CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

watch the trailer:

 


THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015)

July 21, 2016

childhood of a leader Greetings again from the darkness. Brady Corbet has established a pretty nice career as an actor (Melancholia, Funny Games), and along comes his feature film debut as a writer/director (co-written with Mona Fastvold). In this day of remakes and reboots, this one is anything but. The “Overture” sets the mood with video clips of the WWI aftermath and the explosive score from Scott Walker quickly establishes itself as a character unto itself.

Subsequent title cards are broken into three “Tantrums”, as we witness the ever-escalating inappropriate behavior from young Prescott (Tom Sweet). In what on the surface could be classified as a nature vs nurture expose’, the film leaves little doubt that Prescott is rebelling against the monotony of his environment and the disengaged parents to which he is tethered. However, it also seems evident that young Prescott is inherently “off”. He seems to be cold and emotionally removed as he engages in battles of will with his parents … his father (Liam Cunningham) a US diplomat knee-deep in negotiations that will lead to the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother (Berenice Bejo), a self-described “citizen of the world”.

Two obvious film comparisons would be The Omen (1976) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). The ominous music and settings leave little doubt that we are headed somewhere very dark here, though it’s not in the religious sense of The Omen and it’s more global than the intimacy of ‘Kevin’. Thinking of this as evil in the making would be a just description, though a different title might have held the ending a bit longer.

Support work is provided by Stacy Martin as the French teacher and Yolanda Moreau as the housekeeper who has moments of connection with the challenging Prescott, but Robert Pattinson fans will be surprised at how little screen time he has – especially for dual roles.

Young Tom Sweet is fascinating to watch in a very tough role for a child actor, and director Corbet proves he is a filmmaker we should follow closely. His visual acumen is something special, and offsets a script that could have used a bit of polishing. The movie will probably prove divisive – either you will find it mesmerizing and creepy, or you simply won’t connect at all. That’s often the case with a creative and bold project.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FREE TO RUN (2016, doc)

July 15, 2016

free to run Greetings again from the darkness. Director Pierre Morath seemingly had three good ideas for a movie: a history of long-distance running, the fight and final acceptance of women into the sport, and an analysis of holistic running vs. competitive running. Any of the topics would make a solid documentary, but when combined, the result is a bit of a hodgepodge that is still interesting and informative.

All of the familiar names are present: Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Jim Fixx, Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit . However, it’s Fred Lebow and Karen Switzer who prove to be the most compelling figures. In 1967, Ms. Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, and you’ve probably seen the iconic photo of some guy trying to forcibly remove her from the race. It’s pointed out that at the time, women still didn’t have the right to vote in Switzerland – an effective means of showing that women were still fighting for basic equality. Mr. Lebow founded the New York Runners Club and was instrumental in moving the NY Marathon from The Bronx to Central Park. He was a marketing man and promoter at heart, and was a key figure in expanding the popularity of distance running.

It was 1984, before the Women’s Marathon became an official Olympic sport, the coverage of Ms. Benoit’s win is compared to women winning the right to vote. It’s also noted (somewhat facetiously) that “it’s the first time women are allowed to be exhausted in public”.

Perhaps the most interesting pieces of this running puzzle focus on the “free your mind” aspect of running that stands in stark opposition to the mega-corporate effects of Nike (and other corporations) on running events. Corporate sponsorships and vast sums of money created a global network of high-profile and finely-tuned runners, while the inner peace attained from running allowed the activity (rather than the sport) to continue to grow in acceptance from those looking to escape some of the day-to-day stresses of life.

The “dark side” of the sport reared its head in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy left destruction in the path of where the NYC Marathon (50,000 runners) was to be held. With the big money at stake, some poor decisions were made as citizens throughout the area were without power, clean water and even shelter.

Admittedly, distance runners can often be described as “oddballs”, and though it only takes a pair of sneakers and some shorts to “go for a run”, it’s the corporate sponsorships that make it big business … but at least now, women are right there with the men – whether it’s a big city marathon or a jog through the park.

 


CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

July 13, 2016

infiltrator Greetings again from the darkness. The war on drugs has become a bit of a punchline in the real world, but has proven to be fertile ground for filmmaking: Sicario (2015), American Hustle (2013), Traffic (2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011). The movie is based on the true events of Robert Mazur’s book “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (a title that’s very descriptive, if a bit long).

Bryan Cranston continues his impressive Hollywood run this time as Robert Mazur, the man who goes undercover to expose the money-laundering system of the cartel. His flamboyant alter-ego is known as Bob Musella, a character that allows Mazur (and Cranston) to show a side not typically seen. His antics get him inside Columbian Drug Lord Escobar’s organization in the mid-1980’s.

When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement.

There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family … all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work.

In addition to stellar work from Cranston, the cast is terrific. John Leguizamo plays Mazur’s motivated partner Abreu; Diane Kruger plays his undercover fiancé; Juliet Aubrey is Mazur’s real life wife who doesn’t much appreciate his declining the early retirement offer; Olympia Dukakis provides a dash of comedy relief as Mazur’s Aunt; Yul Vasquez is the creepy money manager for Escobar; Benjamin Bratt plays Roberto, Escobar’s right-hand man and the key to Mazur’s case; and Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is Roberto’s wife. Also present are Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs and the always great Michael Pare.

There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see … and she is understandably stunned.

