MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The history of monarchs goes back more than a thousand years. These days we view British royalty as little more than telegenic subjects for gossip sites, though for hundreds of years, the crown carried real power. Of course, the system never made any logical sense. Why should a baby born to the “right” family be pre-ordained to rule the country? These birthrights even caused much confusion and debate … and wars … when there was uncertainty about which kid was the most important. And yes, kids is the proper term. Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was six days old when her father King James V died, and she ascended to the throne (though the actual ruling was done by regents until she was older).

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). The two were cousins (not sisters), and the film examines many aspects of this era: the struggle for the throne between the two, the unusual circumstances that found two women in power, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by men in an effort to wrestle power from the women, the importance of marriage and heirs, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and the bizarre arrangement that caused Mary to spend nearly half her life in custody.

Director Josie Rourke is best known for her stage productions, some of which have been broadcast live in cinemas. This is her debut feature film, and her talent is quite obvious. She gets “big” with stunning sweeping vistas, and intimate with dark chamber meetings. The castles look and feel like castles, and not the sound stage sets we often see in costume productions. The film is a thing of beauty and the two lead actresses are sublime … and with much more screen time, Ms. Ronan delivers a ferocious performance.

The screenplay from Beau Willimon (creator, producer and head writer of “House of Cards”) is based on the John Guy book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”. This matters because Mr. Guy theorizes that the two sovereigns actually met in real life, something very much doubted by historians. Either way, it makes for an interesting (if not a bit hokey) segment in the film, as Elizabeth and Mary wander through billowing curtains in a clandestine spot. The costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne are so beautiful, they are nearly a character altogether.

Beginning at the end, we get an early look at Mary’s “martyrdom” march to her execution on 1587 at age 44. If you’ve ever read about the actual execution, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not shown on screen. Supporting work comes courtesy of Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, and an explosive David Tennant as a fire-breathing priest. This version plays up the inner-turmoil and challenges in power faced by the women – more so than the 1974 version starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson (the film received 5 Oscar nominations). Ms. Ronan and Ms. Robbie really help us understand the challenges these women faced – challenges that men on the throne wouldn’t have faced.

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BEN IS BACK (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many families have been thrown into turmoil due to a loved one’s drug addiction. Count writer/director Peter Hedges among those, so know this is more than just another film for him … it’s personal. Mr. Hedges previous work includes the underrated PIECES OF APRIL (2003) and DAN IN REAL LIFE (2007), as well as an Oscar nomination for his ABOUT A BOY (2002) screenplay. This time out, he cast his own son Lucas in the titular role of Ben. It was a wise choice.

When your son is checked into drug rehab, and you pull up to your house on Christmas Eve and see him pacing in the front yard, should your first reaction be total joy or immense trepidation? Are you thrilled to see him or worried for your other 3 kids – each who is in the car with you? Such is the moment for Holly Burns (played by Julia Roberts). With excitement from her two youngest, and pleas of “no” from her teenage daughter Ivy (Kathryn Newton), Holly bolts from the car and embraces Ben (Lucas Hedges), her eldest and most self-destructive child.

What follows is the ultimate example of inner-conflict for both mother and son. Holly is simultaneously happy to see her son and apprehensive for his well-being and that of her family. Ben is putting up an “all is well” front, while carrying the guilt of lying through his teeth. This initial sequence is by far the most powerful segment of the movie, and adding punch to these scenes are Ms. Newton and Courtney B Vance as Holly’s husband and Ben’s stepfather. Lucas Hedges and Kathryn Newton are immensely talented and two of the fastest rising young stars. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and she is recognizable from her work on “Big Little Lies”.

