THE UPSIDE (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frequent movie goers often complain about the lack of originality in American movies. It sometimes seems as if most are sequels, remakes or reboots, or simply pulled from the panels of a comic book. There is another source that is particularly irksome to yours truly, and that’s the Americanization of an outstanding film from another country – World Cinema, if you will. Seven plus years ago, while watching the crowd-pleasing (though not so critically acclaimed) and exceptionally performed 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, there was little doubt that it would, at some point, be subjected to an American “enhancement”. Sure enough, director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) perfectly captures why this transition is sometimes so painful to see.

Based on a true story, filthy rich quadriplegic widower Phillip Lacasse is played by Bryan Cranston, while Nicole Kidman (her 4th film in 8 weeks) plays Yvonne, Phillip’s wound-too-tight, ultra-loyal chief of staff (she handles his many business affairs and calendar) with an obvious ulterior motive. Kevin Hart (he of recent Oscar-hosting drama) plays Dell, an unemployed ex-con street hustler. While searching for employment to appease his Parole Officer, Dell stumbles into a Park Avenue penthouse where Phillip and Yvonne are conducting interviews for a full-time caregiver to Phillip. Though he is woefully unqualified, and Yvonne protests mightily, Phillip chooses Dell. The undercurrent here is that Dell’s self-centeredness corresponds nicely to Phillip’s DNR and lack of will to live since his wife’s death from cancer.

The opening sequence has Dell racing through downtown, evading police, while driving a Ferrari with Phillip in the passenger seat. This is followed by a promising “6 months earlier” flashback introducing us to Dell’s ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their teenage son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), both of whom are fed up with the lack of support and trustworthiness of Dell. Basically, Dell is a deadbeat dad with little ambition – other than to avoid returning to prison.

The tone of the film changes once Dell has the job as Phillip’s carer. The bulk of the remaining run time (which is 20 minutes too long) becomes a comedy skit showcasing the punchlines of Kevin Hart. Mind you, the full house I watched the screening with seemed to love every bit, as laughter filled the theatre. For me, I could only long for the soul and spirit of that beloved French film from years ago … and the amazing chemistry between the charismatic Omar Sy and the talented Francois Cluzet. This version isn’t about chemistry – it’s about comic timing. The only real exception to that is a terrific and psychologically deep scene with Julianna Margulies playing Phillip’s pen pal, as they meet for the first time over lunch. The scene is played beautifully, but is a complete tonal change from what comes before and after. Contrasting this scene with Kevin Hart’s over-the-top antics in the high-tech shower, magnifies the contrast in concepts.

Jon Hartmere is credited with the screenplay based on the original film’s screenplay by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. For some reason, Phillip Pozzo di Borgo’s autobiography doesn’t make the credits for this version. A bit more attention to Dell’s ex and son could have worked to humanize him, and soften the caricature on display. This comes across as an interracial odd-fellow buddy flick, where yet another black man (often in a subservient role) rescues an entitled white person (even if they’re disabled) from lack of hope and leads them to a life worth living. Is it possible to make a movie based on race and class, and even romance, and still offer no real insight? Apparently the answer is yes, if one chooses to go for easy laughs. Perhaps you’ll join the audience in rolling along with Dell’s first trip to the opera, or the disrespect to art collectors – or that seemingly never-ending catheter scene. Or perhaps you can be persuaded to track down THE INTOUCHABLES for a more emotional and inspirational telling of this story.

***NOTE: I should also mention that one of my Top 5 movies of 2018 has already been targeted for an American remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Boo. Hiss.

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DESTROYER (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The rogue/burned-out cop obsessed with an old case or particular criminal nemesis is something we have seen many times before. Ordinarily there would be no reason to seek out yet another movie on the subject; however, this time the reason is obvious … Nicole Kidman.

Ms. Kidman, an Oscar winner for THE HOURS (2002), is an excellent actress and has had a wonderful career, but this is something altogether different for her. She plays LAPD Detective Erin Bell, a worn-down, emotionally shattered shell of the idealistic cop who, 17 years earlier, was part of an undercover operation that went tragically and violently wrong. Director Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009) bounces back and forth on the timelines – sometimes we are viewing Erin’s undercover work with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), and others we get the haggard Erin of present day. The contrast is stark.

