WAKEFIELD (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for her screenplay to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Robin Swicord’s directorial debut of The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) was not particularly impressive. However, she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle and one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that’s ever hit the silver screen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold?” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing the world unnoticed through the small window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while clinging to his previous life in a voyeuristic way.

Ms. Swicord’s screenplay is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story and it’s sneaky in the way that it questions how we go about our daily life, and how one can “snap” emotionally if feeling unappreciated. It’s a showcase for the other side of upper middle class white privilege, as well as suburban alienation that is so prevalent (and ignored) today. By dropping out but staying close, Cranston’s character actually pays more attention to his family than he usually would if sitting next to them at the dinner table.

We are accustomed to a mid-life crisis involving a sports car, marital affair or sudden career change. It’s highly unusual for someone to actually “disappear”. It’s at that point where the narration really shines … it’s insightful, observational and thought-provoking. Beyond that, the comedic edge is laden with sadness. The story humanizes this pretty despicable guy – or at least a guy who does a pretty despicable thing. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience. This is one to see for Cranston’s performance, as well as for Ms. Swicord’s commentary on today’s way of life.

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A QUIET PASSION (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a young woman standing strong during a critical moment at seminary school. It’s kind of a clunky start in an overly-dramatic and stagey sense for the film, but Emma Bell sets the standard for the future behavior of Emily Dickinson. What follows is a period drama with minimal costuming effects, but rather a fitting onslaught of language and words – most of which comes courtesy of Ms. Dickinson and her mighty pen.

I’ve often viewed Emily Dickinson as an early feminist whose beliefs and intentions were stifled by the era in which lived, as well as the depression that seemed to cloak most of her days. She was definitely an odd/unusual person and clearly stood for women’s equality at a time when her own poems were published anonymously to avoid scandal and backlash for the paper. Writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, 2011) shows interest in glamorizing neither the times nor the writer, and Cynthia Nixon seizes the opportunity to capture the essence of a gifted woman who at best, could be described as a societal misfit and a genius.

The terrific cast also includes Keith Carradine as Emily’s proud father, Jennifer Ehle as her (yin-yang) sister Vinnie, and Duncan Duff as brother Austin. Emily’s rare forays beyond familial boundaries are mostly via garden strolls with her wise-cracking friend Miss Buffum, played with zeal by Catherine Bailey. There is also a tremendous 3:00am scene between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May), which provides the best possible self-analysis by Ms. Dickinson (outside of her writings). She confesses to her new family member, “You have a life, I have a routine.” This insightful line seems to carry no sadness for Emily.

The first third of the film features some low-key zingers that rival anything from Whit Stillman’s superb Love & Friendship, though the balance of the film takes a turn towards the serious and somber while focusing more on Faith and Death and Emily’s controversial stances. She embraces the label of “no-hoper” and continues on with her observations of a life she barely leads. While the language and words are the stars here (along with Ms. Nixon), there is a very cool effect as the characters seamlessly age before our eyes in a series of portrait poses, vaulting the timeline headfirst into Emily’s descent into self-imposed isolation. It’s a very well done biopic that requires your ears be in prime form.

Ms. Dickinson died in 1866 at the age of 55, and the film helps us understand that the contradictions and confusion associated with religion does not solely belong to our modern times. This might best be explained when Emily’s aunt wins an argument by proclaiming that “hymns aren’t music”. Mr. Davies delivers a small film that is large in thought and beautiful in look.

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FIGHT FOR SPACE (2017, doc)

May 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Space … the final frontier. Or is it just another political football? Director Paul Hildebrandt examines the space program from all angles: past, present, and future. He enlists experts such as Astronauts Jim Lovell and Story Musgrave, physicist and author Michio Kaku, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Norman Augustine (Chairman of the Review of the United States Human Space Flights Committee), and numerous politicians, journalists, and former NASA staffers. Passionate opinions and perspectives fill the run time, as do frustrations and hopes.

In 1961, President John F Kennedy pledged that NASA and the United States would send a man to the moon (and bring him back safely) by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, and four days later returned safely to earth. The central question being asked by the film is “Why did we stop?”

The Space Race shifted into high gear thanks to Russia’s Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. It was also responsible for inspiring an entire generation to pursue careers in Science, Technology, and Engineering. Hindsight (and those being interviewed here) tells us that, rather than a visionary scientific research platform, the U.S. space program was actually a “Crisis Project” driven by ego and politics. How else do we answer the current generation of kids when they ask, “Why aren’t we there now?”

