MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

watch the trailer:

 


FRANK & LOLA (2016)

December 8, 2016

frank-lola Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Shannon continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today. In this first feature from writer/director Matthew Ross, Mr. Shannon is the titular Frank, and his pained facial expressions elevate this neo-noir into a dark and intriguing exposition on male obsession and sexual jealousy.

The abrupt opening scene finds Frank and Lola (Imogen Poots) frolicking in bed after obviously just meeting for the first time that evening. We (and Lola) know we are in for something a bit different when Frank slams on the breaks and states, “Maybe we should wait until next time.” Lola is taken aback, and we are soon watching this relationship develop … while simultaneously noting the subtle signs of troubled pasts for each of them.

Frank is a talented French chef and Lola is just starting her career as a fashion designer. His dark side flashes a bit more often, but before Lola ever comes clean, we realize there is unhappiness in her past. They seem to be two tortured souls in a jinxed relationship.

Filmmaker Ross keeps us (and Frank) on our toes as the script seems to continually offer yet another deeply held secret or mysterious character. Justin Long plays Lola’s new employer, while the rarely-seen-these-days Rosanna Arquette plays Lola’s name-dropping mother. However, it’s Michael Nyqvist (so great in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the suave Frenchman with ties to Lola’s past and present that really makes things interesting … and somehow even darker. His wife is played by the terrific French actress Emmanuelle Devos. Her screen time is limited, yet crucial.

The film was well received at Sundance, and it shares the creepiness of such films as Basic Instinct, Body Heat and Night Moves. Rarely do contemporary movies go as deep into the male psyche of obsession as this one, and the throw-back atmosphere is a perfect fit for the tone. Not many actors simmer like Michael Shannon, and the story offers him the perfect vehicle to remind us that everyone longs to be loved – even when we aren’t sure we deserve it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE 24 HOUR WAR (2016, doc)

December 8, 2016

24-hour-war Greetings again from the darkness. This is a war documentary, but it’s not about Vietnam or Afghanistan. Instead, it’s the story of the war of pride and ego between Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari. Their war took place in garages, in factories and finally on the streets of Le Mans. This clash of race car giants took place in the early 1960’s at a time when drivers were truly risking their life every time they got behind the wheel.

Many of us have heard and read about Henry Ford’s failed attempt to buy Ferrari’s company, but this film from directors Nate Adams and Adam Carrolla goes much deeper. They even help us connect the dots between the personal rivalry and the development of the legendary Ford GT40.

One of the interesting aspects is the contrast and comparison between the two companies. Ford, and its seemingly endless resources, going up against the small Ferrari group that was barely making ends meet … and sometimes not even able to do that. But the real treasure here is the stream of interviews with those who were there. We hear from racing legends such as Bob Bondurant, Mario Andretti, Peter Brock and Dan Gurney. There is historical video footage of Carroll Shelby in the early days of the Cobra and Ford GT40, and additional perspective is provided by Henry Ford III and race historian Brian Laban.

Documenting the golden age of racing is an admirable undertaking, and the filmmakers have done a very nice job. There are some incredible clips of the early 24 Hours of Le Mans races, and special note is provided for the historical 1966 race when Ford finished 1-2-3. While that didn’t sit well with Enzo, it’s fascinating to realize just what an important role that racing played in the development of the passenger cars that we drive even today.

 

 


THINGS TO COME (2016, France)

December 3, 2016

things-to-come Greetings again from the darkness. What was once a rarity is now becoming more commonplace … movies made by women about women. This latest from writer/director Mia Hansen-Love (Eden, 2014) features one of the most interesting lead characters from any film this year.

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a philosophy professor, writer, longtime wife to Heinz (Andre Marcon), mother of two grown children, and care-taker to a depressed, slightly-dementia-stricken mother (Edith Scob) who is prone to calling for emergency workers when Nathalie doesn’t answer her phone calls. The film offers no murder mystery, alien invasion or other earth-rattling event. Instead it guides us through Nathalie’s process in dealing with life things that occur on a daily basis.

The genius of the film, script and character stems from the fact that Nathalie never creates drama where none exists … a rare personality trait these days. Rather than plead for mercy from the universe, she simply plows forward during what would be three personal-world-crumbling events in a lesser movie: her husband cheats and leaves her, her mother dies, and she is fired (or at least forced to move off her method) from the job she loves.

Ms. Huppert delivers yet another stellar performance (see her in this year’s Elle) as Nathalie. She is an intellectual and thoughtful woman, but not necessarily the warm and cuddly type. Sure she cares for her family and inspires her students, and rather than lash out at her confessing husband, she only shows frustration when he takes a couple of her beloved books in his move out (or stuffing his flowers in the trash can). Disappointment is more obvious when her prized former-pupil Fabien (Roman Kolinka) is unable to competently debate his radical views with her … choosing instead a condescending, brusque approach designed to shut her down.

Nathalie is more shocked by her publisher’s intention to “modernize” her book than by finding “The Unabomber Manifesto” on the shelf at Fabien’s commune for intelligent anarchists. The politics of a particular situation has influence on nearly every scene, and Ms. Hansen-Love’s script emphasizes the importance of seasoning/experience in handling life … and does a remarkable job contrasting those who have it from those who don’t. Few movie soundtracks include both Woody Guthrie and Schubert, but then both fit well when the story avoids a mid-life self-discovery, and instead focuses on the realization of freedom. These are two very different things, and you’d have a difficult time finding a better look than this film offers.

watch the trailer:

 


WHEN WAR COMES HOME (2016, doc)

December 3, 2016

when-war-comes-home Greetings again from the darkness. The tragedy of soldiers killed in action is a topic often discussed, and for good reason. Another product of war is less frequently discussed, and involves up to 20% of soldiers returning home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) have a deep and often long-lasting effect on soldiers, their family and friends, and even the military officers who are responsible for the troops.

