OUTLAW KING (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Much was made of the ‘artistic license’ director Mel Gibson took in creating his own version of historical events and actions of William Wallace for his Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART (1995). Director David Mackenzie (in his follow up to the excellent HELL OR HIGH WATER, 2016) pays a bit more attention to historical details as he picks up the story at the end of Wallace’s rebellion – and the beginning of the uprising led by Robert the Bruce.

Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, a man forced to pledge loyalty to Kind Edward I and England prior to leading the rebellion. It’s the year 1304 and director Mackenzie’s opening sequence is a several minute long tracking shot that is simply superb. It features our introduction to Robert the Bruce (Pine), King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Prince Edward (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH), as well as an early swordfight and an eye-popping fireball shot from an enormous catapult into the protective wall of a distant castle.

Not long after, we learn William Wallace has been killed, the King has provided Robert the Bruce a wife in Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh, LADY MACBETH) and Robert  takes the life of fellow Scotsman John Comyn … an act that costs him dearly in the early going. However, it does lead to his being named King of Scots by the Church, and he slowly begins to build his forces. Of course, Scotland’s forces are always dwarfed in numbers by that of the English Empire, but never in spirit.

Pine plays Robert the Bruce as the strong, (mostly) silent leader, while Howle and Aaron Taylor-Johnson cross into camp in their respective portrayals of Prince Edward (yet another wide-eyed son intent on making his father proud) and James Douglas (a manic, crazy-eyed Scotsman bent on revenge). Ms. Pugh brings courage and a headstrong nature to Elizabeth (in far too limited a role), while Mr. Dillane shows us a worn down King Edward I who gets the film’s best line … “I am so sick of Scotland!”

The two words of the title are actually separated by a slash in the opening credits; a device meant to emphasize the dual sides to the man and his actions. In addition to that opening long shot, there is a visually stunning sequence of a nighttime raid on a camp site. Unfortunately after that, we get mostly mud and blood, including the pivotal Battle of Loudon Hill which features the ultimate in home field advantage. There are some terrific costumes and set pieces, but mostly it’s elaborate and detailed moviemaking (with a few downright silly moments) that never fully clicks. Perhaps that’s a factor of having 5 different writers involved. With many familiar faces from “Game of Thrones”, it will be interesting to see how this plays on laptops and TVs via Netflix. Another Robert the Bruce film is scheduled for theatrical release in 2019, and the inevitable comparison will be made at that time.

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A PRIVATE WAR (2018)

November 10, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Marie Colvin was a (seemingly) fearless war correspondent obsessed with giving a voice to those forgotten during war. Were she alive today, she could not have hand-picked a better filmmaker than Matthew Heineman to tell her story. Director Heineman was Oscar nominated for CARTEL LAND (2014) and, combined with his CITY OF GHOSTS (2017), gives him two of the best ever documentaries that show what the front lines are like in both international wars and the equally dangerous wars being fought over drug territories. Heineman has carried his own camera directly into the center of those storms, while Ms. Colvin took her pen and pad. Simpatico.

Based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” (screenplay by Arash Amel), the film benefits from the extraordinary and courageous work of Ms. Colvin, and also a terrific performance from Rosamund Pike (words I’ve not previously written). Ms. Pike captures the extremes of Ms. Colvin’s life – the atrocities of war and the self-prescribed treatment of her PTSD through vodka, and does so in a manner that always seems believable. She lets us in to a world most of us can’t imagine.

As a war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times (since 1986), Ms. Colvin told the stories we’d rather not know. In her words, “I saw it, so you don’t have to.” The film begins with a stunning overhead view of 2012 war-ravaged Homs Syria (destruction courtesy of Assad’s soldiers) – a place that starts the film and later ends the story. We then flash back to 2001 London so we can witness Marie in society and struggling with a personal relationship. She then chooses, against her editor’s (Tom Hollander) guidance to cover Sri Lanka. It’s a decision that cost her an eye, while also providing her recognition as the eye-patch wearing female war reporter.

In 2003, a tip takes her to a previously undiscovered mass grave site in Fallujah. This is her first work alongside photographer Paul Conroy (played by Jamie Dornan). Having “seen more war than most soldiers”, Ms. Colvin’s severe alcoholism can’t kill the nightmares, visions, and PTSD. After time in a clinic, she returns to work. We see her in 2009 Afghanistan and then pulling no punches when interviewing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. During these assignments, we learn much about Ms. Colvin’s personality and approach. She is rarely without a cigarette, admits to wearing Le Perla lingerie (and why), carries Martha Gellhorn’s “The Face of War” as her field manual, and wins two British Foreign Journalist of the Year awards – though seeing her at the banquets is quite surreal.

