VITA & VIRGINIA (2019)

August 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The historical landscape of relationships is littered with the remains of artist couples who began with a cosmic connection and ended with a sonic boom. Add in the socially toxic matter of same-sex attraction from a century ago, and you have a starting point for the romance-friendship-inspiration between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Director Chanya Button co-wrote the script with Eileen Atkins, and it’s adapted from Ms. Atkins play and the personal letters of Virginia and Vita … correspondence that covered many years and hundreds of letters.

Gemma Arterton (TAMARA DREWE, 2010 and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) stars as writer Vita Sackville-West, a successful poet, novelist, and columnist. Vita was also known for her free spirited ways, and sometimes scandalous behavior. Virginia Woolf is played by Elizabeth Debicki (“The Night Manager”, THE GREAT GATSBY), and she does really nice work capturing the troubled genius, and the glimmers of hope during her time with Vita. The two women were so very different in their approach to life and writing, although each faced their own challenges.

We see their first meeting, and the immediate enchantment that occurs as their eyes meet across the room. However, what makes their relationship interesting is the long and winding path to consummation. The interesting parts come as Vita toys with the fragile Virginia, though it’s clear their connection is quite strong. Though the connection was strong, the relationship was quite complex. Vita was a fan of Virginia’s talent. Virginia was an admirer of Vita’s strength and confidence. They seemed to push each other – sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.

The film opens as Ms. Woolf’s book “Jacob’s Room” is being typeset and printed. It’s quite an artistic way to show the mechanics of the process, and credit goes to Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho for a segment that would typically be little more than filler. We learn about Vita’s secretly “open” marriage to diplomat Harold Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and her constant battle with her mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) over scandals and the family reputation. Virginia’s husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) runs their printing business, and is seen as vital to his wife’s emotional stability, despite the void in other marital aspects. Virginia’s artist sister Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) is quite an interesting character whose backstory (also a part of the Bloomsbury Group) is teased enough that she might deserve her own film.

The film features a couple of memorable lines of dialogue, both spoken by Vita. During a BBC radio program she boldly claims “Independence has no sex”, and in an early discussion with Virginia states “Popularity is no sign of genius”. Vita’s brazen step traveling as a man with her previous lover Violet Keppel is mentioned, but mostly this is focused on the class differences and the ‘snatched moments’ for Vita and Virginia. Vita’s exotic spirit and Virginia’s struggle with mental health are made clear (even using special effects for the latter). “Visions” of conversations bring the words on the letter pages to life, though it does seem that the filmmakers played things a bit too safe in order to capture a mainstream audience. The music of Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister) brings a contemporary feel but it’s at times in contrast to the high gloss presentation. For the women who wrote and inspired the amazing novel “Orlando”, and led one of the more tumultuous historical lesbian affairs, it could be argued that they deserved a bit more risk taking on the big screen. Still, “X” marks the spot for Virginia’s writing room, and we do understand why discretion might be the right call.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

READY OR NOT (2019)

August 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rich people aren’t like you and me (unless you happen to be rich, in which case you fall into the first category). Their houses are different. Their vacations are different. Their family traditions are different. And that’s where this latest from co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (known collectively with Producer Matt Villella as Radio Silence) really kicks in. Yes, the Le Domas estate is a maze of dark wood, music rooms, and hidden passages, but it’s the wedding day tradition of post nuptial game night that provides the thrills, chills, shocks and laughter for about an hour and a half.

Former foster child Grace (a star-making performance from Samara Weaving, THE BABYSITTER, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MO), is nervous and excited just before her wedding ceremony begins. Her husband to be is Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), the black sheep of an ultra-rich family, and the ceremony is being held within the lush garden and fountain grounds of the Le Domas mansion. Grace loves Alex and seems to have come to grips with his family: alcoholic brother Daniel (Adam Brody) who is always hitting on her, Daniel’s gold-digger wife Charity (Elyse Levesque), father and patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) who is outspoken in his belief that Grace isn’t good enough for the family, mother and matriarch Becky (Andie MacDowell) who seems confused about her feelings towards Grace, crazy-eyed and wild-haired Aunt Helene (Nicky Guardagni) who seems to hate all living creatures, and coke-head sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) who, along with her douche-husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun) couldn’t even get to the ceremony on time.