Viewing the space program as a marketing campaign to the American public, Mr. Tyson is especially outspoken when he states that the economic and cultural benefits of a true scientific program are beyond argument. GPS and the internet are but two of the transformative developments courtesy of the space program, and proof enough that a more scientific approach could lead to even more discoveries. Instead, it’s pointed out that no scientists were included in the Apollo missions until Apollo 17, the final Apollo mission to the moon with astronauts. This occurred after the significant budget reduction in 1970 that cancelled a couple of Apollo missions, setting the stage for the program to end.

Discussions and criticisms of the Space Shuttle program (described as driving trucks in circles), the Space Station (a $150 billion program with no purpose), the Mars Direct proposal, and the Constellation Program (started by George W, cancelled under Obama), are each given attention and insight. Perhaps it’s all best described by Jim Lovell who states the Russians are the tortoise in the race, while the U.S. simply gave up.

Very few events match the breathtaking majesty of a rocket lift-off. The beauty and power of this engineering marvel generate the wonderment of exploration and discovery. Sadly, most of the triumphs and tragedies of the U.S. space program are little more than entries in a textbook (or website) for today’s kids. The program lacks leadership and vision, and the case can be made that the only hope is with the private sector (such as Elon Musk). The final 10-12 minutes of the film is really a pep talk (Sales pitch? Propaganda?) for an actual scientific space program. This time, let’s hope that rather than political reasons, we go because it’s there!

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I AM HEATH LEDGER (2017, doc)

May 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Lao Tzu wrote “The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”. Though the math might be a bit off, that phrase aptly describes the too-brief life and career of shooting star Heath Ledger. As a 20 year old from Australia, his talent seemed to leap from the screen in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. As his popularity soared, so did his commitment to avoid being typecast as the charming and handsome love interest by the desperate directors of every upcoming rom-com project.

It seems inconceivable (that word means what you think it means) that Mr. Ledger only made 15 more movies before an overdose killed him in 2008 (at age 28). Adrian Buiterhuis and Derik Murray co-direct this portrait of the man, the artist, the friend, the father. We see the young Heath, nearly always with camera in hand, flouncing about with his buddies as he seeks his next adventure. The home videos and photos fill the screen with luminosity that we recognize from his movies … the camera loved his face, and he seemed to love everything about filmmaking.

Interviews, often the bane of biographical documentaries, provide a real sense of the admiration and love that Ledger attracted. His father, mother, sister, childhood Aussie friends, agent Steve Alexander, former lover Naomi Watts, and close friend Ben Harper pay tribute not just to the star who burned out too soon, but also the warm-hearted man they all connected with.

The film walks us through some of his key movies: his chance to work with his acting idol Mel Gibson in The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale, his devastating performance in Monster’s Ball, The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, reminiscing with Catherine Hardwicke on Lords of Dogstown, his stunning turn in Brokeback Mountain, and his final movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with his beloved director Terry Gilliam. Of course, there is also a full segment on his most famous (and his own personal favorite) role as The Joker (a guy with a plan) in The Dark Knight. The role not only won Ledger a posthumous Oscar, it became the most talked about film performance in years.

Even more interesting than the recollections from the various movie sets are the bits and pieces we get of Ledger as guy sharing the journey with his buddies, approaching master status as a chess player, as an artist dedicated to his craft, or as a photographer honing his style (in music videos) in what surely would have been an intriguing path as a director. Director Ang Lee brings us closer to understanding what we have missed out on in regards to Ledger as an artist, and with actress Michelle Williams, the mother of his daughter Matilda, choosing not to participate in the film, we still have the distance between fan and man that allows for due respect.

The documentary premieres May 17, 2017 on Spike TV.

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THE WALL (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a director’s filmography includes “big” action movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity (the original), the last thing we expect is a stripped-down war movie whose camera focuses on a single character for most of the run time. Director Doug Liman certainly understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress, yet while he and writer Dwain Worrell seem so intent on proving the confusion and futility of war, they seem to forget that a thriller needs either a hero to cheer or a villain to jeer.

It’s late 2007, and the war is winding down as rebuilding efforts are underway. Hulking Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his fellow soldier Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have been perched and camouflaged on the side a hill for more than 20 hours as they carry out reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac (known as “Ize” – get it?) and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out. Of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, an injured Isaac takes shelter behind a teetering stone wall. It turns out a sniper, more patient than the American soldiers, had been biding time for the moment.