Filmmaker Michael King focuses on three soldiers and their efforts to readjust to life at home after war. Wes Carlile is a former US Army Chaplain’s assistant, Emmanuel Bernadin was a Naval Technician in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Spencer Milo was a Sergeant in the US Army. The heart-wrenching story of these three men and the challenges faced by them and their families are a key to what drives Four Star General Peter Chiarelli to seek better treatment for soldiers returning home.

Of course there are those who still claim PTSD doesn’t exist (these are usually folks who haven’t experienced war first hand), but the visits to Walter Reed Army Hospital, and the plethora of interviews conducted for the film, leave little doubt that better and more effective treatment is necessary if these returning heroes are to find a way to fit back in to post-battle life.

Some innovative therapies are discussed, and the important part is that General Chiarelli and others are making certain that the studies continue. The physical and psychological challenges are our responsibility as a society, being as it’s our society that sent them charging off to fight.

The film does an excellent job of providing real life proof of the devastating (and sometimes dangerous) impact to spouses and kids. Seeing mounds of prescription drugs does little to build confidence that we are closing in on the “right” treatment. Every soldier has issues to deal with when they return home … some are able to work through it, while others need help. Mr. King and General Chiarelli are doing their part to see that the best help is available.

 


MAN DOWN (2016)

December 3, 2016

man-down Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps this movie and story would have hit me harder had I not recently watched Michael King’s documentary When War Comes Home. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the focus of both films, but the reality of the three soldiers in King’s film simply packs a bigger emotional punch than the fictionalized version of one soldier in this latest from director Dito Montiel. That said, the dramatization offers a few worthy moments.

The story/stories revolve around a new Marine named Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf). We are bounced between three timeframes: a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world; the time Gabriel is serving on the frontlines of Afghanistan; the pre-Marines time when we see Gabriel as a loving father, husband and friend … he’s the kind of dad who surprises his son with a birthday puppy, and creates a secret phrase so he can tell his son he loves him without embarrassing him at school.

An interrogation sequence between Gabriel and the military counselor (played by the great Gary Oldman) provides the film’s best scenes … the two actors go head to head in what is really psychological warfare in a trailer office. There is an “incident” that occurred, and the counselor is attempting to figure out Gabriel’s mental state. Once we are provided the details of the incident, we fully understand why Gabriel is an emotional mess, and basically shut-down from conversation and life.

Kate Mara appears as Gabriel’s wife and Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) as his son. The film probably would have benefitted from more attention on the family foundation prior to Gabriel being shipped out. Jai Courtney stars as Gabriel’s close and lifelong friend, though when Gabriel asks his friend to “watch out for my family”, we know where things are headed. It’s here where the film just stretches too far. The effects of war provided plenty to make the point director Montiel is going for, and the cheap/clumsy gimmick only distracts.

LaBeouf is in fine form and in quite a different role than his quick-with-a-quip charmer in this year’s American Honey. This latest film probably has more in common with A Beautiful Mind than with Born on the Fourth of July, or any other film dealing with post-war challenges. The statistics posted prior to the closing credits make it obvious that Montiel meant this as a message movie – making the melodrama and extreme visuals all the more misplaced. Montiel made some festival noise with his 2006 debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and it seems he is destined to make a really good movie at some point.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


EVOLUTION (2016)

December 3, 2016

evolution Greetings again from the darkness. If your preference in movies leans towards atmospheric and creepy, rather than on intricate story lines and sub-plots, this latest from writer/director Lucile Hadzihalilovic is likely to scratch your cinematic itch. We never really know what’s going on or where the story is headed, or even if there is a story … but we are entranced nonetheless.

Nicolas (Max Brebant) is an observant and curious 10 year old who lives in an isolated Oceanside community (probably an island) populated only by women and young boys. While most of the boys spend their days doing typical boy things, Nicolas whiles away the hours drawing in his sketch book. His most recent sketch is of the horrific sight he witnessed during a leisurely swim … a dead body with a red starfish nibbling away. The use of the color red plays a recurring role throughout, but as to its meaning, I haven’t a clue.

What follows are some bizarre medical procedures and beachside rituals that leave us grimacing and confused. The purpose of these actions is related to reproduction, and the medical experiments on the boys will certainly cause some uneasiness in the audience. Julie-Marie Permentier plays Nicolas’ “mother” – in quotes due to the uncertainty around the conception process, and Roxane Duran plays Stella, the nurse who takes a liking to Nicolas and his drawings.

Billed as a horror film and thriller, my best description is some type of blending of The Island of Dr Moreau, The Stepford Wives and Upstream Color. Ms. Hadzihalilovic is the partner and frequent collaborator of offbeat indie director Gaspar Noe, and the influence is clear. This is a strange and enigmatic film that is exquisitely filmed (cinematographer: Manu Dacosse) and offers very little dialogue to accompany its quiet creepiness. The key seems to be not spending any time trying to figure out what it’s all about. Whether you find it hypnotic or senseless is a personal decision.