The ghost of case past has returned, and we witness what has haunted her these many years. Past decisions and actions have rotted her spirit, while alcohol has since destroyed her body. She is a wreck – physically and emotionally, and her reputation within the force is shot. It wouldn’t be totally accurate to describe her as self-destructive since she has already destructed. The only thing keeping her going is booze and a desire for revenge.

Flashbacks take us through her early work with the crime gang led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a master of psychological manipulation (think Charles Manson). We also see Erin’s too-close connection to partner Chris, and a terrific bank heist scene explains how things went down. Now it’s 17 years later, and Silas has resurfaced. Erin wonders why. We also see Erin’s feeble attempts to be a mother to her 16 year old daughter (do the math) Shelby, played by Jade Pettyjohn. The two have only a sliver of a relationship as Shelby lives with Erin’s ex Ethan (the eternally underutilized Scoot McNairy).

Other support work is provided by Tatiana Maslany as one of Silas’ gang, and Bradley Whitford as a scummy defense attorney. Erin has a sequence with the latter that emphasizes just how alone she is. When asked where her partner is, we realize she has no partner with her and no back-up on the way … she is a lonely, desperate, rogue cop with a murky plan and a head clouded by booze.

Writing partners Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (known for CLASH OF THE TITANS and RIDE ALONG) deliver very few surprises with the script, leaving the burden on Ms. Kidman to keep us interested. And despite her character’s train wreck of a life, the performance is quite something to behold … her look, her gait, and even her whispered voice – all point to a woman hanging on by a thread and lacking basic daily energy to show any signs of hope. Director Kusama adds texture by showing many non-touristy areas of Los Angeles, and filming the two timelines in such a way that the structure works – although the Erin in shambles is far more intriguing than the younger one. On a separate note, there should be a special Oscar for the make-up team that managed to make the usually glamorous Ms. Kidman look realistically shattered.

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ROCKAWAY (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is established Visual Effects artist John J Budion’s first feature film as writer-director, and he likely exorcises some personal demons with a semi-autobiographical look back at his childhood. Set in the summer of 1994 in East Rockaway, New York, the story is told from the perspective of an adult John (Frankie J Alvarez), who narrates his recollections of that year.

Young John (played by Maxwell Apple), a somewhat withdrawn kid, hero worships brash New York Knicks guard John Starks to the point that he wears a Starks jersey almost non-stop. The two are polar opposite personalities, and the only one who really understands John’s obsession is his protective older brother Anthony (Keidrich Sellati, Henry from “The Americans”). Why does John need Anthony’s protection? Well that’s due to their abusive father (Wass Stevens, THE WRESTLER) who is bitter and angry most of the time – and takes it out on the boys and their mother (Marjan Neshat).

The brothers share two wishes: a championship for their beloved Knicks and a more peaceful living environment without their abusive father. They are so focused on the latter that they’ve created a scheme to “off” the angry dad – this despite their mother’s promise to take them away from it all as soon as she finds work in another city.

It’s about this time when John and Anthony meet some other neighborhood boys, and what follows is the easy camaraderie of kids when no parents are polluting the moment (an ideal that seems quite antiquated in this day and age). Billy (a standout Harrison Wittmeyer) is the mature-beyond-his years leader, Dom (James DiGiamcomo) is the unathletic jokester, Brian (Tanner Flood) is the brainy one, and Sal (Colin Critchley) is the motor-mouthed preener. The boys share a love of sports and the fine art of needling each other with sharp cut-downs. In other words, they are kids being kids, and this escapism opens up a new world for Anthony and John.

It’s a coming of age story with obvious comparisons to STAND BY ME and THE SANDLOT, and though not at the level of either of those classics, it does feature some fine nostalgic moments of childhood. The film suffers a bit from an ending that’s overly sappy and clean, though kudos to all involved if this is true to their life. It’s certainly a stretch for most. Adults are more likely than kids to find appeal here, and the film might have benefited from a better exploration of what drove the dad to such extremes.

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ASHES IN THE SNOW (2019)

January 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most World War II films focus on the atrocities committed by Hitler’s German forces, but this adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’ novel (“Between Shades of Gray”) reminds us of the evils under Stalin and the Russian seizure of the Baltic States. Director Marius A Markevicius delivers a feature film debut that is both historical drama and tale of human perseverance.

We have long since been educated on just how cruel humans can and have been to other humans, and director Markevicius – with a script from Ben York Jones (LIKE CRAZY, 2011) – doesn’t shy away from the cruelty or atrocities, but he and cinematographer Ramunus Greicius capture the harshness and brutality of the Siberian environment, as well as the brief moments when those being held captive feel sparks of life.

