THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I got hooked on “Monster” movies as a kid, and even all these years later, I still get a kick out of them. Of course, with today’s special effects, the look of these films is much different than in the early days. The big challenge for the genre now isn’t how to frighten us or create an awe-inspiring effect, but rather can it capture the charm and appeal of those ground-breaking B-movies? Universal Studio’s Dark Universe got off to a less-than-stellar start with Tom Cruise’s 2017 THE MUMMY. Now, after re-grouping, the fabled Monster studio re-boots THE INVISIBLE MAN … with roots in H.G. Wells’1897 sci-fi novel and the Claude Rains – James Whale film from 1933.

Perhaps their best decision was choosing Leigh Whannell to write and direct. I’m hesitant to mention that Mr. Whannell was a creative writing force behind both the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, as some may jump to conclusions on what to expect with this latest. All I can say is that you’d be incorrect to assume THE INVISIBLE MAN falls in line with those previous films. Instead, this film is a psychological thriller in the form of #MeToo vengeance. Whereas the 1933 film featured a brilliant scientist whose invention turned him sour, this contemporary version is told from the viewpoint of a woman who has been abused and controlled by her boyfriend.

When we first see Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), she is sneaking out of her stunning cliffside home while her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeps. Within just a few minutes, Ceclia’s escape has taken us on a tour of the home (including a high-tech laboratory), disclosed that she has drugged Adrian, introduced us to her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and above all, given us a glimpse at just how terrorized Cecilia feels. The sequence is complemented by a nerve-jarring score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch (BLADE RUNNER 2049).

We flash forward two weeks and find Cecilia taking refuge at a friend’s home, and she remains so paranoid, she is barely able to step outside. As the old saying goes, ‘is it paranoia if they are really after you?’ Her friend is James (Aldis Hodge, CLEMENCY), a stout no-nonsense cop and single dad raising teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A WRINKLE IN TIME). When it’s discovered that Adrian has committed suicide and, according to Adrian’s creepy attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), left millions to Cecilia, she allows herself to celebrate the moment. However, what fun would it be watching her spend and give away money? Instead, the tone shifts and Cecilia’s life becomes unbearable as she is convinced dead/invisible Adrian is torturing her. As you can imagine, this leads to questions about Cecilia’s mental stability, which then leads to more misery and tragedy.

Director Whannell’s brilliant approach and Ms. Moss’ superb performance combine to make this a thrill ride worth taking … it’s the kind where some folks in the audience shout warnings to the characters on screen! It’s difficult to tell which is more frightening, having everyone you know think you have lost your mind, or actually being stalked by an invisible, presumed-dead former abuser who wants you to suffer. Floating knives and physical fights are unsettling, but can’t compare to the tension created by cinematographer Stefan Duscio turning his camera to a blank wall or empty space. Our mind (and Ms. Moss’s face) fill in the gaps with Adrian’s evil presence. This is not a scientist-gone-bad, but rather a madman utilizing his most powerful tool. Having Adrian be an Optics innovator was a contemporary twist that takes us from the science fiction of the 1930’s to the technological world of modern day.

The film was originally going to star Johnny Depp, but it works so much better, and is so much more terrifying, having it told through the eyes of Ms. Moss’ Cecilia. Strangely enough, the movie I kept flashing back to was not the 1933 Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart (64 years later, she played reminiscing Rose in TITANIC) movie directed by the great James Whale, but rather the schlocky 1991 Julia Roberts film SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY. This is the most fun kind of movie suspense, and what’s scarier than the things we can’t see? It’s nice to have Universal Studios’ monsters back on track, and we have talented filmmaker Leigh Whannell to thank for this “Surprise!

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EMMA. (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Choosing Jane Austen’s beloved 1815 novel for one’s feature film directorial debut is an ambitious decision, and one for which photographer Autumn de Wilde proves she is up to the challenge. Ms. de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton may have added a period to the title to distinguish this version from the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, or perhaps it was a personal stamp proclaiming this to be the definitive version. Regardless, coming on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s superb LITTLE WOMEN, both films blend a timeless literary classic with contemporary talent and attitude. Additionally, viewers may note some tonal similarities to this and the 2018 hit THE FAVOURITE (for which Oliva Colman won an Oscar).