The first eight bodies are construction contractors and a security detail … none of which matters to the sniper. The hook here is that the sniper hacks into Isaac’s radio and seemingly wants to chat it up, rather than finish him off. We never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaac … but we do hear him plenty. Laith Nakli voices Juba – known to American soldiers as the Angel of Death, responsible for dozens of US casualties. The film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in movies. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit.

The biggest issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the movie depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba. The former is fine, but the latter falls short.

Better sniper movies include American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates, while more effective (mostly) one-character thrillers include Locke, Buried, and 127 Hours. The film makes excellent use of sound, but the little jabs at American ideals grows old quickly (such as asking who is the real terrorist). A different approach to a familiar topic deserves a chance, but while Juba only misses on purpose, the efforts of Mr. Liman and Mr. Worrell miss the mark by not engaging the viewer with the character(s).

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JULIAN SCHNABEL: A PERSONAL PROFILE (2017, doc)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Do you believe in destiny? Whether you do or you don’t, it’s difficult to argue that Julian Schnabel was born to be anything other than an artist. Director Pappi Corsicato’s final cut is as much a tribute to an artist he obviously admires as it is a biography of the pajama wearing cultural influencer.

Schnabel was raised in far south Texas, but according to his sister, a difficult child birth in Brooklyn set the stage for his being “special”. In fact, director Corsicato interviews Schnabel’s siblings, 5 of his kids, his 2 ex-wives, art experts and friends, and celebrity admirers like Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino and Bono. These interviews are blended with home movies, personal photographs, and clips of Schnabel working, playing and talking about his work and life.

The constant praise for Schnabel is only periodically sprinkled with minor nicks that are apparent should one read between the lines, but this is meant to be documented proof of a career that exploded after a 1979 show at the Mary Boone Gallery. We hear Schnabel described as a “controversial artist” with no boundaries who sees beauty in places most of us don’t notice.

Even though we get to see quite a few of Schnabel’s paintings, a significant portion of the film is devoted to Schnabel’s work as filmmaker. Special attention is given to his first film Basquiat (bringing an artist’s perspective to the story of the artist), as well as Before Night Falls, and the Oscar nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Being such a movie fan, I’ve always admired Schnabel’s unusual film work as much as his paintings. It’s so difficult to stand out in either field, but he manages to make a statement in both. He draws a few chuckles when he states that he “had a day job” that allowed him to make movies.

It’s unusual for the subject of a documentary to be listed as Executive Producer on that film, but Schnabel describes himself as having “blind faith” in what he does and his entire professional life has been on his own terms. Director Corsicato uses music quite effectively, though this private portrait never digs too deeply and certainly never comes close to answering what drives an artist – even one who can quote The Godfather.

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WHISKY GALORE (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There’s good fun to be had in watching director Gilles MacKinnon’s and writer Peter McDougall’s remake of the 1949 comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick and writer Angus MacPhaill, based on the novel from Compton MacKenzie. Whew! Is that enough ‘Macs’ for you? The story takes place on an isolated Scottish island of Todday during WWII, and is loosely based on true events of 1941.

Not only is the community geographically isolated, it’s also mostly insulated from the rationing and hardships caused by the Great War. All that changes when the last bit of whisky is guzzled, leaving the locals “in terrible shape” with nothing to drink but tea (uttered with equal parts disgust and disappointment). Even though it was Irish and not Scottish, if you’ve seen Waking Ned Devine (1998), then you’ll have an idea of the comedic style – mischievous wry humor rather than hysterical slapstick.

The key locals include Gregor Fisher as Macroom, single father to two grown daughters Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick). Of course, where there are two lovely daughters, there is likely to be love in the air. Filling these roles are returning war hero Sergeant Odd (Sean Biggerstaff) and George (Kevin Guthrie), the son of a local ultra-Calvinist mother. Eddie Izzard plays the all too serious Home Guard Captain Wagget, while Fenella Woodgar spouts some of the film’s best one-liners as his wife.

When a cargo ship carrying 50,000 cases of whisky crashes just offshore, the locals begin plotting how to rescue the bounty and return normalcy to their daily lives … all while observing the Sabbath and gazing wistfully at the ship from dry land. There is also a funky sub-plot that ties into the story of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Spencer, but this is mostly a story of local ingenuity and inspiration set to the beautiful music of Scottish bagpipes and violins (from composer Patrick Doyle). The quaint setting and predicament make for whimsical fun and some nice laughs … just remember to change the password if you are guarding the road.

watch the trailer: