BIG KILL (2018)

October 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 6 years since Scott Martin directed his last feature film, and most of his credits are as a producer. This time out, the Texas filmmaker proves his love of the western genre, and he’s so committed to the cause that he dons many Stetsons for the project: writer, director, producer, editor, and one of the lead actors. We always admire those who overcome obstacles and see their vision become a reality. Every movie doesn’t need to be a classic … it’s a Herculean task just to get a film made, and hopefully it provides some entertainment value (which this one does).

Mr. Martin plays Jake, who along with his friend Travis (Clint Hummel) travels the old west countryside finding trouble and making waves at every turn. Jake is the sharpshooter, while Travis is the ladies’ man. Neither seem to have any marketable skills, other than the knack for staying alive – which is an accomplishment given that they seem to be shot at quite frequently and run out of every place they ride into … even Mexico!

The opening shootout sets the mood for us, as it comes across as tongue-in-cheek, with just enough realism to let us know danger exists. Danny Trejo has an entrance worthy of his cult status as Mexican General Morales … a man very displeased with Jake and Travis. An annoying electronic score accompanies a chase scene that crosses the border and ends at a Cavalry outpost run by a Colonel played by the great Michael Pare (EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), whose two scenes are over far too quickly.

Jake and Travis accompany city slicker Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) on a road trip via horseback to Big Kill, Arizona … a town Jim’s brother has promised him is booming. A recurring punchline of “Never heard of it” adds some levity every time Big Kill is mentioned. Instead of a lucrative silver mining town, they find a once boom town gone bust, and now the town is run by the most unethical “Preacher” (steely-eyed and square-jawed Jason Patric) that one is likely to find. The preacher is aided by his muscle: quick-draw Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips in a gaudy red suit and evil grin) and Stephanie Beran as a knife toting Felicia Stiletto – just one of the character names pulled straight out of the comic book universe.

Jim’s brother (played by KC Clyde) is located, and though Jim begins the courting process with local girl Josie Strong (a standout Elizabeth McLaughlin), the troubles and violence and literal backstabbing in town soon draws the boys into the fracas. Much of the film has the look of kids playing dress up, but as a tongue-in-cheek western, there is enough entertainment value to hold our interest for 2 hours. Fortunately music director Kays Al-Atrakchi resorts to more traditional trumpet-based western music after that opening chase. Most of the shootouts provide some humor, whether intended or not, but we can be sure the cast had a grand time making this one … that shines through loud and clear – especially in a town where the undertaker is named Digger.

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FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

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BIKINI MOON (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE was released in 1991. It was an incredible documentary that explored the struggles of Frances Ford Coppola in making his classic film APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Although it’s totally unrelated to either of those films, this latest from director Milcho Manchevski kept reminding me that we rarely get a peek at just how challenging it is to complete a film, and HEARTS OF DARKNESS is likely the cream of the behind-the-scenes crop.

Director Manchevski directed the Oscar nominated BEFORE THE RAIN (1995), and he, along with co-writer W.P. Rosenthal, deliver an indie-film societal commentary with some not so complimentary observations on certain segments of our populace.  Producer Kate (Sarah Goldberg) and director Trevor (Will Janowitz) are in a relationship and are trying desperately to make their name with a documentary that can play film festivals. While filming in a homeless shelter, they stumble upon a woman who calls herself Bikini … a homeless African-American Army veteran who is desperate to get her daughter out of the social services system. Bikini (Condola Rashad) is a striking, volatile woman with a story – the perfect subject for Trevor and Kate’s documentary.

It takes a while for us viewers to get the rhythm of the film. We are watching as a documentary crew attempts to make a film about a woman who may be delusional or bipolar, and at a minimum is a bit unstable. Bikini admits to a nervous breakdown while in Iraq, and is inconsistent remembering to take her medication. However, in her moments of clarity, we recognize her exceptional intelligence and charisma. At other times, we worry about the safety of her and those around her. We even question whether she actually has a daughter and how much of her story we can believe.

While coming to grips with the presentation and what to make of Bikini, we also have to adjust to Trevor, an obnoxious jerk who only cares about making his film – and is willing to exploit Bikini (or anyone else) to get it done. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Kate, who has a heart of gold, even at the expense of reality at times … she’s the stereotypical modern day liberal extremist who wants to save everyone and everything. It’s the only way she knows to rid herself of white guilt syndrome.

Cinematographer Joshua Z Weinstein (director of MENASHE) works wonders with the tight residential quarters as well as the numerous urban settings from the streets of New York. Ms. Rashad, whom many will recognize from “Billions”, delivers a powerhouse performance as Bikini, though it’s a bit of stretch to see someone with movie star looks pulling off the role of someone living on the streets. Cynicism is present throughout, and director Manchevski really wants us to question what is ‘truth’ … what happens when the media crosses the line and influences the story … what is the real story?

watch the trailer (NSFW):

 


THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison’s lyrics, “This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end” have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that’s true, he couldn’t have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.

Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year’s indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 “New Yorker” article by David Grann, and it’s based on a true story – one that’s a bit difficult to believe … well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way – often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It’s the perfect character for Redford’s trademark twinkle and grin acting style.

Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence – something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker’s “crew” is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as “The Over the Hill Gang” (in contrast to “The Hole in the Wall Gang” from Redford’s classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt’s wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell’s granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it’s understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.

Joe Anderson’s cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker’s gun once … and that’s in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!

Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford’s film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker’s prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it’s not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he’s moving his career off screen, let’s bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, “I’m better when I move”.

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A STAR IS BORN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the 4th iteration I’ve seen of A STAR IS BORN. First there was writer/director William Wellman’s original version in 1937 which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, had 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March (he playing a veteran actor and she a starlet). Next came the 1954 remake with James Mason and the fabulous Judy Garland (he playing a veteran actor, she an upcoming singer/actress). Both were nominated for Oscars, and the film was directed by George Cukor (10 years later would win an Oscar for MY FAIR LADY). 1976 brought the second remake (third version), this one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It won a Best Song Oscar for Paul Williams, and was directed by Frank Pierson, known best for writing the oft quoted line “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate” from COOL HAND LUKE (he also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for DOG DAY AFTERNOON). So perhaps it’s understandable that 81 years after the original, Bradley Cooper chooses this familiar story for a generational update and his directorial debut.

When it’s announced that a new version of this story is being made, the obvious first question anyone asks is ‘Who did they cast?”  Many were surprised when it was learned that Bradley Cooper had cast himself, and that Lady Gaga would take on the female lead. Sure, we all know Bradley Cooper as an Oscar nominated actor from SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) … but can he SING?  And yes, many had seen Lady Gaga in TV’s “American Horror Story”, but could she possibly carry a major film – sans heavy make-up and gimmicky stage gadgetry?

The audience reactions are in. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga blow away the 1976 version, and where they rank versus the other two versions, comes down to personal preference. Mr. Cooper delivers an odd, yet effective, performance as the boozy, aimless rocker Jackson Maine. Not only does he mimic Sam Elliott’s speaking voice and cadence, his performance seems purposefully close to that of Kristofferson from 42 years ago. The great Sam Elliott does play Cooper’s (much) older brother, so the oratory choice makes some sense … it’s just a bit off-putting at first. Cooper is believable as the rocker thanks to his stage presence and charm. We never doubt Jackson Maine is a rock star.

The most stunning and pleasant surprise here is Lady Gaga as Ally. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. In fact, her songs and singing are the highlights of what is a terrific film that should have wide appeal. The first song she sings, “La Vie en Rose” (made famous by Edit Piaf) is quite simply jaw-dropping in its beauty.

Ally is a pretty grounded woman from humble means. She works as a waitress and sings whenever she can … having been held back from pursuing her dreams by a well-meaning father (Andrew Dice Clay) who says she doesn’t have the looks to be a star. Ally has a Carole King “Tapestry” poster on her bedroom wall, and we soon learn she could probably sing most any song from that classic album and make it her own. When Jackson and Ally meet, a complex romance and professional partnership forms. We know those rarely end well. As Jackson shuns his protective brother, battles an ever-worsening hearing issue and a self-destructive drinking problem, Ally tries to remain loyal to the man she loves … even as her own career explodes down a path Jackson barely recognizes.

In addition to the aforementioned Dice Clay (surprisingly subtle here), there is a musical duet with Marlon Williams (in the Roy Orbison tribute) and Presley Cash, and surprising supporting characters played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin. Probably not as surprising, Jon Peters is listed as a Producer on the film. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Peters, he was once a hairstylist to celebrities and in the early 1970’s fell in love with Barbra Streisand. His first credit as Producer was for her film … you got it … A STAR IS BORN (1976).

Mr. Cooper does a nice job tackling such a large scale and familiar project for his first directing gig, and we are certainly appreciative of his avoiding inclusion of Streisand’s “Evergreen”, and instead showcasing the talents of Lady Gaga. It’s likely Lady Gaga will receive a bit more credit for her acting than is probably deserved (an Oscar nom is possible), but her impact on the movie cannot be understated. Bradley Cooper’s next project as actor/director has been announced as BERNSTEIN, where he will play the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Kudos to Cooper for dreaming big!

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LOVING PABLO (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first two seasons of the popular and critically acclaimed TV show “Narcos” focuses on the Medellin Cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar, and with multiple episodes, it was able to show immense detail in both the man and his business dealings (drug trafficking). In contrast, this feature length film from writer/director Fernando Leon de Aranoa takes more of a snapshot-in-time approach to Escobar’s rise to power and the reasons for his downfall.

Based on the memoir “Loving Pablo, Hating Pablo” by Columbian journalist and TV personality Virginia Vallejo, director de Aranoa spends quite a bit of time on the relationship between Escobar and Ms. Vallejo. The reason this works is due to the onscreen (and off) connection between lead actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (a married couple in real life). We see the sparks and feel the sexual energy between them in their first meeting, and then later, both show off their acting talents as times get tough … she frightened for her life, he as defiant and cold-blooded as ever.

Javier Bardem flashes quite the pot belly for a man known as “Robin Hood” for building houses for the poor, and feared as “El Patron” (The Boss) for obvious reasons. Having grown up in poverty, it was drug trafficking which brought him such power and made him a billionaire. We see his interactions with his wife (Juliet Restrepo) and kids, as well as some glimpses of how he handled his staff and business dealings. Ruthless and intimidating are the two words that come to mind.

The film begins with a sequence from 1993, but soon flashes back to a 1981 party at Escobar’s immense compound … and yes, the zoo animals did roam on site. We are informed this is the real beginning of the Medellin Cartel, and by 1982 we learn they made it “snow cocaine in the U.S.”. Remarkably, Escobar was elected to the Chamber of Representatives of Columbia, and we watch him quote Nancy Reagan to his son (“Just say no”) as he explains cocaine to the young boy.

Ms. Cruz shines as Virginia Vallejo, who allows herself to get caught up in the power and money … foolishly thinking she can stay above the fray. Since the film is inspired by the true events recounted in Ms. Vallejo’s book, there are quite a few chilling moments – maybe none more dramatic than Escobar’s gift to her of a handgun and his corresponding monologue. The film covers New York City and then Panama, all while Peter Sarsgaard plays the DEA agent tracking Escobar’s movements.

We see 1991, when Escobar turns himself in and heads to jail – all so he can restructure his business within the confines of what might better be described as a resort … one which he presides over. After his escape from a military prison in 1992, an all-out war breaks out on the street, and we know the end is near.

Look, Pablo Escobar was a despicable man running a despicable business. He’s so mean, he even abuses a plate of spaghetti in one scene – that’s just the kind of guy he was. If you know the basics of his story, the film isn’t likely to teach you much. It’s really just a dramatization of one of the most infamous (and successful) drug traffickers we’ve seen, although the recreation of his death scene does a superb job in capturing the detail of the famous photograph. He’s not a guy we really care to learn about, however, since much of it is told through Virginia Vallejo’s eyes, we at least get somewhat of a human and personal perspective.

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A CROOKED SOMEBODY (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The lust for fame is really just a plea for acceptance. In director Trevor White’s film, the lead character, Michael Vaughn, wreaks of desperation for acceptance … from the public, from his associate, and mostly from his Pastor-Dad. Unfortunately, the path Vaughn chooses is simply the first of many bad decisions. In fact, the film is really a chronicle of the downward spiral of Michael Vaughn’s bad decisions.

Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in “Mad Men”) plays Michael Vaughn, a psychic who tours the country peddling his book and his “act”. And yes, it’s an act. It’s such an act, that it could be considered a scam. However, Michael focuses on connecting the living with their beloved dead ones, so his (sparse) audience is filled with those who want to believe he is legitimate. His assistant-associate-accomplice-would be and one time lover is played by Joanne Froggatt. Her job is to prevent Michael from becoming despondent over the lack of book sales, and also to be his audience-plant when a session gets stalled.

The bulk of the story revolves around Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr), a man who believes Vaughn has connected to a man Nathan killed. In trying to clear his conscience, Nathan wants Vaughn to use his talents to help Stacy (Amanda Crew), the now-grown daughter of the man Nathan killed. Instead of focusing on “helping” those involved, Vaughn seizes the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight … gaining notoriety as the psychic who helped solve a long-ago murder case. And no, this isn’t the final bad decision Vaughn makes. He manages to make things much worse.

Real life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Vaughn’s parents – the one’s he so wants to win respect from. The script from writer Andrew Zilch offers some pretty decent on screen tension, though it strains a bit too much in places – even with a worthy and relatable central idea. It’s human nature to desire acceptance (especially from loved ones) … though it takes a flawed personality to strive for fame and celebrity (especially at the cost of core values). Here’s hoping you don’t see too much of yourself in Michael Vaughn.

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