It’s one of the finest crafted and most famous opening lines in the history of literature: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The decision to cast mega-talented rising star Anya Taylor-Joy (THOROUGHBREDS, THE WITCH) as Emma provides a level of deliciously wicked entertainment that we can only hope Ms. Austen envisioned. Emma is spoiled and not really very likable, and though she sees herself as an all-knowing matchmaker, her family wealth and social status do little to override the quite common level of immaturity and faux-wisdom associated with her age.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, you may experience a slow build-up to connection with the characters … of which there are many who appear early on and with little introduction. Emma lives in her “comfortable” home Hartfield with her father (an offbeat and slyly comical Bill Nighy). Days are spent visiting and being visited by a community of folks who seem to have little to worry about in life other than who might marry whom. When young Harriet Smith (a terrific Mia Goth, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, 2017) comes to live with Emma, Harriet’s naivety causes her to easily fall under Emma’s matchmaking spell – resulting in some awkward moments and regretful decisions.

Interesting characters are everywhere we turn. Mr. Elton (an energetic and riotous Josh O’Connor) is the local vicar who is both amusing (“Inn-O-cence”) and a bit difficult to read, as Emma misinterprets his intentions causing one of the more startling developments. Frank Churchill (a stout and smirking Callum Turner) is initially one of the community’s more mysterious characters, and his looks and future holdings make him a desirable catch. Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) carries on a nuanced rivalry with Emma, and brings a new dynamic when she visits her chatty and ‘’try-so-hard” aunt, Miss Bates (a marvelous turn from Miranda Hart). As viewers we find Miss Bates to be at least as entertaining as Emma herself. Later in the film, Mr. Elton takes a bride (Tanya Reynolds), and her character provides a welcome and unsettling spark at just the right time.

Of course, it’s Mr. Knightley (played by musician Johnny Flynn, BEAST, 2017) who provides the moral backbone of the story. He seems to be the only one (other than her father) who recognizes the shred of goodness buried within Emma. Mr. Flynn gives a soulful performance, and is responsible for the single most touching scene in the film – a simple gesture of asking for a dance. Beyond that, his verbal sparring with Emma is usually morality based, or at straddling the line between politeness and rudeness. Ms. Taylor-Joy and Mr. Flynn and Ms. Hart are stand-outs in a superb cast that delivers the goods in each and every scene.

What makes the Austen novel, and the film, so captivating are the issues of romance, marriage, age, and social status woven into each moment – each dramatic turn laced with comedic undertones. Subtext abounds in every conversation and interaction, and words spoken do not always carry the same message as body language or a glance. To top things off, the film is beautiful to look at. The dreary lighting often associated with period pieces is non-existent, and the costumes and set design are extraordinary. The score from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer is a perfect fit, and allows us to recall that for the 1996 EMMA, composer Rachel Portman won the Oscar … the last female to win until this year when Hildur Guonadottir won for JOKER. It should also be noted that the 1995 film CLUELESS with Alicia Silverstone was a modern-day take on the Austen novel, and regardless of the format (or whether there is a period in the title), Emma continues to be “handsome, clever, and rich.”

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BURDEN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For someone to truly change their core being, they must have a reason. “Because it’s the right thing to do” is usually not enough … it must be something much deeper like self-preservation or love. For Mike Burden, self-preservation was what kept him loyal to the Ku Klux Klan, while love is what drove him to walk away. The film is based on a true story from 1996 in Laurens, South Carolina, and it’s the feature film directorial debut of Andrew Heckler (who also wrote the screenplay).

Garrett Hedlund plays Mike Burden, a war veteran and dedicated Klan soldier who helped open the Redneck KKK Museum. The leader of the local KKK chapter is Tom Griffin, played by Tom Wilkinson. Griffin is a despicable man and a father figure to Mike. The great Forest Whitaker (Oscar winner for THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, 2006) plays local Reverend Kennedy, who preaches love and forgiveness while leading his congregation in protest of the new museum.