After such a strong beginning, the story falters quickly as it spreads outside of the family home. At the local shopping mall, mother Holly spews vicious venom at the doctor who first prescribed the pain killer for Ben’s sports injury. She blames the now dementia-riddled doctor for ruining her son’s life – it’s an all too obvious and overblown moment of a parent needing to place the blame elsewhere. Soon after, we truly fly off the rails as mother and son treat us to a tour of the cities drug-related highlights. When the family dog goes missing, most people post on Facebook for help. Not this family. They hop into the car and revisit all the drug havens and dealers from Ben’s past. Of course, we do get the obligatory drug recovery meeting where Ben’s soliloquy praises his mother (she’s in attendance) and shows remorse for his many sins.

Every parent will understand the desperate feeling of mother Holly here or father David (Steve Carell) in BEAUTIFUL BOY, a similar-themed movie released earlier this year. We are also familiar with the deceptive and often dangerous actions of addicts, even those who were raised in our home. So while we are flexible in our judgement of Holly, Ms. Roberts’ performance is just too showy and over-the-top here, though she’ll likely be lauded for a dramatic role with only minimal dependence on her usual acting quirks. The first third of the movie is outstanding, however the rest comes across as an attempt to create intense drama when there’s already plenty.

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SWIMMING WITH MEN (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are surprised to find a movie about an all-men’s middle-aged synchronized swim team, then you’ll likely be shocked to learn that another film on the same topic, LE GRAND BAIN (Sink or Swim), was released earlier this year, and these follow up a 2010 documentary MEN WHO SWIM covering the Swedish Men’s synchronized swim team. That’s right … three films! It is with great pleasure that I report director Olive Parker and writer Aschlin Ditta have delivered a charming and heartfelt movie that is really quite enjoyable, and more nuanced than you might pre-judge it to be.

Rob Brydon (THE TRIP) stars as Eric, a successful accountant going through a mid-life crisis that negatively affects his work, his marriage to Heather (a terrific Jane Horrocks), and his relationship with his teenage son Billy (Spike White). Eric spends his office days in a foggy haze, waiting for 6:00 pm so he can hit the local pool for a few laps – his only time alone without thoughts of boredom. On one of these evening dips, he (and we) get quite a visual … 7 men in goggles and caps sitting on the pool floor in a coordinated manner.

Soon enough, thanks to his math and analytical skills, Eric is invited to join the swim club (first rule of swim club: Don’t talk about swim club!) consisting of team leader Luke (Rupert Graves), dentist Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), young scofflaw Tom (Thomas Turgoose), recent widower Ted (Jim Carter), former youth footballer Colin (Daniel Mays), the “new guy” (Ronan Daly), and “Silent Bob” (Chris Jepson). Rather than the island of misfit toys, it’s a group of slightly damaged men – each with their own story of why life isn’t so great at the moment. We learn about each right along with Eric, and easily see how he fits right in. This group alternates drowning their sorrows with a pint at the local pub with nearly drowning each other at the local pool … with only the best intentions, of course.

Once the lads learn there is a competition in Milan, they bring on local swim teacher Susan (a spunky Charlotte Riley, “Peaky Blinders”) to coach them towards respectability. Sure, we get a few clichés and the predictability of events is usually spot on; yet, there is a core to the story and to each of the men that brings a welcome depth. Their coordination in the water leads to their better balance on dry land (aka, everyday life).

This is far from traditional cinematic masculinity, and instead shows us the impact of friendship and purpose. The original reason for forming the team was to protest the meaningless of life – to find their purpose. This is accomplished through the brilliance of gentle British humor (think DANNY DECKCHAIR, THE FULL MONTY, EDDIE THE EAGLE), and the clumsiness of full-bodied men in a pool … accompanied by Tom Jones’ version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”.

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SONG OF BACK AND NECK (2018)

December 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Paul Lieberstein is best known and easily recognizable as Toby, Michael Scott’s HR nemesis on “The Office”. Mr. Lieberstein also wrote and directed many episodes of that popular TV show, and now he turns his talents to the big screen: donning all 4 hats as writer-director-producer-actor in his feature film debut as a filmmaker. It’s a romantic-comedy of pain, and the featured pain comes in both varieties: physical and emotional.

