March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Getting older is often used as comedy fodder for entertainment purposes; however, there is fine line that can be crossed into disrespect and melancholy. Long time Italian director Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL, 2013) delivers his first English-language film, and it’s at times quite uncomfortable to watch. Marketed as a dramatic-comedy road trip by a long married couple, the film provides a few laughs, but an overwhelming pall of sadness mostly sets the tone, while sliding right into my category of Grey Cinema.

Helen Mirren is Ella Spencer, and Donald Sutherland is her husband John. They are a happily married couple who, to the shock of their grown children and neighbor, hit the road in their 1970’s era Winnebago. Isn’t it interesting that an RV of age is considered “classic”, while old people are just referred to as “old”? John is a curmudgeonly former Professor and Helen is a gregarious, adventuresome woman who fondly recalls the many family trips in this same RV. She is clearly the one in charge, and has planned this road trip from their upscale Wellesley, Massachusetts home to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

Although John recites his favorite passages from Hemingway and Melville, he is certainly battling the effects of dementia … a battle that frequently has a negative impact on Ella’s enjoyment of their time together. While he may recall details of a long-ago student, he often forgets the names of his own kids – or even his wife! While John’s mental state is causing emotional pain for Ella, it’s her own untreated cancer that is driving her body to fail her. They are each slipping away in different ways, though their paths lead to the same destination.

Based on the novel from Michael Zadoorian, four different writers worked on the screenplay, and that is likely the cause of the distorted tone and approach. It’s quite difficult to be funny when the moments are so poignant and sad. There is even a political undercurrent which is teased, but carries no heft or substance. Taking place during the most recent Presidential campaign, Trump rallies are used as punchlines, and a Hillary rally is inferred. Neither have any impact, though a sequence involving a roadside robbery ends with (unintended?) support of carrying a gun, even if it was an odd attempt at humor.

Janel Moloney and Christian McKay are little more than caricatures as the grown kids, while we do get to see Dick Gregory’s final on screen appearance (he passed away last year).  Carole King and Janis Joplin songs are put to obvious use, and there aren’t enough “Happy Swirls” in the world to overcome the inherent fear that most aging folks have towards a failing body or mind … and this film shows both sides, while attempting to inject humor on that one last road trip that most of us dread.

watch the trailer:



March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Freedom fighters or terrorists? Which label gets applied is often dependent upon one’s point of view. In 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens was hijacked. Director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”, ROBOCOP, 2014) brings us the big screen version of Gregory Burke’s (’71) screenplay.

The 7 day ordeal bounces between the captors and hostages at the abandoned terminal in Uganda and the political maneuverings of the Israeli government officials as they deliberate whether to break with policy and negotiate with terrorists. There are also flashbacks to the planning stages with the hijackers, in an attempt to help us understand their perspective.

Daniel Bruhl plays Wilifried Bose and Rosamund Pike plays Brigitte Kuhlmann. These are the two main hijackers who get most of our attention. Mr. Bruhl seems destined to always play the ultra-serious character, and Ms. Pike is once again miscast … something that happens whenever she is cast. Although she seems to throw down her best Patty Hearst look, we never really buy these two as committed to the cause, which prevents the necessary build-up of suspense.

The film’s biggest flaw is not capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by Nonso Anozie’s Idi Amin Dada, and even more disappointing is the abbreviated scenes between Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Yizhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, FOXTROT). The two actors excel in their head-to-head confrontations, but we feel cheated every time it cuts away.

Once a strategy is formed, we are introduced to the Special Ops team (IDF). They only have a day or two to train and rehearse, and one of the key players is Ben Schnetzer (THE BOOK THIEF, 2013). He and his girlfriend quarrel over his duty, which keeps him away from her dancing performance with Batsheva Dance Company.  As Operation Thunderbolt proceeds, the crosscuts between Special Ops training and the dance rehearsals are setting the stage for the film’s climax.

So the hijackers never really generate the feeling of danger, the government deliberations are cut short, and the filmmaker takes a huge creative risk by synchronizing the final rescue mission with the opening night dance performance. The film is negatively impacted by poor pacing, an overall lack of tension for such a terrifying historical event, and questionable, albeit creative, story-telling structure. It does serve the purpose of educating those unfamiliar with the story, and it’s a reminder that even 4 decades later, the Israeli – Palestinian hostilities continue. As a special note of interest, the only Special Ops member killed in the raid was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel.

watch the trailer:


March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. R.C. Sheriff wrote this 1928 play based on his experience as a British Army officer in WWI. The play’s successful two year run led to a 1930 big screen adaptation directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive – two legends of cinema who also collaborated on FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Now, exactly 100 years after “the Spring Offensive”, director Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS, 2008) delivers screenwriter Simon Reade’s version of Sheriff’s story and a tribute to those who served in the Great War.

It’s the Spring of 1918 and a stalemate in the trenches of Northern France has occurred during the fourth year of the war. Fresh from training, a baby-faced Lieutenant named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, HUGO) is assigned to a front line unit whose commanding officer is his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claffin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY). The others in the unit include Trotter (Stephen Graham), who eats and talks incessantly to mask his anxiety; Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who suffers from shell-shock; Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who brings subtle comedy relief: and Osborne (Paul Bettany), the heart and soul of the team.

Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure is Captain Stanhope. His coping method involves a problem with whiskey which drives his raging temper. That temper masks a not-so-obvious commitment to his men … men who walk on eggshells around him. Most of the movie takes place in the dugout over 6 days, and though the soldiers spend much time in a holding pattern, the battle sequences involve an ill-planned surprise attack on a nearby German hold, and of course, the famous battle that kicks off the Spring Offensive – a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides.

With military orders such as “hold them off for as long as you can”, this is no romanticizing of war. Bravery and courage in the face of likely death are balanced with overwhelming human emotions. Confusion and disorientation abound as bombs explode in an environment that offers no place to hide or escape. The war ended later that year on November 11, and trench warfare would never again be the predominant strategy.

watch the trailer:

GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.


March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Each year provides us with (at least) a few hidden gems sprinkled amongst the superheroes and newfangled special effects displays, and although this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley is only now hitting theatres, it seems safe to say it likely won’t draw the size audience it deserves. If you enjoy dark, twisted, and devilishly clever films, you owe it to yourself to track down this one.

Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARLY AND THE DYING GIRL) stars as Amanda, someone who walks a miniscule line between neurotic and psychopath. The startling and quite ominous opening features Amanda, a horse, and a large knife. Next, and some time later, we see Amanda re-connecting with her childhood friend and boarding school brainiac Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, SPLIT and THE WITCH) in what appears to be a tutoring session being held in the palatial estate where Lily lives with her mother and “evil” stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks).

What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road of us attempting to fit either or both of these characters into some “normal” category of human behavior. Instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. A plot to murder the stepdad is developed, and caught in the wicked web is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a dreamer and schemer who quickly realizes the trouble these two bring. This was one of the last roles Yelchin filmed before his tragic death. His brief time on screen here reminds us of his immense talent.

An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges. As Amanda explains she’s “not a bad person”, the line makes us chuckle, while also making us realize she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy.

Suburban Connecticut and its corresponding privileged life has rarely generated more queasy feelings, and with our hope for humanity in the balance, we watch Amanda and Lily bounce from plotting to problem solving and from conspiring to collaborating. The absence of empathy goes beyond disconcerting and into a feeling of resolved fear. The lack of emotions and empathy can be more frightening than vampires or fictional monsters.

Cinematographer Lyle Vincent does nice work displaying this world, and he will always deserve a mention after his sterling work on 2014’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. The dark, twisted work is well accompanied by the abrupt and jarring music, and filmmaker Finley deserves recognition for crafting this creepy corner of a universe none of us want to join. His film is in the vein of something Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) might deliver, and that’s quite high praise for oddity … in fact, Odin Impetus Lowe even gets a screen credit, and he’s the opening scene horse!