Poverty permeates the town of Laurens every bit as much as racism. Mike is employed by Griffin in his repo business, and drives around town in a truck advertising ‘Plantation Concrete’, a business name obviously selected for effect. These poor southern whites take out their frustrations on the only group they view as lower than themselves – local black folks.

Mike’s job has him crossing paths with Judy (the always excellent Andrea Riseborough), a single mom just trying to survive and raise her son the right way. Sparks fly between Mike and Judy, and she delivers an ultimatum. His choice to walk away from the Klan for love means his life, and Judy’s, gets immediately much tougher. An extraordinary act of kindness from Reverend Kennedy has its own ramifications, and the complexity of racism begins to show.

Supporting characters are played by Tess Harper (Tom’s wife), musician Usher Raymond (Judy’s friend), Crystal Fox (Reverend Kennedy’s wife), and Dexter Darden (Reverend Kennedy’s teenage son). Each of these characters offers a glimpse at how hatred evolves and perpetuates, especially in a poverty-stricken small southern town. Unfortunately, two hours is simply not enough to dig deep or make sense of systemic racism. However, personalizing the feelings can shine some light on the topic.

Director Heckler met with Reverend Kennedy in the late 1990’s and was able to write the story based on the conversations. As the film ends, we see actual clips of interviews with Reverend Kennedy, Judy, and Mike Burden … leaving us to wonder if a stellar documentary might be buried in the video vault. The film was an audience winner at Sundance in 2018, and it appears 8-10 minutes have been edited out, leaving a better paced film. The hand-held camera work works against the natural drama and tension of most scenes, although the film does provide some insight into how a person might go about rehabilitating their own poisoned thoughts. And that’s certainly worth a look.

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TREAD (doc, 2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. If not so tragic, this story might fit best in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. What better description is there for a small town welder who builds an armored bulldozer, weaponizes it, and then takes it on a rampage of revenge, destroying the buildings, homes, and businesses of those he believe ‘wronged’ him? This actually happened in Granby, Colorado in 2004, and that welder’s name was Marv Heemeyer.

Filmmaker Paul Solet begins the film with a recording of a 911 call and news clips of the actual events of June 4, 2004. Solet then proceeds to lay out the backstory of Heemeyer, and how things escalated to the point where destruction and suicide seemed like the only logical step to him. Solet cleverly utilizes Heemeyer’s own self-recording (via audio cassette) as a framing structure for the film. Heemeyer’s voice tells us what his plan was, and why he had reached this level of desperation.

Interviews are key, and we hear from law enforcement officers who were on the scene that day, Heemeyer’s ex-girlfriend Trisha MacDonald, his best friend, a younger man from his snowmobile club, brothers from a family that had supposedly targeted Marv, and a newspaper reporter, Patrick Brower, who also wrote a book on Heemeyer’s rampage. Actual news clips and reenactments are used to show us what those being interviewed tell. In this case, it’s an effective approach.

It’s particularly interesting to hear that Marv was mostly a likable guy who just bumped up against local town and county politics a couple of times. Marv was not part of the ‘good old boys club’ and admits to needing to “teach a lesson” to those he perceived has gone out of the way to make life difficult for him. His bulldozer was a way for him to dole out the justice that was otherwise going unserved.

This is a story of revenge told in a somewhat sympathetic manner towards Marv Heemeyer, a man who considered himself “an American Patriot.” The audio tape is clearly a confession of what he planned (and later carried out), and it was clear he knew this was a suicide mission. Listening to his rants, we assume some form of mental illness was involved, and his best friend describes him as a man who ‘spent too much time alone.”

The video clips of the carnage, and of the many law enforcement officials on the scene – all of whom were helpless to stop the bulldozer – are captivating and difficult to watch. Fortunately, after the fact, we know that no one died that day other than the man who was responsible. Marv, a man of “righteous anger”, had his day of serving justice and rare ‘Bulldozer Rampage’ headline knocked off the front page one day later by a much bigger story.

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STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN (2020)

February 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Billy Crystal hasn’t starred in a film since 2012’s PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Sure, he’s had some appearances in movies and TV shows, and done some voice acting, but that’s a lot of years between top-lining gigs. It seems writer Peter Hoare (KILLING HASSELHOFF, 2017) and director Matt Ratner (his first feature film) know exactly what to do with the now 71 year old legendary comedian, and it makes perfect sense that Mr. Crystal chose this role to end his drought.

Scott Rollins (Ben Schwartz, “Parks and Recreation”) is a 34 year old struggling/failed stand-up comic who moves back home after a four year stint trying to make it in the Los Angeles comedy scene. His eternally-chirpy mother (Debra Monk) is thrilled to have him back in his room, but his business owner dad (Kevin Dunn) stays put in his recliner, his 30 year old sister (Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep) immediately starts jabbing him for failing (after all, she manages a pretzel stand at the mall), his friends have moved on with their own wives and kids, and Becky (Eloise Mumford), the dream girl ex that he deserted to pursue his dreams, has married another guy. Welcome to adulting Scott.

One of the most awkward ‘meet-cutes’ occurs when an inebriated Marty bumps into Scott on his way to urinate in the local pub’s restroom sink. Soon Marty, who doubles as town-drunk and a dermatologist, is treating Scott’s stress rash. The two strike up an odd friendship and the elder Marty is heard doling out life philosophy like, “Regret is the only thing that’s real”, and “Nobody has their life figured out.” Weed is also involved as the two similarly lost souls, separated by generations, find common ground in coming to grips with their individual missteps.

We glimpse more similarities as the backstories are unfolded for Marty and Scott. The elder man’s two wives and two kids have resulted in loneliness and pain for the once successful (we can tell by his house) medical professional. His son Adam (Nate Corddry) angrily blames Marty for his mother’s death, and daughter Taylor (Caitlin McGee), is mostly too busy for her old man. The younger Scott, previously broke off a solid relationship with Becky to pursue his dream. There was no conversation, just the actions of a younger man’s whims. It’s only now that he’s questioning what matters in life.

Many clichés are leaned on and some quite familiar ground (do new friends really take the podium at funerals?) is covered, but it’s enjoyable to watch an old pro like Mr. Crystal do what he does best. And the life lessons may be simple and obvious, but they are also ones that so many fail to learn until late in life. Some of the humor is offered with a twist. For instance 1986 is featured via HOWARD THE DUCK and Clemens versus Strawberry. Mostly the comedy plays the role of masking loneliness, and it seems when combined with friendship, that’s a more effective salve than alcohol. Writer Hoare (whose face is on the giant photo at the wake), leaves us with: “Lightning never strikes twice, but it can strike again.” Just like Billy Crystal.

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ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND (doc, 2020)

February 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony: A Memoir”, documentarian Daniel Roher’s film is understandably told from the lead guitarist’s point of view, and in fact, Mr. Robertson spends a good deal of time recollecting directly to the camera. For those familiar with the acrimonious-filled history since The Band split in 1976, you won’t be surprised that Robertson’s recounting of events varies greatly from those in the 1993 memoir of his former friend and bandmate in “This Wheel’s on Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of the Band.”

Mr. Robertson is now 76 years old, and in addition to his guitar skills, he has always been an articulate speaker, and one who comes across as prideful and mostly sincere. These days he is one of only 2 band member still living, and the other (Garth Hudson) has nothing to say publicly about The Band or its members. This is one man’s version of reality, and from a perspective of music history, it’s quite interesting and entertaining.

“The Band was greater than the sum of their parts”, says Bruce Springsteen, in one of many interviews used for the film – including Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Peter Gabriel, David Geffen, Martin Scorsese, and “Rolling Stone” magazine founder Jann Wenner. Some of the initial interview clips play over an opening live performance of “Up on Cripple Creek”, including Clapton stating he was “in awe of their brotherhood.” The film then traces the timeline and early years as the pieces of the band came together … much of it centered around Ronnie Hawkins, who is not only the most insightful of those interviewed, but also the most colorful. We learn that Robertson was writing songs at age 15, and that it was meeting Bob Dylan that changed everything.