Fred (Lieberstein) is a long-term paralegal at the law firm his dad co-founded. He’s a frumpy every-man suffering in silence with loneliness and back pain so debilitating that his morning ritual is often performed by sliding prone on the floor through his house. A long-awaited appointment with a back specialist (played by BRIDESMAIDS director and “The Office” producer Paul Feig) is comprised of numerous smart-ass one-liners from the doctor that result in no help for the patient and the dreaded diagnosis of “the trifecta of back and neck pain”.

In addition to this physical pain, Fred is miserable at work as he’s forced to take direction from a cocky millennial lawyer (Clark Duke), who is the firm’s new partner now that Fred’s protective dad is retiring. He’s also miserable in his personal life due to loneliness. While we see that all this pain is interconnected, it takes a fortuitous encounter with Regan (Rosemary DeWitt), who is in need of a divorce attorney, to start Fred on the path of discovery and recovery.

Regan refers Fred to her acupuncturist Dr. Kuhang (Raymond Ma), who is astounded at the musical tones the injected needles produce along Fred’s spine. The leads to one of the film’s more outlandish recurring gags in the movie – a quite unique and humorous situation involving a cello. Other supporting work is provided by screen veterans Sam Anderson, Robert Pine (Chris Pine’s dad) and Brian d’Arcy James as Regan’s husband. Ike Barinholtz also provides a brief comedic cameo as an orderly, and Scott Hutchison delivers a welcome musical interlude. Mr. Hutchison, founder of Frightened Rabbit, sadly passed away earlier this year.

This is a nice little low budget indie that shows how even a temporary interpersonal connection can provide a spark of hope and remind us of how important fulfillment in life can be towards our physical and emotional health. Since the film is based on Mr. Lieberstein’s own back pain, he provides a special thanks to John E Sarno, MD, author of “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”. The film is wry and sad, while at the same time somewhat illuminating and hopeful. It’s a pleasant debut from filmmaker Lieberstein.

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THE FAVOURITE (2018)

November 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Our biggest fear was that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos would one day soften the twisted edge he blessed us with in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017), THE LOBSTER (2015), and DOGTOOTH (2009). That day may yet arrive, but not today and not with his latest. It’s his first time to direct a screenplay he didn’t write, which likely explains this being his most accessible film – though labeling it “mainstream” would be a huge stretch. So brace yourself for an unusual and odd costume period piece unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Co-writers Deborah Davis (her first screenplay) and Tony McNamara (TV background) deliver biting dialogue and treacherous situations, and benefit from three staggeringly terrific lead actress performances. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone is Abigail. The three combine for one of the strangest and most convoluted love triangles and power struggles in history.

It’s very early 18th century and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne is frail and in ill health due to severe gout and who knows how many other ailments. Her erratic behavior and quick temper convey childlike behavior from an adult body with a crown. Lady Sarah (Winston’s great-great grandmother, if I’ve calculated correctly) has strategically become the Queen’s trusted political advisor and often governs in her stead, while also sharing moments of intimacy. Sarah pulls no punches and certainly doesn’t subscribe to the ‘kill ‘em with kindness’ approach, and instead frequently insults the Queen to her face. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail appears after her family’s fall from grace (her father lost her in a card game), Sarah takes pity on her due to Sarah’s fondness of Abigail’s father during her childhood.

Abigail’s naivety and kindness soon win over the Queen’s affections. Is her sweetness an act? Is it due to ambition or desperation … is there even a difference here? We soon learn Abigail treats conniving as a profession – she views it as her only path back to respectability, and she’s willing to take on many acts lacking in respectability to charm her way into the inner sanctum. We are plopped into the wicked fun, delicious cat-fighting, strategic backstabbing and crafty political and personal maneuverings … right up until the story turns to vicious bleak darkness in the final act.

