THE BRIDE (2016, La Novia, Spain)

February 16, 2017

the-bride Greetings again from the darkness. The pitch for this movie might have come across as blending a Greek tragedy with a romance novel, and then adding a dash of revenge. Fortunately director Paula Ortiz’s vision for the Federico Garcia Lorca play “Bodas de sangre” is more poetic and lyrical than such an overview would suggest.

Love triangles are the core of many stories and movies, but it’s the opening sequence here that clues us in that the trouble has already occurred, and though it removes some of the suspense of “what”, it certainly sets the stage for an interesting “how” and “why”.

Inma Cuesta plays Novia (billed only as the titular bride) who is engaged to Asier Etxeandia (billed only as Novio, the groom). The abundance of family stress (on both sides) has little to do with the wedding plans, and more to do with Leonardo (Alex Garcia). Leonardo is more than the local hunk who is always lurking about on horseback; he’s also the third wheel who can’t let go of his desire for Novia … in spite of his young child and pregnant wife. To make things messier, Novia seems to answer his heightened desire for her with her own uncontrollable passion for him.

It’s Yin and Yang. Safe and Dangerous. The bride’s conflicted choice leads the groom’s mother (Goya winner Luisa Gavasa) to be a foreboding presence throughout, and keeps most of the village on edge. Additionally, there is an element of mysticism as Maria Alfonsa Rossa appears periodically as the figure of death – and we are never quite sure of the motivations behind her advice.

Goya winner Miguel Amoedo provides beautiful cinematography that balances between fantasy, harsh realities, and the romance of the moment. There are many intimate close-ups, as well as some stunning desert wide shots of Leonardo riding the horse. The score and soundtrack are terrific, including Soledad Velez with a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”.

The concept of destiny vs. choice hovers over most scenes, and the twisted family and childhood histories give the film a Shakespearian feel. Last year, the film received numerous Goya nominations (including Ms. Cuesta, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Garcia) are resulted in the wins for Ms. Gavasa and Mr. Amoedo. It may not make the best Valentine’s Day date movie, but it is an interesting watch from the romance-tragedy-revenge-horseback genre.

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A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

February 15, 2017

a-cure-for-wellness Greetings again from the darkness. It might seem peculiar for the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Lone Ranger, and the Oscar winning animated Rango to be the driving force behind an atmospheric Gothic mystery-thriller, but Gore Verbinski seems to ignore any attempt to generalize or label his films. In fact, this latest film (written with Justin Haythe) attempts to challenge genre conventions by cloaking us in familiar themes and expecting us to be surprised by the late twist.

Dane DeHaan has established himself as an actor with no boundaries. He has played characters as diverse as James Dean in Life, and Cricket in Lawless. This time he dons a business suit as Lockhart, an ambitious, young, morally flexible, workaholic financial hotshot. By bending a few FCC regs, Lockhart has maneuvered himself into a plush corner office on Wall Street, and is now strong-armed by senior management into taking on the less-than-appealing task of traveling to a “wellness spa” in Switzerland in order to bring back the CEO whose signature is necessary to complete a lucrative merger.

The cinematography of Bojan Bazelli is gorgeous throughout, and it’s literally breathtaking as we view the Manhattan cityscape, and then follow Lockhart’s train streaming through the Swiss Alps mountains and tunnels. These are the “wow” shots, but the camera finds beauty even once the story takes us inside the sanitarium with the dark history … and confounding present. The building’s history seems somewhat sinister, but its current day secrets are every bit as creepy. What exactly is the sickness that “the cure” is treating? Why does no one ever leave? What’s with the eels? What’s with the water? Why are teeth falling out? Why are the townfolks so off-put by those on the hill? What answers do the puzzles bring?

Shutter Island offers the most obvious comparison with its similar tone and atmosphere, but others that come to mind include The Island of Dr. Moreau, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and especially, Hitchock’s Rebecca. Verbinski makes marvelous use of sound throughout – whether it’s Lockhart’s creaking crutches, the squeak of doors, the drip of ever-present water, or the metallic whir of machines. The look, sound, and feel create the tension necessary to prevent viewers from ever really relaxing, even if we wish the movie wasn’t so darn long.

Filmed at Castle Hohenzollern in Germany, it’s a perfect example of how on filming on location adds an element that no soundstage can hope to achieve. Support work comes from some familiar faces like Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer, Celia Imrie, Carl Lumbly, Ivo Nandi, Harry Groener, and Adrian Schiller. However, it’s Mia Goth (Everest, 2015) who has the biggest impact on screen outside of DeHaan. Her unusual look and slightly-off mannerisms are perfect for the role of Hannah, who is so crucial to the twist.

Spanning two-and-a-half hours, the film abruptly flies off the rails in the final 15 minutes. It acts as a release for the stress it has caused, and as a reminder that director Verbinski likes to have fun with his films. It’s quite possible that the film will struggle initially to find an audience, but later find success as a cult favorite and/or midnight movie. Whether you deem it silly or creepy, love it or hate it, you’ll likely appreciate the look of the film and the creative surge of Verbinski. At a minimum, it will generate some talk about Big Pharma and how we seem to always be searching for a “cure” of the latest societal ailment … or you may just have nightmares about eels in your bathtub!

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TONI ERDMANN (2016, Germany)

February 8, 2017

toni-erdmann Greetings again from the darkness. A list of the best German movies of all time would likely feature very few comedies. It’s not a country or culture that tends to laugh much at its history (for good reason) or itself. A case could be made that this latest little gem from writer/director Maren Ade belongs on such a list, and although it features several laugh out loud moments, whether it should be labeled a comedy is certainly worthy of debate.

Winfried (Peter Simonischeck) has been a mostly absentee dad, but now he is deservedly concerned about his daughter’s well being. He is intent on trying to get Ines (Sandra Huller) to let go of her uptight, high stress corporate persona and enjoy life a bit. It’s the kind of advice only those who have really lived can rightfully offer up … though you’ve likely never seen advice administered in such a creative and cringe-inducing manner.

Winfried’s alter-ego is Toni Erdman, a shaggy wig and false teeth wearing goofball who manages to insert himself into the most inconvenient and awkward moments for Ines and her business. His pranks are designed to illustrate just how ridiculous the workaholic treadmill is and how little joy accompanies such a work-a-day life.

Having been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, it’s easy to crown this as the frontrunner in the category. Ines’ birthday party shines a new light on the phrase “birthday suit”, and that sequence alone might have generated more laughter than I heard in a theatre all year. Yet despite the laughs and Toni’s shenanigans (and there are many), at its core, this is a film about loneliness and the emptiness of life without happiness. Perhaps you could call it a philosophical comedy, but it’s downright chilling to see the raw emotion of Ines as she belts out Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, or finally strips herself (literally) of all pretense.

NOTE: it was recently announced that Jack Nicholson will come out of retirement and join Kristen Wiig in an American remake. As exciting as that seems, don’t let it stop you from seeing this original.

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AMERICAN VIOLENCE (2017)

February 4, 2017

american-violence Greetings again from the darkness. Making a political statement is nothing new for movies; however, if a filmmaker takes a stance on a controversial issue, the final product needs to be insightful and compelling in order to make a difference. Seemingly intent on making a mockery of the death penalty, director Timothy Woodward Jr delivers little more than a B-movie with a hyper-serious tone, but a script that is at times laughably off the mark.

Even before the opening credits roll, we get our first brutal murder … just moments after persnickety Bruce Dern belittles his wife over the sandwich she made for him. Next up, Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) is being asked by the Assistant District Attorney to consult on the case of a death row inmate, to determine if a stay of execution should be granted. See, Dr. Tyler is a criminal psychologist. Yes, she’s played by Denise Richards. If this causes you frightening flashbacks to Ms. Richards’ role as a physicist in The World is Not Enough, then you begin to have some idea what this movie is like.

The inmate is Jackson Shea (a formidable Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau) and as he tells his life story, we are provided scenes that explain how he got to this point. It’s a pretty interesting backstory starting with sleazy Uncle Mike, an alcoholic mother, and a seemingly endless array of circumstance that might have formed the basis of a better movie.

You will note many familiar faces along the way: Michael Pare as Shea’s partner, Patrick Kilpatrick as a criminal kingpin, Johnny Messner as a fellow criminal, and Emma Rigby as Shea’s love interest. For you football fans, you’ll likely reminisce about Brian Boswell when you witness Rob Gronkowski as a gun-toting bodyguard.

All of this could have been good criminal fun if we weren’t being incessantly slapped upside the head with the anti-Death Penalty message … how trading death for death isn’t appropriate, and for tilting the scales to show how criminals are basically good guys who accidentally end up in a bad spot thanks to a broken system and culture of violence. It’s all a bit too heavy-handed and self-righteous, taking away some of the joy in chuckling at Ms. Richards playing it straight as an intellectual idealist.

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YOUTH IN OREGON (2017)

February 4, 2017

youth-in-oregon Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those tough little indie movies that would fit right in at most film festivals. Directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, the film has a few exceptional scenes, yet once it’s over, it’s pretty easy to just leave it behind. That shouldn’t happen with a story dealing with a theme of death with dignity. Shouldn’t there be a desire to talk about the issue, or at least spend some time in thought?

Perhaps the reason this one isn’t the gut-punch we expect is that while the central reason for the story is 80 year old Ray’s (Frank Langella) desire to end life on his terms, the vast majority of screen time is devoted to the exceptionally dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It’s not an “issue” movie, and dysfunctional family movies are about as common as superhero movies these days … we’ve become a bit numb.

Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) are living with their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband Brian (Billy Crudup) and Kate and Brian’s teenage daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a crowded house where emotions run high, voices are usually amped to 11, and Kate and Brian’s marriage is stressed to the limit with responsibilities.

Bad news at the doctor’s office leads Ray to the crucial decision on his future. He announces this while giving the most uncomfortable birthday speech ever at dinner that evening … “I want to die.” It’s a terrific scene and each person’s reaction is priceless – to the point where we almost wish it were in slow motion so as not to miss anything.

Typically poor teenage judgment by daughter Annie means mother Kate stays at home for discipline, while Brian reluctantly agrees to drive Ray cross country to Oregon to find out if he qualifies under the mercy killing law. Estelle and her always present booze come along for the ride, but it’s mostly the strained relationship between Ray and Brian that generate the fireworks. Along the way, they add Ray’s estranged gay son Danny (Josh Lucas), as well as Brian’s angry college age son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Once they reach Oregon, another wonderful scene/sequence occurs as Ray meets up with a longtime friend who has made the same decision. It’s a well handled and well acted portion of the story.

Ray’s decision to hide his medical diagnosis from the family is the source of the most recent conflict, but there’s a history in this family. Isn’t that always the case? A lack of communication often causes even more issues than too much honesty. The abundance of dysfunction can’t be offset by some peaceful bird-watching, and all of the frustration and anger prevents the necessary conversations on the more interesting topic … a reason to live vs. a desire to die. A slight re-focus would have taken more advantage of the terrific performance of Langella, and added some fun to the post movie discussion.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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MY FATHER DIE (2016)

January 28, 2017

my-father-die Greetings again from the darkness. Pre-judging movies is just something that naturally happens for frequent movie watchers, and a pleasant surprise can create a joyous experience. Such is the case with the feature film debut from Sean Brosnan (son of Pierce). With no shortage of entries into the Family Revenge-Action-Thriller genre, it takes something special to standout, and though it targets a (very) limited audience, those that give it a shot will likely be impressed.

It’s the style that we notice from the opening black and white segment, where two brothers are hanging out and joking together as the older one offers up some typical teenager advice on “romance”. An exceptionally brutal and violent attack leaves Chester (Chester Rushing) the older brother dead, and Asher (Gabe White) the younger brother deaf.

We flash forward to a time when Asher is an adult who takes care of his mother, and prepares for revenge against his father. That’s right … the monster of a man responsible for the violence that changed the course of Asher’s life was his own father. The pursuit of revenge is something we’ve seen on screen many times before, but it’s the performances and the look of the film that make this one worth discussing. Joe Anderson stars as the adult Asher, and he conveys wide emotional swings with no dialogue. Instead, we are guided by the narration of his younger self – and this is some of the most poetic narration you’ll find outside of a Terrence Malick movie. As terrific as Anderson is, and as much as we empathize with his character, it’s Gary Stretch (former British boxer) as his father Ivan, who provides a villain so despicable that we find ourselves anxious and rooting for Asher’s violent revenge.

There is mention that serving in Vietnam destroyed Ivan’s soul, but it’s rare to see a man with no conscience and one who is capable of such carnage. Director Brosnan offsets this creature with the black & white flashbacks, and creates a contrast of beauty vs brutality. It really messes with your head and emotions. Marc Shap is the cinematographer and he shows a wonderful eye for both nature (much of the film takes place on the bayou) and personal interactions (both calm and frenzied). The film also makes good use of sound – and no sound, both of which are effective.

Make no mistake, this is not an easy movie to watch, and won’t be to the taste of most. Violent revenge is not really condoned or condemned in the movie, but it seems clear that if you are taking that path, make sure you do it right the first time! Young Asher’s narration tells us that “revenge is not noble, but it’s human” … a sentiment that rings quite true. What’s also true is that Sean Brosnan is an exciting new director to keep an eye on, and maybe the first ever to include a closing credits tribute to Irish playwright John Millington Synge.