Hollander’s subtle performance as news editor Sean Ryan is also quite impressive. He fears for her safety (and even questions her sanity) but is in constant conflict with the need to sell newspapers – something Ms. Colvin’s stories certainly did. Stanley Tucci has a role as Tony Shaw, her love interest, but despite her words, we never believe he and his sailboat are ever more than a distraction from her obsession with the front lines. The final sequence in 2012 Homs Syria is stunning, as is her final interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Ms. Pike has altered her voice to mimic the deeper tone of Marie Colvin – her efforts confirmed in the final interview played at the film’s end. It’s quite a career boost for Ms. Pike, who has previously been known for playing ice queens in films like GONE GIRL. She captures the traumatized Marie, but also the obsession of someone whose DNA constantly drove her back to the stories that needed to be told.

Director Heineman’s unique perspective combined with the cinematography of 3 time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (a favorite of Scorcese, Tarantino, and Oliver Stone) delivers a realism of war that we rarely see on screen. Mr. Richardson also shot SALVADOR (1986) and PLATOON (1986) and his work here surpasses both. The film gives us a glimpse at the psychological effects of such reporting, and a feel for the constant stress of being surrounded by tragedy and danger. This is fitting tribute to a courageous and very skilled woman, although I do wish the men weren’t constantly helping her out of trucks and jeeps.

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BOY ERASED (2018)

November 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It has taken two movies this year, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST and this one from writer-director-producer-actor Joel Edgerton, and I finally understand that the practice of conversion therapy (treatment designed to change a person’s orientation to heterosexual from something else) is real … and it’s widespread … and it’s cruel … and it’s absurd. I’ll readily admit that my little life bubble has previously protected me from knowing much about the world of conversion.

Lucas Hedges has quickly developed into a dependable dramatic actor with his moving performances in such films as MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, LADY BIRD, and MID90S. Here he stars as Jared Eamons, a college aged young man struggling with the inner turmoil that accompanies being a gay man raised by a Pastor-dad in the heart of the Bible belt. Since the film is based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, we can assume much of what we see and hear has been seen and heard by Mr. Conley in his life.

Jared’s parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and while the parental actions of their characters may confound us, both deliver strong performances. One especially impactful scene allows Ms. Kidman to show what sets her apart … it occurs in her scene at a table with Hedges when momma finally takes control. Director Edgerton appears as Victor Sykes, the director and “therapist” at Love In Action, the refuge program where Jared’s parents send him.

Over the opening credits we get childhood clips showing Jared was a “normal” little boy being raised in a loving household. Flash forward to his awkward date with a girlfriend who asks him “what’s wrong?”. Later, after being sexually assaulted by a college buddy, Jared comes out to his parents. His time in Sykes’ program is filled with unimaginable steps. A Genogram is to be completed, listing all of the personal problems and “dangerous” traits of relatives on the family tree – the point is to isolate the source of sin. One boy is beaten with bibles by his family in an effort to drive out the demons of homosexuality (nope, that’s not a joke). There is also a macho counselor (played by Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers) who gives inspiring manly talks and teaches how to look, act, and stand like a real man. It’s all so pathetic and tragic.

Rather than focus on Jared and the others in the program, much of the time is spent with his parents and why/how they could make the decision to enter him into conversion therapy. Jared’s dad tells him he won’t be loved by God … a message also delivered by Sykes. When Jared’s mom (Kidman) states “our family is so normal”, we aren’t sure whether she believes it, or wishes it so – although she leaves no doubt how she pictures a normal family. Of course, it’s really Jared’s dad (Crowe) who takes the news as a personal affront to his manhood and religious beliefs … beliefs somehow more important than his own son.

Support work is provided by Joe Alwyn, Cherry Jones (as a doctor, and the only reasonable adult), Frank Hoyt Taylor, Britton Sear, and Jess LeTourette. Filmmaker Xavier Dolan (MOMMY, 2014) also has a role as Jon, one of those in the program. The music is provided by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns, and for the most part, director Edgerton stays consistent with his focus on characters – though his frequent use of slo-motion loses impact with each successive use. The film avoids any cheap sentimentality or emotional gut-punches, instead focusing on the daily dealings. Perhaps it’s meant to appeal to parents in this situation – those parents who are confused and misguided. We see this film more than we feel it, although I often found myself looking at these parents and asking, ‘what’s wrong with these people?’ When the film ends by telling us 36 states allow for conversion therapy, we quickly realize Jared’s parents may be more ‘normal’ than we thought (incredible as it seems).

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THE RECKONING: HOLLYWOOD’S WORST KEPT SECRET (2018, doc)

November 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are in full force, and if you somehow missed “what happened”, director Barry Avrich’s film will fill you in and get you caught up. As an expose’, it’s a bit late to the party, but as a look at how we got here, it’s pretty much right on the nose. The film opens with a proverbial cold slap to the face of viewers. We hear the Howard Stern interview where movie mogul Harvey Weinstein denies any type of sexual malfeasance exists in Hollywood. Weinstein, of course, is the poster boy for sexual misconduct in the movie industry. He’s a man who has kept the “casting couch” alive for three decades; although as we’ve learned, it certainly wasn’t Weinstein acting alone (unfortunately).

Much of the film is focused on Weinstein, and justifiably so. He is described as talented AND a monster – also as cunning, witty, brilliant, and devastating. This man was such a megalomaniac that he structured his business around two things: making money on independent films and using his position of power and influence to put women in compromising and unsafe situations. He went so far as to utilize “honey pots” – female assistants who could gain the trust of the actresses and help lure them to his web of sleaze. One of these former assistants, Zelda Perkins, is interviewed and sheds light on the process.

Many others are interviewed for the film. Writers, reporters, agents, lawyers, a psychologist, and actresses all tell their stories and insight. Weinstein is not the only name that’s named. The film also touches on: Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Woody Allen, Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Olympic Doctor Nassar … and even Pepe Le Pew (from Looney Tunes). A segment is dedicated to the audacity and despicable actions of director James Toback (known as the dream killer), and Tippi Hedren and Joan Collins talk about “that’s the way it’s always been”. We learn Mack Sennett is credited as being the founding father of the casting couch (in the early 1900’s), though numerous studio heads, producers and directors have since preyed on the ambitions of wannabe starlets.

In an awkward segment, acting legend Meryl Streep admits “I’m taking some hits” after having been targeted by street artist Sabo with #SheKnew posters. If nothing else, this underscores just how difficult it has been for women to speak up … at least until now. Dozens and dozens of women have come forward with their stories, leaving us hopeful that this blight on the industry might be over for good. Leonard Cohen’s biting song “Everybody Knows” is put to good use here.

When one of his victims recalls the story where he gifted her a copy of Fitzgeralds’ “The Last Tycoon”, and Weinstein bluntly stated, “that’s me”, we begin to understand that this monster was not just about control … he was out of control. He lost his barometer on right and wrong, and it became about what he was entitled to in his position at the top of the movie making world. Thanks to some courageous women, he no longer has that power position, and with forums like this film from director Avrich, it’s likely no other predator in this industry will ever again be able to abuse the power to the extent we’ve seen from Harvey Weinstein.

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THE DIVIDE (2018)

November 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who were watching movies in the 1970’s recall Perry King as one of the fresh-faced, hunky twenty-somethings in THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974) … along with Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler. Now, more than 40 years later, not only does Mr. King star as crusty old rancher Sam Kincaid, but he also directs his first feature film. The script is written by Jana F Brown, in what is also her first screenplay. Due to its setting, the film could be labeled as a western, but it’s really a personal drama emphasizing the importance of family reconciliation.

Sam Kincaid (King) is an elderly rancher who lives on land that looks a great deal like the Lucas McCain ranch from the TV classic “The Rifleman”. We first see Sam as he shares his philosophy of mending fences with his hired help. If you are curious, it has to do with knowing “why the holes are there”. Luke (Bryan Kaplan) is the young ranch hand who must not only deal with the severe drought-plagued northern California climate of 1976, but also the past-their-prime tools and equipment. Presenting even more of a challenge is Sam himself.

Sam is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his house is decorated with personal notes reminding him how the light switch works, or to perform some other menial task. A particularly pointed note on the phone states, “your daughter doesn’t want to talk to you”. Luke figures out the father and daughter had some kind of falling out, but he soon realizes Sam’s disease is progressing pretty quickly. He tracks down daughter Sarah (Sara Arrington) and pleads with her to come visit her father.

As much as I enjoyed the banter between Sam and Luke, the film picks up a bit when Sarah and her son (Sam’s unknown grandson) arrive. Family issues, secrets and skeletons in the closet make communication between these folks more than a tad uncomfortable at times. However, slowly we see the “fence” mending … and Sam’s early philosophy becomes crystal clear. Campfire-style music plays throughout much of the film, and Sam’s repeated questions allow Luke, Sarah, and grandson CJ to comprehend what’s happening and what needs to be done. Sam’s recurring nightmare can only be stopped with a reconciliation that’s painful for all involved. Perry King proves his effectiveness as an aged rancher, and also as a first time filmmaker. He and Ms. Brown deliver a nice message … and the black and white photography serves the faces and setting quite well.

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SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN (2018, doc)

November 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite his being one of the most productive and influential filmmakers of all-time, it’s understandable if you are concerned that a biopic of Ingmar Bergman might be a bit dry or difficult to connect with … you know, kind of like his movies. The happy truth is that Margarethe von Trotta, Felix Moeller, and Bettina Bohler have collaborated on this very interesting dig inside the mind and process of this remarkable Swedish artist.

Mr. Bergman’s best known films include: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957), PERSONA (1966), CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982). It’s likely you have either seen all of these or none, but either way, as long as you have some interest in the history of cinema, you’ll be hooked on the multiple interviews and clips provided here.

Among those interviewed are actress Liv Ullman (she turns 80 this year), who appeared in 10 (she says 11) Bergman films. She cheerfully recalls the first time she met the director and how it led to their first collaboration, PERSONA. We also hear insight and personal stories from director and fellow Swede Ruben Ostlund (director of the terrific FORCE MAJEURE), Swedish documentarian Stig Bjorkman, and two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel and Ingmar Jr. On the personal side, we learn the legendary filmmaker was son to the Parson of a local church, married 5 different women and fathered 9 children via 6 women (his 5 wives plus Liv Ullmann), and that he wasn’t close to any of his children. He was described as viewing childhood through his own, rather than that of his kids. On his 60th birthday, there was an unusual gathering of all 9 children, many who had never previously met.

Maybe some of this is explained by Bergman’s own definition of art as “therapy for the artist”. This makes sense as so many discuss his insecurities and his own concerns with never being good enough. This despite a career of 50 plus films (many of which are studied in film classes) and nearly three times that many stage productions. Being wrongfully accused of tax evasion in 1976 affected his health and career, as well as his love of homeland Sweden. He moved to Germany before living out most of his life on the island of Faro – where he also filmed many movies.

The interviews presented here by Ms. Von Trotta (herself an accomplished filmmaker and actress) are each informative, though additional interviews from Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson (each appeared in 13 Bergman movies), and Woody Allen (the American filmmaker most closely associated with Bergman) would not just have added flavor, but were also kind of expected. The end result is that we view Bergman as the ultimate brooder, and one who had much respect and admiration for actors. Though he passed away in 2007 (the same day as director Antonioni), we are now even more convinced that Ingmar Bergman was a master of both the written word and on screen imagery.

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THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Missing: Tchaikovsky and Ballet. OK, not missing entirely, and it seems all we do is beg for creativity and new approaches in movies, so let’s give this one fair treatment. It’s not the traditional “Nutcracker” holiday fare you’ve come to expect on stage, on TV, in the mall, at schools, and just about everywhere. Instead, it’s a version wrung from both the 1816 original short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and the 1892 ballet by Marius Petipa with music from Tchaikovsky, yet also something quite different. Still, different doesn’t always mean better … sometimes it just means different.

We are treated to a beautiful extended opening shot as an owl swoops through old London. This acts as preparation for the abundance of stunning visuals headed our way throughout. Budding star Mackenzie Foy (INTERSTELLAR, 2014) plays Clara Stahlbaum, a young girl distraught that it’s her first Christmas without her beloved mother Marie, who recently passed away. Clara’s quietly grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) delivers the presents Marie left for each of the three kids. Mechanically inclined Clara’s gift is an ornate egg that requires a specialty key to unlock the hidden message Clara believes her mother has left.

A lavish Christmas party at her Godfather’s (Oscar winner Morgan Freeman) mansion leads Clara to a parallel universe where her mother Marie was Queen of the four realms. This is a fantastical land that reminds (maybe a bit too much) of Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. Clara buddies up with a live Nutcracker soldier Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who quickly becomes her trusted bodyguard. Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, Land of Sweets, and the blighted Fourth Realm run by a cast-out Mother Ginger (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) make up this world. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her devilishly fun performance is responsible for most of the energy, humor and entertainment outside of the visual effects. The two time Oscar nominee seems to relish the voice, the costumes and the chance to play a quirky character.

Disney touches like the animal sidekicks are noted: Phillip’s loyal steed, and the pesky little mouse that flashes more personality than anyone in the film outside of Sugar Plum. Most of the comedic secondary characters (including Richard E Grant and Eugenio Derbez) fall flat with very little do in a screenplay from Ashleigh Powell that gives the impression of multiple hands in the pie. Adding to the disjointed feel and lack of cohesion in the story flow is the fact that two very different directors worked on the project. Lasse Hallstrom (CHOCOLAT) handled principal photography and then Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) spent a month on re-shoots with attention to visual effects. The contrasts between these two directors is quite clear in the finished project despite the cinematographer of Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND).

The mishmash of styles and tone prevents us from ever really connecting with characters or being drawn in by the story, but beyond that, there are some really terrific visuals and special effects. I especially liked the look of the enhanced tin soldiers and the work of two time Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan. Of course, this is a familiar story and many viewers bring certain expectations into the theatre with them. The iconic Tchaikovsky music is played early and throughout the film, though mostly in teases and in blends with new music from James Newton Howard. We do get a glimpse of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the orchestra, and for those expecting ballet, the fabulous Misty Copeland performs a couple of times, though it’s likely not enough for those hoping for more of a ballet production. The end result is an impressive visual experience that will likely still disappoint those looking for another holiday watching tradition.

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