It’s fascinating to watch three women hold the power during this era, as the noblemen are relegated to constantly playing catch-up (kind of like the real world) and struggling to figure out the rules of the game. Power struggles abound, as do director Lanthimos stylistic touches. Noblemen played by Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn are frequently dressed in frilly costumes, giant wigs and heavy make-up – quite the contrast to what we typically see in these period pieces. Other Lanthimos touches include royal duck races, pet bunnies representing deceased children, and fisheye lenses used from every conceivable angle.

Ms. Colman and Ms. Weisz were both in THE LOBSTER, and both have a knack for the Lanthimos style, and Ms. Stone surprisingly is also a natural with the twisted, vicious material. Each of the actresses have an extended close-up allowing them to show-off their immense and subtle talent … Ms. Colman’s is especially impactful. Extreme profanity (numerous c-words and f-words) is at times startling and effective, and the music is unique and diverse – as we would expect. As an added bonus, it requires little imagination to connect the dots to our contemporary political state, although that approach would likely stifle one’s enjoyment of the film. Mr. Lanthimos has quickly reached the ‘must-see’ list of directors, with a guarantee that we are going to see something unusual and interesting. It’s one of the year’s best, even if it’s not for everyone.

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CREED II (2018)

November 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was packed and I don’t recall having heard a louder outburst of cheering for any movie moment. Was it predictable? Yes. Did it deliver what the fans wanted? Absolutely. Is it (as my son asked) “Was it just ROCKY IV in 4K?” Yes, that’s pretty much exactly what it is. So despite CREED (2015) director Ryan Coogler opting to make BLACK PANTHER instead of this sequel to his own movie, I’ve seen proof that it’s clearly a crowd-pleaser … which is what the “Rocky” franchise has always done best.

Michael B Jordan returns as Adonis Johnson/Creed and Sylvester Stallone is back as Rocky Balboa. And although that would likely be enough, we also have Tessa Thompson as Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca and Phylicia Rashad as Adonis’ mom, both also from CREED. We see an early training/boxing sequence in Russia featuring (professional boxer and chiseled human mountain) Florian Munteanu as Viktor Drago being trained by his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). If you are a fan of the franchise at all, you know exactly where this is headed – and so does opportunistic boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby).

Think of it as ‘Revenge vs Redemption’. Adonis fighting the son of the man who killed his father Apollo is the obvious revenge side, and Viktor fighting to redeem his disgraced father Ivan, who lost to Rocky 30 some years ago. This one lacks the real world Cold War element of ROCKY IV (1985), and while it’s missing the political heft of that film, it still packs quite a punch as a revenge flick … even if there was no other possible route this sequel could take. If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for not force-feeding any cheesy political statements on today’s environment.

What are you fighting for?” This must be both a necessary boxing question to answer and a tough one, as it seems to get asked over and over during the film. The combination of writers: story by Cheo Hodari and Sacha Penn, characters by Ryan Coogler, and screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor, place quite a bit of focus outside the ring. Relationship quandaries are at every turn: young married couples, father-son (double whammy), mother-son (another double whammy), and first time parents.

Director Steve Caple Jr seems more comfortable outside the ring himself, as the boxing match camera work does not hit the level of the first, although audience members’ emotions run even higher. Perhaps to overcompensate for the more basic camera work, some of the sound effects for rib punches may have been pulled right out of battle scenes in war movies – they sound like explosions, and are exaggerated so that we viewers might “feel” the ribs cracking.

Wisely the relationship between Adonis and Bianca is a key element this time. Mr. Jordan and Ms. Thompson have tremendous chemistry, and the filmmakers deserve credit for hitting the hearing-impaired issue head-on. It’s a topic that’s rarely seen in movies, and appears to be very well handled. There are some other ties to the “Rocky” franchise with Wood Harris playing “Little Duke”, son of Duke, played numerous times by Tony Burton throughout the Rocky films, and there are a couple of other (very) familiar faces that pop up from both IV and ROCKY BALBOA (2006). On the music front, Ludwig Goransson is a rising star composer thanks to FRUITVALE STATION, CREED, BLACK PANTHER, VENOM, and now CREED II. He toys with the familiar Rocky numbers, but some will argue not enough.

This sequel is more grand scale than the first (which was identity driven), yet more restrained than IV. Sure we have the mandatory zany training montage (zany may be too mild), and the final bout is held in Moscow (even though it makes no sense that the champion would agree to this), but it’s definitely more low-key when comparing Bianca’s musical intro to James Brown’s “Living in America”.

For fans, it’s great to see Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago back in the ring together – even if only for a moment; however, maybe not as thrilling (dramatically speaking) as when the two first reunite Godfather-style in a table at Adrian’s Café. It’s a surreal moment that both Lundgren and Stallone play perfectly – one with pent-up emotional turmoil and the other quite content with what life has delivered. Of course, Sly can play Rocky in his sleep … and no that wasn’t meant to encourage one-liners followed by rim shots. He’s comfortable with the shuffles and mumbles of an elderly Rocky and it’s a pleasure to watch an old friend. The only real question remaining … is the “Creed” franchise gonna fly now?

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THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)

November 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Reitman has proven himself to be an outstanding filmmaker who delivers entertaining stories with insightful commentary often accompanied by biting humor. His excellent films include: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and one of this year’s most underappreciated films, TULLY. His latest is based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” Producer Jay Carson), and it tells the story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and his derailed 1988 campaign for President.

The film begins in 1984 when an idealistic Hart loses the Democrat party nomination to Walter Mondale, who of course, went on to lose the national election to Ronald Reagan. It then picks up as the 1988 campaign is underway and Hart is the party frontrunner, and some say the candidate most likely to win the Presidency. Hugh Jackson plays Hart and is unfortunately burdened with an ill-fitting and distracting wig meant to emulate the lush locks sported by the youthful looking Senator. Vera Famiga plays his wife Lee, and Kaitlyn Dever plays their daughter Andrea. Casting two such fine actresses matters because of what happened during the campaign.

Senator Hart was the favored candidate of the young and the idealistic forces, though the details of his platform were never communicated clearly. Mostly, he was presented as the energetic candidate of hope versus the stodgy Republican Party that had delivered Ronald Reagan for 8 years and was now looking to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everything changed for Hart when rumors of marital infidelity, and possibly even an open marriage, began to circulate. When the media asked him, he was defiant … at times snapping in anger that his personal life was no one’s business.

We are taken inside the campaign via many familiar faces, including campaign manager Bill Dixon played by JK Simmons, and a terrific turn by Molly Ephraim as staffer Irene Kelly. We are invited on board the aptly named party yacht “Monkey Business” when Hart first meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), setting off what could considered be the birth of political gossip-columns. The Herald and Washington Post are key players here, as are editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and iconic journalist Bob Woodward. Apparently this is supposed to show us how politics and the media coverage of politics changed with Gary Hart.

Where the movie lets us down is in not providing any explanation to why Hart was the front runner, whether the U.S. or even the democratic party missed out on a great (or even competent) President, and how in the world Hart was so clueless as to why citizens might have an interest in his personal life activities that included sleeping with a woman (or women) that weren’t his wife. By the way, the reason for the last one is character … and we’ve since learned it’s not as important as what we might have once thought. These are all key issues as to why this is even a story, and whether or not it’s interesting enough to re-tell.

Instead of details, we are bombarded with overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing designed to generate some buzz and energy. The reality is that Gary Hart was really not that interesting, and in fact, by denying the importance of character, he thumbed his nose at his supporters. This blip on American history is simply not enough to justify a 2 hour a movie, and Mr. Jackman never seems able to capture the essence of Hart (whatever that essence might have been). There is obvious relevance to how today’s press treats personal stories, but a bland candidate makes for a bland movie.

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