March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously lampooned the political landscape of England (IN THE LOOP, “The Thick of it”) and the United States (“Veep”), writer/director Armando Iannucci turns his skewering pen and clear eye to a bygone era in Russia. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the film takes place in 1953 Moscow at the height (and the end) of Josef Stalin’s reign.

Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces (think ‘Secret Police’) ruled by force and terror for 20 years, and most citizens lived with the daily goal of staying off “the list” – a place which likely resulted in imprisonment, if not death. An opening sequence featuring the live performance of an orchestra drives home the outright fear that hovered over every part of that society. To be clear, Iannucci’s approach is less ominous and more Mel Brooks. It’s slapstick satire with profanity.

Following the death of Stalin (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!), what follows is a Keystone Cops medley of jockeying for power amongst the members of Stalin’s cabinet. Closed-door plotting abounds – though sometimes in full view of others – and alliances come and go in the blink of an eye. It plays out on screen as more spoof than satire, so brace for over-the-top performances from Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrenti Beria), Jeffrey Tambor as dimwitted doofus Malenkov, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Molotov.  Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) offspring, and other supporting work comes from Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, and Jason Isaacs.

I watched this film the day after watching RED SPARROW, and the two films provide an interesting and oddball comparison to different eras of Russian history. Iannucci’s film is nothing short of a full bore attack on Kremlin activities, as well as the self-interested actions of politicians that seems to remain prevalent in modern days. It’s also a reminder that being “better as a committee” has as many flaws as the rein of a tyrant. There is a terrific final shot in a concert hall, where seated behind Khrushchev and his wife is a leering Leonid Brezhnev … foreshadowing future events. And if that’s not enough, the closing credits are as nuts as the film itself.


March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Low budget independents must be analyzed differently than a tentpole or a status-pic with money behind it. That’s only fair, and in fact, quite necessary for cinematic sanity. This first feature film from director Michael Chrisoulakis is one that we might catch at a film festival, and at first glance, it appears he has done everything right. The film has a blend of familiar faces and newcomers. Much effort has gone into the stylish look of the film, and there is even unconventional music accompanying the oddball characters.

Sometimes taking all the right steps still doesn’t mean the finished product will click with audiences, and that appears to be the case here. Priscilla (Arielle Brachfeld) is being treated by her hypnotherapist played by legendary director Peter Bogdanovich in a terrific opening that grabs our attention immediately. Priscilla is a struggling/aspiring actress who is also a Marilyn Monroe waitress at a crummy little diner.

Benny (Azim Rizk) is one of the diners few customers, and his motivation is less about food and more about Priscilla. One day she overhears a couple of small time crooks (led by Lin Shaye) chatting in riddles – “Apple Jacks down the rabbit hole”. Financially strapped Priscilla proceeds to draw lovestruck mechanic Benny into a situation that will likely end badly.

Writer Guy J Jackson (who also plays one of the criminals) seems to try and shove all of his ideas into the script, so what’s lacking is a cohesive story or any chance for viewers to connect to Priscilla – or certainly any other character.  We can’t even take the “big” crime boss seriously since his goal is to build some type of sanctuary that will benefit humanity. Benny does have the best line in the film when he admits, “I dance like a mechanic”. Other comedic bits mostly fall flat (although a tip of the cap for the mortgage broker joke), as do most of the attempts at building suspense, due in part to an excess of groan-inducing dialogue.

The film is a noir-wannabe with some effort given towards the atmosphere and tone, but the overwrought electronic score is too generic, and the arbitrary slow-motion effects simply remind us of the lack of budget (better to take advantage of imagination). One of the worst cinematic on-foot chase scenes takes up a chunk of the film, but on the bright side, we do get the rarely seen Sally Kirkland, and it is fun to pick out the director’s influences based on how a scene plays out. The jury is still out on Ms. Brachfeld. She might be worth keeping an eye on, as she has a Miranda July quality about her, though without the comedic instincts. First films are challenging, and there might be enough here to push Mr. Chrisoulakis on to better projects.