A substantial portion of the film deals with those early years, and the tales of being booed by audiences as they backed the newly “electric” Dylan are especially fascinating. In 1967 when The Band moved to the pink house in Woodstock, communal living led to artistic and creative productivity, including The Band’s masterpiece album, “Music from Big Pink” (1968). There are some terrific old photos included here which give us a feel for the times, and the aforementioned ‘brotherhood’ of this band that seemed more tightly connected than most.

Of course, it was the late 1960’s and heavy drinking and drug usage took its toll, and The Band began to unravel. In 1976, 34 year old Martin Scorsese was brought on to direct a documentary of The Band’s final performance. THE LAST WALTZ was released in 1978 and included electrifying live performances from some of the all-time greats: Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. The concert was held at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, which would later close after a 1979 New Year’s Day marathon concert by The Grateful Dead. Scorsese’s film included interviews with the band members, but it was his unique and varied camera placements that brought the stage show to life.

Director Roher’s producers on this film include Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Brian Glazer. While it is often the story of Robbie Robertson’s personal journey, it also serves as his perspective on The Band – a group of musicians who were right in the middle of things as popular music evolved. Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko have passed away, and reclusive Garth Hudson refuses to re-live the past, so it’s Robertson who tells their story, and his. We do get to see The Band perform “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and most fittingly, “I Shall Be Released”, but if it’s the music that most interests you, track down and experience THE LAST WALTZ. It was the final time THE BAND performed all together on stage, and as Robertson says, “everybody just forgot to come back.”

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DOWNHILL (2020)

February 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Overwhelming apprehension. That’s the feeling I had walking into the theatre for the Americanized re-make of one of my top 10 favorite movies from 2014 … FORCE MAJEURE. Sure, it’s common practice for U.S. filmmakers to farm international cinema for “new” projects, but when they mess with the really good ones, I can’t help but feel nervous to the point of dread. A sliver of hope existed since this new version was co-written (along with Jesse Armstrong, creator of “Succession”, and Oscar nominated for IN THE LOOP) and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the creative forces behind THE WAY WAY BACK (2013).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star as married couple Billie and Pete. Along with their two teenage sons, they are on an Austrian ski trip meant to help Pete get through grieving his father’s death, and bring the family closer together. If you have seen the original or the trailer, you know what happens next. Pete’s reaction to a near catastrophic event creates a divide between him and the family … especially Billie, who is left shaken. This part is all quite similar to the original film, yet this version is different in so many ways.

Casting two brilliant comedic performers in the lead sends a strong signal that humor will play a role, and that the exceptional gravitas from filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s FORCE MAJEURE will be softened somewhat. Both of those points hold true. However, surprisingly, this re-make manages to still generate some of the shaken-to-the-core emotions that come from having trust broken in such a startling manner. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus is especially strong here, and carries a much heavier load than Mr. Ferrell. As she is balancing her shock, frustration, and anger, while still attending to their equally shaken boys, Mr. Ferrell is relegated to spending much of the film wearing a wounded puppy look as he attempts to move on without addressing the issue.

Adding to the comedy elements are Zoe Chao (“The Comeback”) and Zach Woods (“The Office”) as Pete’s friends who get drawn into the fracas. Miranda Otto takes a break from her usually dramatic roles to play Charlotte, a wacky resort employee whose personality is a bit out of step with normalcy; although her zaniness succeeds in preventing the weight of the event from crushing Billie. Fans of the original will recognize Kristofer Hivju, who plays a resort security advisor this time. Another difference is that the kids (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford) play a bigger role in the family dynamics and fallout.

It’s clear that filmmakers Faxon and Rash set out to purposefully make a more mainstream, accessible movie than the Swedish version. The film remains effective at generating conversation about survival instinct and protecting one’s loved ones. It should be mentioned that this is not a typical Will Ferrell movie, and anyone expecting Frank the Tank, may only be pleased with one brief scene. Instead, this is about a man coming to grips with how his actions affected his family, and even his view of himself.

watch the trailer: