standards. Although she labels herself a balladeer and harmonizer, those descriptions are far too humble, and underscore the opinionated talent she was. The clips of her performing onstage are breath-taking. Her voice combining power, texture and nuance.

Linda Ronstadt was never a songwriter. She was an expert song interpreter like Elvis and Sinatra. She claims “every song has a face”, and the numerous clips of her singing provide visual proof of what she means. The film touches on her early addiction to diet pills/speed, as well as her relationship with Jerry Browne, the duets with Aaron Neville and Ruben Blades, and for bonus points mentions the influence of the late great Harry Dean Stanton. We see her 2013 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame tribute performed by five fabulous female singers … and it’s their performance that really drives home just what a pure and unique voice Ronstadt possessed. While the trip through the many genres is interesting, what really stands out are the clips of her on stage … making yet another song all hers. Linda Ronstadt certainly sang to the beat of a different drum, and we were fortunate to hear her.

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THE SOUND OF SILENCE (2019)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Turn that down!” Those are words we all hear when growing up and then repeat as our own kids come of age. Noise pollution rarely receives the same attention as that of air or water, and most of us are startled when we find ourselves out in the country – an environment lacking the everyday electronic, power cell, and human-generated noises we have come to accept and ignore. Director Michael Tyburkski and his co-writer Ben Nabors have expanded their 2013 short film PALIMPSEST to feature length, so that we might hear their point.

Peter Sarsgaard stars as Peter Lucian, a so-called “house-tuner”. Peter has turned his life’s work into an occupation where he visits his clients’ homes and identifies the imbalances and problem areas caused by sound. For example, his clients may have relationship issues or experience exhaustion from poor sleep. Peter uses his exceptional hearing and experience to identify an ‘out-of-tune’ radiator or buzzing toaster, with the expectation of improving the clients’ daily life. The premise is actually quite fascinating, especially for the city dwellers of New York City … a place Peter has meticulously plotted and charted sounds on a map over the years.

And yes, you are correct. Peter is a bit lonely and isolated from society. His interactions are exceedingly low-key and mundane, though it’s quite obvious in the early scenes that he take immense pride and pleasure from his work. Well that is, until he can’t seem to solve new client Ellen’s (Rashida Jones) issue. These first few scenes are the best the film has to offer. The additional scenes with Peter and Ellen seem forced, almost formulaic, as it slips into possible relationship mode for two people who don’t seem comfortable at all in the world. The other piece of this puzzle has to do with Peter’s quest for acceptance by the scientific community, specifically his mentor Robert Feinway (the always fun Austin Pendleton). Tony Revolori (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL) plays Peter’s assistant Samuel Diaz, and screen veteran Bruce Altman plays an investor who wants to monetize Peter’s work.

Silence is not empty, but immeasurably full.” It’s this type of philosophy that the filmmakers use to add weight to Peter’s work. They keep us guessing as to whether he is a bit of a Savant … or more of a crackpot. It’s a high concept and ambitious idea accompanied by sound design that provides a constant tone/ringing that is sometimes faint, and sometimes prevalent. More of Peter’s early sound detective work would have proved more interesting, but you’ll likely find yourself a bit more attuned to the sounds around you after watching.

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LIAM GALLAGHER: AS IT WAS (2019, doc)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Gavin Fitzgerald and Charlie Lightening could have ended this profile of singer Liam Gallagher by playing the theme song to “Family Feud” over the closing credits. While they do offer up an unflinching look at the talented singer of suspect character, we come away with the feeling that the entire project was designed to reunite Liam and his brother Noel. The two supposedly haven’t spoken since they nearly brawled backstage at a scheduled Oasis concert: Paris 2009 Rock en Seine.

A blend of clips from that final Oasis show and Liam’s 2017 comeback concert in support of his solo album “As You Were” kick off the film. However, before the opening credits roll, we hear Liam spewing enough f-words to make any teenager blush. The assumption is that we are to be reminded of what a prig Liam was, and the reputation he earned as being a bad boy of rock. The filmmakers, along with Liam and his mum, then spend the rest of the run time trying to convince us that he’s a changed man and is actually devoted to his family and to his craft. We do believe the latter, but the former is quite a stretch. We do see his sons accompany him on a later tour, but Liam’s numerous affairs and broken marriages are glossed over.

To his credit, Liam faces the camera with some candid self-assessment. It’s unclear whether this is his own personal therapy or whether he’s choosing to come clean for his fans. Others with featured input here include former Oasis guitarist Bonehead Arthurs, Liam’s brother Paul, and Liam’s mother Peggy (who is very proud of her boy). Also offering up praise is Debbie Gwyther, Liam’s former assistant, who is now his lover and manager. He credits her with getting him back on track in life and back on stage in music.

Although the film features very little music, we do get enough concert clips to recognize Liam’s stage presence; however, it’s the camera time in the studio that is most fascinating – and leaves us feeling a bit short-changed. Seeing Liam work through songs at historic Abbey Road Studios could have made for an entire film. He is admittedly not a true songwriter, so being forced to collaborate due to the absence of Noel, probably displays the most personal growth for Liam (even if it’s out of necessity).

Liam and Noel supposedly haven’t spoken in the 10 years since that backstage fight killed off a superband and a brotherhood. The reconciliation evades the filmmakers, but they salvage the project as Liam’s solo career takes off, and he travels with sons Gene (born to singer Nicole Appleton) and Lennon (born to actress Patsy Kensit). I chuckled when it’s mentioned that Liam is ‘the greatest rock front man’ … a line easily contradicted by mentioning Mick Jagger, Bono, or Bruce Springsteen. We are told “he is who he is”, and can’t help but wonder if that’s a good thing. Having others say that he is grateful for a second chance is not the same as him stating it for himself.

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