The movie does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of the era (30 years ago), but it’s somehow missing the elevated suspense it portends to drag us and the characters through. Some elements seemed impossible to believe – why would Mazur risk his family’s safety? The timeline was a bit muddled. We aren’t sure how much time has passed, but there certainly don’t seem to be enough interactions before Roberto is telling Mazur he is “like family”. It plays a bit like those romance movies where the two leads are head over heels in love after a conversation or two. An element is missing and it affects the level of tension throughout the film. And that’s something even a Leonard Cohen song (“Everybody Knows”) can’t fix.

watch the trailer:

 


AT THE FORK (2016, doc)

July 13, 2016

At the fork Greetings again from the darkness. “We need to feed the world!” is the battle cry used for years by farmers and ranchers to justify many less-than-appealing approaches to their craft. Director, and admitted omnivore, John Papola provides a mostly even-handed overview of contemporary animal farming and animal welfare as it corresponds to our food supply. However, that’s not to say the documentary is without flaws.

The heavy-handed beginning of the film plops us into the traditional family “rib-fest” at the director’s home, and introduces us to his vegan wife Lisa who cringes at the sight of so much meat on the grill. The couple then begins their journey of research at an animal sanctuary where we mostly watch some lady rubbing the belly of a pig (yes, he likes it). It’s at this point where the film almost lost me for good. Fortunately, the rest of the run time was filled with good information and thought-provoking interviews.

Papola visits multiple animal farmers across multiple channels: pig, cattle, chicken, and dairy. We get to hear first hand from the farmers themselves as they speak to the realities they face: economic vs. moral. There is the constant pressure to get more from less … much of which comes from the corporations who control the bulk of the food supply, distribution and pricing.

We also hear from industry experts like Dr. Temple Grandin and journalist Mark Dittman; the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey; the President of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle; and the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad … each with their own opinions and expertise within this field – some clearly defending their position.

While this is definitely not a hatchet job on animal farming, you can expect to see graphic detail of overcrowding, castration, culling and the removing of calves from their mothers after birth. Some of it is quite difficult to watch, while some segments are inspiring … like watching the hogs wander through the forest and the chickens splashing in the stream.

The film touches on some growing trends like the 5 step labeling run by Global Animal Protection (GAP), and “certified humane” labeling … though these segments seemed rushed and incomplete. We also learn about “Ag Gag” laws and how whistleblowers are dealt with, plus the catastrophic effects of Avian Bird Flu on some facilities.

Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Matt Porwol (Cartel Land), the film captures the people, the land, and the animals, while also driving home the point that consumer spending habits are like votes – they will ultimately determine the level of stewardship for animal welfare and the process of what ends up on our dinner plate. Now all we need is a documentary that teaches us how to shop in a way that leads to widespread ethical treatment of animals.


NUTS! (2016, doc)

July 10, 2016

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2016

nuts Greetings again from the darkness. Not many true life rags-to-riches stories combine snake oil, goat testicles, Wolfman Jack, early radio advancements, celebrities, a campaign for Governor and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Director Penny Lane (Our Nixon, 2013) provides some real nuggets in her telling of the life and career of Dr John Romulus Brinkley. Her inventive approach is unique both narratively and visually … and even a bit sneaky.

If Brinkley is an unknown figure to you, it might be surprising to know that he built an empire and became famous and multi-millionaire during one of the harshest depression eras in American history (the 1920’s and 30’s). Brinkley had the cajones to transform little Milford Kansas from a sleepy town of 300 to a bustling city of 5000. So what drove this growth? Brinkley built his fortune by implanting goat testicles into men for the purpose of curing impotence … a procedure he claimed to have performed more than 10,000 times.

Based on the authorized biography “The Life of a Man” by Clement Wood, director Lane’s film allows us to get to know and feel comfortable with Brinkley. We begin to appreciate and admire his entrepreneurial efforts and success, and even side with him against his challengers. The final act reminds us why we are/should be skeptical beings and that our viewpoint affects our beliefs.

Where we might normally cry “bollocks”, the blending of news clips, home movies, photographs and hand-drawn animation have us fully on board. It would be difficult to argue against the label of genius when describing Brinkley, though the specific category is up for debate. Recognizing the power of the young radio industry, Brinkley started KFKP, the third radio station in the U.S. He used radio to market his goat procedure, and is even credited with introducing country & western music, and the first sex talk show (a predecessor to Dr Ruth) to the air waves.

JAMA editor Morris Fishbein was a long time nemesis to Brinkley. Fishbein’s years-long crusade was fought to label Brinkley as a “quack”, a charlatan and a fraud. Brinkley was forced to re-group after a losing campaign for Governor and some challenges to his radio station. He ended up in Del Rio, Texas with his beautiful house, a new hospital, and powerful one million watt radio station (XERA) becoming his family jewels. The station was located on the Mexico side of the border to avoid U.S. regulation and he was now able to broadcast not just across the U.S., but to numerous countries.

Brinkley’s particular genius might better translate to modern times. We need look no further than the current Presidential candidates, and the success of religious televangelists and Reality TV icons. These are the folks that tell us what to read, what to believe and how to act … and they each have their followers and believers.

Brinkley lost the Libel suit he brought against Fishbein, and his empire crumbled quickly. He was dead 3 years later. Milford Kansas no longer exists and goats have a newfound success (requiring significantly less sacrifice) as viral videos on social media. When XERA became XERF, Wolfman Jack worked there as a DJ becoming the radio voice for a new wave of music called rock and roll. The film names names (celebrities of the era) and reminds us that what’s claimed is not always true and accurate. Mostly, however, the film is a fascinating character study and history lesson, and as a movie to watch … it’s a ball.

watch the trailer:

 


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