Bel Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, 2015) stars as Lina, a young Lithuanian artist who lives with her family: mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEUR) and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet). The father/husband is played by Sam Hazeldine and we learn of his secret agenda and activism later in the film. When Russian troops forcibly remove mother and the two kids from their home, a long train ride ends with their working the fields in the Altai Labor Camp in Siberia.

Martin Wallstrom is excellent as Kretzky, a conflicted Russian soldier from the Ukraine. He’s kind of persona non-grata on both sides, and as an outsider to the troops and the “devil” to the prisoners, he is somewhat of a sympathetic character. A year later (1942), the family and Officer Kretzky are shipped off to Laptev Sea in the Arctic Circle. This frozen tundra is no place for human beings and death seems preferable to freezing in misery. When giving the relocation order, Kretzky’s commanding officer calls them “one big happy family in frozen hell”. It’s a great line. An acutely descriptive line.

Young Lina’s childhood innocence has been shattered, but she possesses an inner strength that only such miserable circumstances could unveil. She carries on finding brief respites in her art and in fleeting romance with fellow prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King).

There is a story told, a legend really, about a fishing boat and its survivors – the correlation made late in the film. The devastating circumstances and desolate landscape are accompanied aptly by German composer Volker Bertelmann. But let’s face it, war crimes against the innocent are tough to watch even in movie form, and this film, regardless of how expertly it’s crafted, is relentless in bleakness – though heartfelt and sincere.

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Best of 2018

January 6, 2019

Just posted: the BEST OF 2018 film list!

This year’s post has my Top 5 movies of the year, plus the Next Best 14, plus MANY other recommendations in various categories for those of you who enjoy stepping outside of your movie watching comfort zone! Hopefully you can find something on the list that interests you.  Check it out:

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2018/

 


STAN & OLLIE (2019)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.

The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.

It’s this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.

As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.

The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced – alongside Ollie’s physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie’s heart condition finds the two mimicking their “hospital” skit in real life … it’s a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.

John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it’s difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.

Director Baird’s film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it’s a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks “easy”. This is what’s meant by honing the craft … even if it’s “another fine mess” accompanied by the trademark “Dance of the Cuckoos” music. Let’s hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol’ days of Classical Hollywood.

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LEAVE NO TRACE (2018)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like many more than 8 years have passed since filmmaker Debra Granik’s outstanding film WINTER’S BONE exploded onto the indie scene and introduced most of us to Jennifer Lawrence (although she had been acting for 5 years prior). The talented Ms. Granik has chosen to adapt another book as her feature film follow-up, and once again nature and an independent spirit play a key role. Based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, it’s the story of a father and daughter who live off the grid … until society catches up to them.

Ben Foster (always exceptional) plays Will, a war veteran and father to Tom, his teenage daughter played brilliantly by Thomasin McKenzie. The two live off the grid in the forests outside of Portland. An extended opening sequence with very little dialogue shows us their daily life: capturing rain water, cutting trees for firewood, hiding their camp site, and drilling on making themselves ‘disappear’ in the foliage. It’s in these scenes where cinematographer Michael McDonough shines. His camera work allows us to feel as if we are in the damp forest as the sun rays peek through the trees. It’s a beautiful sight despite our uneasiness towards the father-daughter situation.

When Park Rangers discover them, the two enter the Social Services system, but rather than treat us to yet another uncaring and incompetent bureaucracy, director Granik allows human kindness and reasonableness to play its part. Will and Tom are moved onto a farm where she will enroll in school and he will work on a Christmas tree farm. Of course, we know that Will is not cut out for this life, though we begin to see Tom show signs of true independence and her own dreams.

They make their way back into the woods and an injury – and more human kindness – has them end up in a camp with other outliers. The story really captures the conflict between a society that is obligated to educate and protect children, and the same society that has little clue how to assist veterans of war. We see folks who just want to be left alone, and others who maybe can’t fit in to society – or have no interest in trying.

Supporting work is provided by Dana Millican, the great Dale Dickey, and Isiah Stone (one of the kids from WINTER’S BONE). There is a believability here rarely seen on the big screen, and the love between father and daughter is something to behold. Ms. Granik says so much by saying very little, but what could be such a bleak story actually revels in the kindness to fellow man – the type of kindness which seems all too rare these days.

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