The above lineup of players is crucial because of what happens next. For wedding day game night, Grace draws the “Hide and Seek” card, rather than the much preferred checkers or Old Maid. There is a nice set up for this tradition which includes a Faustian deal made by Great Grandfather Le Domas. It’s that deal that turns ‘hide and seek’ into ‘hunt and kill’. Oh yeah, Alex forgot to warn Grace about the stakes and it’s a blast to watch her transition as she figures it out. A torn wedding gown and yellow Chucks make up the visual of a bride fighting back against the antique weapons of crossbow, pocket pistol, elephant gun and battle-axe. You got it right – this family tradition is absolutely bonkers … and bloody … and deadly.

As has become the favorite pastime of Hollywood recently, the film torches the ultra-rich. But if you can overlook the political posturings, you’ll find a devilishly fun irreverent farcical zinger that offers some similarities to CLUE and SLEUTH, as well as many other games and movies. It has some of the look of SAW, but with significantly more tongue-in-cheek. In fact, dark comedy thriller might be a proper description, but you’ll likely find yourself laughing more often than jumping in your seat. It’s a wonderfully crafted and paced film that understands exactly what it is … an instant classic Midnight Movie (along with this year’s SATANIC PANIC from director Chelsea Stardust).

Co-writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy take full advantage of the ominous setting and the wicked set-up, however, a minor quibble would be that the dialogue could have been a bit wittier. Most of the laughs come courtesy of the moment or the actors, and the banter falls just a little short. The prologue provides a 30 year ago flashback that cautions us for the ride we are about to take, and even offers some insight into the characters as much younger versions of themselves. The opening credit sequence is a beautifully staged and filmed running shot of some classic board games, informing us of the industry closely associated with the Le Domas ‘dominion’.

It must be noted that a studio recently postponed the theatrical release of THE HUNT because of the political backlash to their premise – rich people hunting poor people. While the themes of these two films could be considered similar, only the most extreme hard-liners could view READY OR NOT as anything more than good demented fun. Much of the primary production was filmed on location at the Parkwood Estate in Ontario, and it’s the perfect setting for a family that chooses murder and fortune over all else. Two standouts on the soundtrack include “The Hide and Seek Song” by Headquarters Music and “Love Me Tender” by Stereo Jane (definitely not Elvis). For those who enjoy the twisted comedy approach to in-law jokes and violence, there are plenty of macabre moments that will deliver a smile … till death do us part.

***I’ve elected not to post the trailer here. If this is the type of movie you enjoy, it’s better that you allow the surprises and twists to sneak up on you. If you aren’t a fan of this type of movie, the trailer wouldn’t convince you to see it.

 


WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (2019)

August 15, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Has she lost her way or lost her mind? The Bernadette Fox we meet is a misanthrope. She doesn’t much like her life. It’s a life with a loving husband, a workaholic tech genius. It’s a life with a crumbling, once majestic mansion that she is remodeling one spot at a time. It’s a life with a smart daughter who admires her mother. It’s a life that expects participation at a level Bernadette is unwilling to commit. And it’s a life that is not the one she envisioned for herself.

Two time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, and as with most of her roles, she embodies the character. It’s a role that more resembles that of her character in BLUE JASMINE than in CAROL. Bernadette is not really a likeable person and she clearly feels out of place in suburbia … yet we find her interesting – in a train wreck kind of way. She’s a bit reclusive and seems to best communicate with Manjula, her virtual assistant in India. The daily dictations come across as therapy as much as directives for such vitals as fishing vests.

Bernadette describes herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste” and as the self-proclaimed “Bitch Goddess of Architecture”. A mid-life crisis is pretty easy to recognize (unless it’s your own). It’s rarely about the person you sleep next to, and often about “finding one’s true self”. This syndrome is especially irksome for a parent, and is actually better described as selfish behavior. Bernadette was a rising star in the Los Angeles world of architecture, and when Microsoft bought her husband Elgie’s (Billy Crudup) software, the couple relocated to Seattle where he could continue his high-tech pursuits. Bernadette stopped designing and focused on being a mother to daughter (and the film’s narrator) Bee (Emma Nelson). In fact, it’s Bee’s request for a family trip to Antarctica that pushes Bernadette to the brink.

The supporting cast is brimming with talent. Kristen Wiig is Audrey, the neighbor and private school mom who manages to push every wrong button for Bernadette. Audrey is a victim of Bernadette’s mean streak in one of the more outrageous scenes in the film. Zoe Chao is Audrey’s friend and Elgie’s new Administrative Assistant. Laurence Fishburne appears as Bernadette’s mentor, and Judy Greer is underutilized in the role of psychologist. Others you’ll recognize include James Urbaniak, Claudia Doumit, and Megan Mullaly. But despite all of that talent, this is Cate Blanchett’s (and Bernadette’s) movie. Is it a powerful performance or an overpowering one?  I’m still not sure.

What is certain is that the Production Design of Bruce Curtis is exceptional. The old mansion is worthy of its own story, and provides a distinct contrast to Audrey’s spit-shined coziness next door. The scenes on the ships at sea are also well done, and Bernadette in the kayak makes for an absolute stunning visual.

Of course the film is based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple, and director Richard Linklater co-wrote the script with his ME AND ORSON WELLES collaborators of Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo. We typically discuss how an actor might be miscast, but this time the debate could be in regards to the director. Mr. Linklater is a wonderful director with such diverse films as BOYHOOD (2014), BERNIE (2011), BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and DAZED AND CONFUSED (1994). He’s a naturalistic story-teller with personalities we recognize. Bernadette looms so larger-than-life, with her grandiose gestures and over-dramatizing every moment that she’s almost cartoonish at times. At times, Linklater seems like everyone else … not sure what to make of Bernadette.

The film differs in many details from the novel, but the spirit remains. This plays like ‘Diary of a Mad-Disgruntled-Unfulfilled Housewife’, and it’s obvious to viewers that Bernadette’s near seclusion is actually her hiding from herself. Ms. Blanchett is a marvelous actress, one of the best of all-time. She is set to play the legendary Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s planned LUCY & DESI film. Ms. Blanchett commands our attention for Bernadette, whether it’s in the comedy segments or the more philosophical moments. Rarely will you see a film whose Act I and Act III are so tonally opposite. The first part plays like an old-fashioned Howard Hawks comedy, while the last part is Bernadette’s more somber search for artistic expression once she is freed from the constraints of family life. It’s the saddest comedy I can recall.

watch the trailer:


BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (2019)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Last year we had Queen via BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and so far this year we’ve had Elton John with ROCKETMAN and The Beatles with YESTERDAY. Thanks to writer-director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), our latest musical genius to receive the cinematic treatment is The Boss … New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. While this one is not a biopic of Bruce, it is based on the memoir (“Greetings from Bury Park”) of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.

Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a Pakistani Brit living in Luton during the economic downturn of Margaret Thatcher’s run as Prime Minister. It’s 1987 and Javed faces racism and the struggles of a first generation Pakistan family pursuing their American dreams. He is a wanna-be writer who creates recession-era poems and politically-charged song lyrics for his best friend’s pop-synth band. At home, his hyper-stressed father (Kulvinder Ghir) pushes to keep his ideals on track for the family – a vision which does not allow Javed to pursue a writing career.

Javed finds a supportive teacher in Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), and things really change for him thanks to his energetic Sikh buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) who introduces him to the music of Springsteen. Viveik Kalra is a relative newcomer, having only previously appeared in the TV mini-series “Next of Kin”. He shines in this role, and never more than when he conveys the near-religious experience of being touched by music the first time. The more he listens to Springsteen, the more he relates. The music helps him find his voice as a writer, and equally importantly, his place in society.

Another relative newcomer to the big screen is the terrific Nell Williams, who plays activist and rebellious Eliza. She also happens to be the love interest for Javed, and the two are quite fun to watch together. It’s a bit of a shame that the roles weren’t expanded more for both Ms. Williams and Mr. Phagura. Both characters could have contributed more to the story. Dean Charles-Chapman plays Matt, Javed’s long-time musician friend, and Rob Brydon has a comical appearance as Matt’s dad – one who appreciates Springsteen as much as Javed.

The film weaves in the cultural challenges of Javed and his family, as well as some of the Pakistan traditions and the accompanying pressures. Filmmaker Chadha doesn’t deliver a musical per se, but there are definitely some musical moments, including full production numbers that have us singing along. A few too many Jewish Springsteen jokes are included, and some may find the film a bit too light-hearted, but it’s crafted for mass appeal while blasting some classics from the theatre speakers: Promised Land, Badlands, Thunder Road, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, Because the Night, Prove it All Night, and yes, even “Hungry Heart”. These songs are the inspiration for the movie, just as they were for Mr. Manzoor. Sure, there are some silly moments, but mostly it’s an entertaining and inspirational message movie wrapped in BRUUUUUCE!

watch the trailer:


THE KITCHEN (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a comedy. Ordinarily a movie review would not begin by telling you what the movie is not, but when the theatre marquee flashes “Starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish”, most anyone would assume they are in for a 2-hour laugh out loud romp with the promise of some outlandish one-liners to drop at the next party. Instead, the directorial debut from Andrea Berloff is a relatively violent mob movie. Ms. Berloff also adapted the screenplay from the Vertigo comic book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle.

Kathy (Ms. McCarthy), Ruby (Ms. Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are left isolated when their mob-connected husbands are busted by the FBI, and sent to prison. Survival instincts kick in for the previously uninvolved ladies, and they quickly realize that a bit of strategy would allow them to not only run the business their husbands left behind, but also build it into something better. Of course the mobsters left behind are none-too-pleased with the women outperforming them, and so we get a good old fashioned ‘brains vs. brawn’ battle.

The setting is the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. The year is 1978, so the Irish community still has a stronghold on the area. This is basically the same timeframe and the same streets that serve as the setting for the classic TAXI DRIVER (1976). We see what happens when a woman’s touch is applied to gangster activities: bonds are built, services are rendered, and payments are made. The illusion of power draws the three women in deeper, and the movie has us believe they are good at it. The issue is, as viewers, we never really buy into these three seizing this power. We are just supposed to sit back and accept that Kathy is an expert community organizer, Ruby gets things done behind the scenes, and timid Claire evolves. Actually, Claire’s (Ms. Moss) transformation is the best part of the film. Seeing her discover new talents and her true persona is as exciting for us as it is for her. However, in total, the 3 characters are little more than caricatures.

In addition to the three stars, the cast is deep. The three husbands are played by Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, and Jeremy Bobb, and all three are criminals and bad husbands. Domhnall Gleeson resumes his chameleon ways in what could have been a more interesting role, Common plays a federal agent, Annabella Sciorra has a nice turn as a mobster’s wife, and the great Margo Martindale (with prop cane) and Bill Camp are both standouts (as they usually are) in their respective gangster roles.

The film does a nice job tying in historical elements of the era, including the construction plans for the Javitz Center. There are more than a few moments of violence, but the shots aren’t nearly as dramatic as we’ve come to expect in mob movies. It’s simply not as gritty as it pretends to be. There are some similarities to last year’s WIDOWS (directed by Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis), but with this cast, Ms. Berloff might have considered approaching the tone of Jonathan Demme’s MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988). A raised eyebrow from the ultra-talented Ms. Haddish elicited laughter from the audience, rather than respect for her power. I expect it will be a crowd-pleaser for those along for the ride. Just remember – it’s not a comedy.

watch the trailer:


BRIAN BANKS (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the momentum of the #MeToo movement, and the attention being paid to harassment and discrimination in all walks of life, there really is no better time for a film that tells the story of Brian Banks. We are counseled to believe women as they recount their heart-breaking and life-altering stories, and it’s Mr. Banks’ story that reminds us what should matter in all situations … truth and justice.

Brian was a 16 year old football star at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California when Wanetta Gibson (renamed Kennisha Rice in the movie) accused him of rape on school grounds. Banks was expelled from school, lost his athletic scholarship to USC, and poor legal advice led him to a plea bargain that resulted in his serving a 5 year prison sentence and another 5 years on restrictive probation. From day one, Brian Banks never wavered in the proclamation of his innocence.

In his situation, the only way for Brian to get some semblance of his life back was exoneration by the judge; and the only way that could happen would be new evidence or a recant of testimony by the accuser. Justin Brooks (played here by Greg Kinnear), the founder of the California Innocence Project, was touched by Brian’s story, but just couldn’t find a way to help. Surely the film offers some dramatization of actual events, but Brian Banks and his story are fascinating on many levels … and it makes for a though-provoking and inspirational 99 minutes.

Banks was a convicted man whose own conviction of his innocence is proof of just how strong the human spirit can be. Director Tom Shadyac (PATCH ADAMS 1998, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE 1994) had his own life-altering event, and it’s partly why this is his first narrative feature in more than a decade. It’s likely the “second chance at life” hit home, and the script from Doug Atchison (AKEELA AND THE BEE, 2006) manages to hit the high and low points experienced by Banks and his single mom (played by Sherri Shepherd), who never lost faith.

Aldis Hodge (“City on a Hill”) is outstanding as Brian Banks. He perfectly conveys the multitude of feelings of a man so confounded by a life gone wrong – yet so dedicated to staying on the right path despite all obstacles. In addition to the aforementioned Greg Kinnear and Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd shines as Karina – Brian’s new romantic interest (who shares her own story of past sexual abuse), and Xosha Roquemore performs admirably and memorably in the thankless role of Kennisha Rice. It should also be noted that Morgan Freeman has a cameo as a prison counselor who makes an impact on Brian.

The film begins with Brian explaining that he never really knew what “freedom” meant until it was taken from him, and then he re-gained it. That’s a powerful statement, and it nicely corresponds to another lesson the film provides: “All you can control in life is how you respond to life.” The film may be a bit glossy at times, but its message and its central character are inspirational … and a source for further important discussions.

watch the trailer:


LIGHT OF MY LIFE (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening scene features an adolescent child spellbound by the bedtime story being told by a father. The story is an enhanced and personalized version of Noah’s Ark, and the scene goes on for at least 10 minutes … the camera never leaving their faces. What appears to be a simple campout turns curious, if not a bit ominous, as the father is next shown taking down a rigged security system and hiding certain personal items. This is the narrative feature directorial debut for Casey Affleck, who also wrote the story, produced the film, and is the lead actor (the father noted above).

As the daily rituals of these two characters unfold, the pieces of the puzzle come together and we learn there has been what is described as QTB – a female plague – that has killed off most of the females on the planet. As if a world of only men isn’t frightening enough, the father’s traveling companion is soon revealed to be a young girl disguised as a boy. This creates the ominous tone and explains the ever-present danger for these two, as rumor has it that the few remaining women are being held captive in camps to prevent the entire species from being eliminated. This is the story of one man’s efforts to protect his precious daughter from a society gone awry.

Anna Pniowsky establishes herself as a young actress to keep an eye on, as she is terrific as Rag, the daughter in disguise. Wise beyond her years, and though she has a general understanding of the constant threat, she is also quite curious about herself, her mother, and this bizarre world she is traversing with the only person in the world she can trust. Elisabeth Moss appears as the mother during flashbacks for Affleck’s character. This previous home life was a peaceful and loving environment, but the mother was stricken by the plague not long after giving birth to the daughter.

In contrast to the motherly environment, this father-daughter bond and existence requires constant preparation for escape. They must always be ready to “go” at a moment’s notice. Their red alerts and back-up plans are discussed and repeated. Their life in hiding means they never know who they can trust, and their solution is to distrust everyone – even though the father explains not all men are the enemy. His low key sense of calmness masks the constant stress they face.

Mr. Affleck is an Oscar winning actor (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), and he shows some promise as a filmmaker (after his previous experiment with Joaquin Phoenix in I’M STILL HERE). Expert cinematography is provided by Emmy winner Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective” season one). At its core, the film is a story of the bond between father and daughter; however, it’s wrapped in a survival story. They strive to survive the next hour, the next day, and the next night. The film is a blend of CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), THE ROAD (2009) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), yet it brings a different tone and an emphasis to just how far a parent will go to protect their child. It’s a dystopian tale with a splash of gender identity questions, and a bond between father and daughter best surmised with their own words, “I love you to the sun and back.”

watch the trailer: