THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Valeria Bandino is Tart, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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DADDY’S HOME 2 (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s rare for a sequel to be a better film than the original, and we are entering unicorn territory when dealing with comedy sequels improving on the first film. So hearing that most of the original cast is back for material from the same creative team – director Sean Anders and his co-writers Brian Burns and John Morris – well, expectations would normally be pretty low. However, all of that changes when we learn of two cast/character additions: Mel Gibson and John Lithgow.

After the fierce daddy competition between Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) in the original two years ago, this film picks up with what looks to be a very healthy co-dad environment for all involved. In comedy-based cinema, the best way to disrupt a happy family synergy is to introduce the Christmas season and the sure-to-follow family turmoil. Enter Mel Gibson as Dusty’s estranged dad, and John Lithgow as Brad’s so-close-it’s-too-close dad … and let the holiday escapades begin.

At its core, this is an observational comedy about the contrast between old school and contemporary fatherhood – machismo vs emotionally open. Mel Gibson is key to the story working on multiple levels, and his performance is a reminder of his immense screen talent (in spite his personal life issues). His character’s idea of being a father has been around for many generations. Toughen up the kids and make sure they are strong and independent. Keep those emotions close to the vest. On the other side is John Lithgow and his over-hugging and blubbering true feelings approach.

The familiar supporting cast holds up their end admirably. Linda Cardellini and Alessandra Ambrosio are back as Brad’s and Dusty’s wives, respectively. Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, and Didi Costine are back as the kids – each with their own quirks and growing pains. Even John Cena returns as Adrianna’s biological father, and to deliver one of the film’s best punchlines, as well as a bit that might forever ruin Christmas caroling for you.

The trailer, as with most comedies these days, gives away too many of the funny moments, so don’t expect any additional spoilers here. There is some comedy brilliance mixed in with the cheesy, over-the-top slapstick (a snowblower scene that could have easily worked in CHRISTMAS VACATION almost 30 years ago). The brilliant moments are often the quieter ones, and they focus on parenting, family, and the challenges of childhood. There is a surprising and unusual cameo near the end, and the movie is well executed to satisfy its built-in audience, while also capitalizing on those who enjoy (and/or need) a good, clean comedy at Christmas time.

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LAST FLAG FLYING (2017)

November 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Apprehension and trepidation are the emotions that strike whenever anyone compares a movie to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby/ Jack Nicholson film THE LAST DETAIL. That holds true even if the novel the film is based on was written by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) who wrote “The Last Detail” (1970), and even if the new film is directed by one of the finest directors working today – Richard Linklater. This latest doesn’t play like a true sequel, but the reuniting of three men who served together in Vietnam does hammer home a couple of interesting statements while also delivering the type of dramedy that 2017 audiences tend to connect with.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy medic, has had the type of year that no one deserves. It’s 2003 and he has just been notified that his Marine son was killed in action while on duty in the war in Iraq. This comes only a few months after Doc lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. It’s too much for him to handle on his own, so he embarks on a mission to ask his Vietnam buddies from three decades prior to accompany him to claim his son’s body at Arlington National Cemetery.

His two buddies are former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne). Sal is a washed out dive bar owner and Mueller is now the Reverend at a small church. The three men share the burden of a war secret that each has tried to forget, and they begin what’s basically a road trip movie of middle aged men bonding during what is the absolute low point in life for one of them. Simultaneously, it also seems like an opportunity for all three to rejoin the living.

Lost idealism is the shared trait now among the three men, though their levels of cynicism vary. Edwin Starr sang it, and the characters in this movie openly question: War … What is it good for? Doc, Sal and Mueller have separated themselves from memories of war in three distinct ways – family, booze, and God. It’s only by reconnecting with each other that they begin the long overdue process of reflection. TV’s are tuned to the capture of Saddam Hussein from the spider-hole, and the similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are contemplated. These are patriotic men who once trusted the government, but are now so disenchanted they ask “what’s the point?”

Mr. Cranston has the showiest role, but it’s Mr. Carell who shines as the still-in-shock father. J Quinton Johnson also excels as the young Marine charged with accompanying the gentlemen, and the best scene of the film features Cicely Tyson as the mother of a long ago fallen soldier who crossed paths with the three leads. As you might expect in a Linklater movie, the musical choices are unusual and spot on. Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Eminem (“Without Me”), and Levon Helm (“Wide River to Cross”) are all included.

The film is certainly an unusual blend of comedy, tragic drama, and contemporary political commentary. Unfortunately, the contrivances are too many and too frequent to allow the film and characters to breathe and achieve the greatness of a true message movie. It teases us with flashes us brilliance and then pokes us in the ribs with another goofy sidebar as if to say “just kidding”. It seems this would have been better served as an intimate portrayal of these three aging men who were willing to die for their country than as a giant political anti-war statement and an accusation of how evil the government is. The ultimate message Linklater drills home: be a good friend, and be a good person. We can never have enough of those.

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)

October 18, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The Happiest Place on Earth” has long been a Disney catchphrase. The irony for those living on the road to Disney World is the focus of the latest from ground-breaking filmmaker Sean Baker. Mr. Baker was the creative force behind the remarkable TANGERINE (shot entirely with iphones) a couple of years ago, and his most recent film solidifies his brilliance at bringing us the fringes of society – those we don’t typically see on screen. Beyond that, these are the folks many of us pay little attention to in real life.

The Magic Castle Motel is a lavender monstrosity that belies the daily struggles of those who live behind its purple doors. It’s actually a seedy extended-stay that caters to ultra-budget guests. Included among those are 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). As we watch them spit on a car below their perch on the motel balcony, we quickly judge these as kids with a bit too much free time and a shortage of parental guidance.

As the summer days roll on, we tag along as Moonee leads Scooty and their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) in some boundary-pushing adventures. Their fun ranges from typical kid mischief to accidents with more serious ramifications. The brilliance here is that through the child’s eye, we see joy and excitement and fun. We hear the purity of giggles and giddy screeches as the kids bound between tourist traps, ice cream parlors, and rooms forbidden as off-limits. All of this miscreant activity occurs amidst the adults who trudge on simply trying to survive another day.

While we might be tempted to recall Cat Stevens’ lyrics, “while the sinners sin, the children play”, it’s director Baker that refuses to pass judgment. Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) was recently fired from her “dancing” job, and is now constantly on the prowl to make enough money to cover the weekly motel bill. She clearly loves her daughter, but is too proud and angry, and just has no idea of how to pull out of this vicious cycle of poverty. The artificial dreams that are prevalent in so many films have no place at the Magic Castle Motel. It’s about the next meal and keeping a roof above.

Don’t go searching for plot here. Instead, at times it feels like a documentary on Moonee or the spirited need for fun and laughter that is in the DNA of kids. We are just following a real kid around, and that’s a tribute to the marvel that is Brooklyn Kimberly Prince. She steals every scene and most of the movie … and that’s in spite of the terrific performances from Ms. Vinaite and screen vet Willem Dafoe. It’s a rare “normal” role for Mr. Dafoe, and he makes the most of it as Bobby, the motel’s manager. He is also a father figure, mediator of disputes, bill collector, and protector of damaged souls. With no hint of saccharine or Hollywood mush, Bobby is unable to detach emotionally from those who live at the hotel, not because he is soft, but rather because he is human. We see his demeanor change drastically when the owner of the hotel arrives for inspection. Bobby understands the fragility of his own situation due to what he witnesses each day.

Director Baker is a master of color use and the blending of abrupt framed images with the handhelds in close proximity within motel rooms and personal interactions. His story (co-written with his TANGERINE and STARLET collaborator Chris Bergoch) never feels condescending, preachy or romanticized. There is no blatant political statement being made. These are folks living their lives as best they are able within the confines of their situation. The police and Child Protective Services are always hovering as a reminder that the next mistake could significantly alter lives. Somehow, the film is both hilarious and heart-breaking. The obvious comparison is to last year’s MOONLIGHT, and it could even be viewed as a prequel to AMERICAN HONEY. Mostly it’s a slice of rarely seen life and further proof that Sean Baker is already an important filmmaker, and one that likely has more to say. As for the debate around the final scene, does it really matter? There is no better place for a child to escape reality … even if it might only be in their mind. Sometimes that’s the only escape we get.

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