THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2019)

April 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it’s often best to relax one’s expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He’s the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We’ve seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy – and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he’s had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam’s first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it’s not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha.” There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it’s also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and “recognizes” (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it’s a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It’s definitely not for everyone – more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: “This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones.”

watch the trailer:

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US (2019)

April 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jordan Peele first got noticed on “MADtv,” and then for his impersonation of Barack Obama. His career got a boost with “Key and Peele” with Keegan-Michael Key, and then it simply exploded in 2017 with GET OUT. For that film, he won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Director (his directorial debut) and for Best Picture (as a Producer). With his follow-up to that breakout film, Mr. Peele has squashed any talk of being a one-hit wonder, and has actually elevated his work with this latest.

The film opens in 1986 as a family is on vacation at Santa Cruz, California. While taking in the amusement park along the boardwalk, their young daughter Adelaide wanders off into a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with her doppelgänger – her exact lookalike. It’s the film’s first creepy moment, but certainly not the last. The story then jumps forward to present day where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, BLACK PANTHER), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) are on a getaway to a lake house … one located near their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), and their in sync twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide is not thrilled when husband Gabe suggests they head over to Santa Cruz beach.

Part of the brilliance of the film is that it works as a straight-forward horror film with some very funny moments (often thanks to Mr. Duke), but its real purpose is to inspire multiple theories along with the corresponding debate. Alternate meanings, metaphors and clues are dropped in most every scene. A toy ambulance, a JAWS shirt, a “Thriller” shirt, a TV commercial for the “Hands Across America” event, and the corresponding VHS tapes next to the family TV only hint at the numerous nods Peele serves up to other films, especially some horror classics.  You’ll note the director chooses an aerial shot not dissimilar to that of Kubrick’s THE SHINING as the family drives towards their vacation spot. Also present (in a couple of scenes) is the reference to bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot other references to the double 11.

While the Wilson and Tyler families are visiting on the sandy beach, young Jason wanders off sending mother Adelaide into a near-frenzy with recollections of her night on that same beach so many years ago. Later that evening, the true horror begins. A terrific shot of 4 figures all clad in red at the end of the Wilson’s driveway kicks the film into high gear. More doppelgangers appear and lead us to a subterranean community living in tunnels, and sharing the space with bunnies. We learn of “the tethered”; those who are (mostly) identical to those living above. Those of identical likeness square off in the ongoing battle for survival, and that’s really all you should know before seeing for yourself.

The cast is terrific, especially Ms. Nyong’o, who like the other actors seems to relish playing the dual roles. She also nails the final shot with a smile that will chill you to the marrow. Madison Curry makes a strong impression as young Adelaide, and as much fun as we have with the characters, the true joy lies in trying to “catch” all that filmmaker Peele throws at us. That final wall of folks in red is pretty easy to decipher, but some of  the little clues and prods require a second viewing. It’s fascinating and historic that Jordan Peele’s follow up movie could possibly make this yet another horror movie contending at Oscar time. One site currently places the odds at 19/1 to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. If you are up for a fun little horror movie that’s also a mind-bending societal commentary on those who are born into privilege and those who aren’t, then Mr. Peele has just the flick for you.

watch the trailer:


DUMBO (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Disney’s commitment to live action remakes of so many of their animated classics; however, I’ll readily admit that teaming the always creative Tim Burton with every child’s favorite pachyderm piqued my interest. In case you don’t recall, Disney’s fourth animated feature film was released in 1941, and told the story of a baby elephant who could fly thanks to the flapping of his enormous ears. DUMBO was, at its core, a story of how being different can cause you to be an outcast, while also delivering the strength to overcome those who might treat you poorly or look to profit at your expense. It was a sweet and simple message delivered in a brief 64 minutes.

Taking up almost another hour, filmmaker Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seize the original book by husband and wife writing team Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson and deliver a story that is anything but simple. Rather it’s complicated, convoluted and at times nonsensical. What does work is the visual splendor of watching a cute little elephant fly around a circus … first a tattered old-timey tent camp and later a futuristic amusement park.

It takes only about 30 seconds for us to recognize the silver screen stylings of Tim Burton. The ragged train cars in need of paint followed by the black smoke from Casey’s ‘smiley’ face engine, all point to the familiar visuals that harken back to Mr. Burton’s memorable films like FRANKENWEENIE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, CORPSE BRIDE, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (to name a few).

It’s 1919 as the train clackety-clacks from Sarasota, Florida through small southern towns and up to Joplin, Missouri, where youngsters Milly (Nico Parker, lookalike daughter of Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) give a hug to their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). Holt has been away serving in WWI, and returns minus one arm and one wife … while he was at war, she lost her battle to illness, leaving the children in the care of the circus performers. Holt and his wife used to be featured performers in the Medici Brothers Circus run by Max Medici (Danny Devito), but times are tough and Holt is assigned to elephant-tending duty, where Max has recently purchased a pregnant Mrs. Jumbo elephant.

We don’t have to wait long for the baby to arrive, be called a “freak” by Max, learn to fly, be separated from his mother, and be targeted by a greedy amusement park owner named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere’s Dreamland has some familiar Disneyland elements, and serves it purpose for reminding us that traditional circuses are being replaced by high tech amusement parks – an environment more in line with today’s youth.

Where the film suffers is with its unnecessarily complicated story and underdeveloped characters. The usually reliable Mr. Keaton never really kicks in as the greedy and evil amusement park owner. Mr. Devito mostly yells his lines, and Mr. Farrell just seems categorically miscast. In what is the first film for both, young Ms. Parker shows flashes of talent, while Mr. Hobbins is given next to nothing to do. Eva Green does bring a welcome element as aerial artist Colette, but Alan Arkin’s role as a banker seems tacked on as a favor. Unfortunately we barely get to know the circus troupe, though Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) strums her ukulele as she sings “Baby Mine”, the Oscar nominated song from the 1941 original, penned by Ned Washington and Frank Churchill. Adding to the Burton oddities, Michael Buffer makes an appearance as ring announcer … albeit a different ring than what he is most often associated with.

It likely won’t surprise you that Mr. Burton delivers a film much darker than the original, and at least he avoided the temptation of talking animals (the legendary Mel Blanc voiced Dumbo in the original). He does offer up a nod to the Pink Elephant sequence from the original, as well as the presence of mice … though wisely no crows this time around. Danny Elfman’s score is a perfect fit (as usual) and Oscar winning Set Designer Rick Heinrick (SLEEPY HOLLOW) works his magic, as does 4-time Oscar winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (ALICE IN WONDERLAND). The technical mastery of the film is finalized with the work of Cinematographer Ben Davis, whose work on such grand scale films as CAPTAIN MARVEL, DOCTOR STRANGE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY allows him to make the best of the visuals, even while the story disappoints. There is a contemporary message delivered near the end regarding the captivity of animals, and despite the dark, overly complicated story, it’s still quite fun to watch Dumbo fly.

watch the trailer:


CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

March 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT”S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It’s Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie, and even though it’s actually a prequel to what we’ve previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control … see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.

In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990’s, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90’s era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls – who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.

The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film – her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.

The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak’s score complemented the heavy 1990’s rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.

Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we’ve seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It’s an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time – even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It’s fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.

watch the trailer:


CASTING COUCH (2019, short film)

March 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit dangerous to poke fun at something that has caused so much pain to so many people, but the reality is that the proverbial casting couch has been used as an unfortunate punchline for many years. Late last year I reviewed the Barry Avrich documentary THE RECKONING: HOLLYWOOD’S WORST KEPT SECRET, which provided an in-depth history of what went on behind closed doors in Hollywood. While that film left me with a feeling of nausea, SiniSisters Productions have used their distinct talents in addressing the same topic in a more redemptive manner.

In what can be described as a Comedy-Horror film highlighted with social commentary, co-directors Justin Lee and Matt Thiesen present a script from Milly Sanders that tells the story of a casting couch demon that has been literally feeding on the flesh of aspiring actors for decades. We see “old” clips of auditions before cutting to a modern day audition of two actresses and that same “icky” velour sofa. The actresses are played by Ms. Sanders (the screenwriter) and Jessee Foudray, while the new age director is played by David Stanbra. By new age, I’m referring to the next generation of directors who have undertaken new methods of manipulating actresses in an attempt to achieve the same results as the slimy buzzards of old Hollywood.

The script is quite clever and the low budget short film (10 minutes) even features an impactful effect. Harassment and power plays have no place in any industry, and SiniSisters willingness to make a point through such a creative outlet is quite impressive … and entertaining. Any filmmakers who somehow believe the old ways are ok, should beware of the ‘couch hunters’!

***CAUTION: although this short film is not yet rated, it is not recommended for young children

Watch the movie at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kALyJUV-EWQ&feature=youtu.be

 


Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2019

February 22, 2019

Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2019

The difference in production value is quite evident in the animated shorts category, as not all filmmakers are backed by the resources of Pixar or Disney. What really stands out here is the strength of the stories and how they play on our real life emotions and memories. Below you will find these listed in order of my preference. Just a reminder, these are not Oscar predictions, just personal opinion.

 

 WEEKENDS (USA) 16 minutes

Familiarity, in fact, all-too-familiar, may be the difference for this story from Trevor Jimenez. A young son gets bounced back and forth between the homes of his divorced parents. Initially the mother keeps things simple, with an emphasis on love. In contrast, trips to dad’s place include scary movies, video games, fast food and plenty of hands-on play time (with weapons and costumes!).

Fittingly, dad’s car radio is on an endless stream of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, while the other times are covered by the familiar and recognizable chords of Satie. The boy is caught between the two adults trying to put their own lives back together, and some amazing animation takes us through the boy’s imaginative dream and nightmare sequences.

While at Pixar, Mr. Jimenez worked on FINDING DORY and COCO, and this one seems to carry personal memories for him.

 

 ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR (Canada) 14 minutes

The husband and wife animation team of David Fine and Alison Snowden (two very real, not animated creators) won an Oscar in this category in 1995 for their short BOB’S BIRTHDAY, which was then turned into a TV series “Bob and Margaret”. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the animators have hopes for the same path for their latest.

We enter a group therapy session for an unusual collection of critters, including: a praying mantis, a leech, a bird, and a pig.  The session is led by a dog, and is soon crashed by a newcomer – a boisterous gorilla. The gag here – beyond the obvious – is that each of these critters is dealing with normal traits for their species, though they sound particularly bothersome when stated aloud. Kids are not the target market here given all the talk about sex (stay away from the praying mantis) and orifices. Creativity is on display here, and don’t be surprised if some mutation of this ends up on TV.

 

 ONE SMALL STEP (USA, China) 8 minutes

Former Disney animators Andrew Chesworth (animator on MOANA and FROZEN) and Bobby Pontillas co-direct a script co-written with Taiko Studios founder Shaofu Zhang. It’s a story of a single father and his Chinese-American daughter Luna, and takes us through her early childhood dreams of walking on the moon to her college years taking astrophysics classes.

The devoted father is there to encourage his young daughter’s dreams, and later to quietly support her with meals and shoe repair. It’s yet another reminder of how the efforts of parents sometimes go unappreciated, but the commitment never fades. The ending here is predictable, yet no less powerful and emotional.

 

 

 BAO – Pixar (USA) 8 minutes

It should come as no surprise that Pixar has a nomination in this category. The premier animation studio employees some immensely talented folks, including Domee Shi (previously a storyboard artist on INCREDIBLES 2), who becomes the first woman to direct a Pixar short film.

As with many Pixar projects, this one will likely resonate with parents as much, if not more, than with kids. Of course there are some exceptional visuals; however, it’s more poignantly a look at the stages of life … especially the trials and tribulations of parenthood (especially the overprotective type). This one is far and away the most viewed entry since it ran before theatrical showings of INCREDIBLES 2, which itself is Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Some may struggle a bit with the idea of a homemade dumpling coming to life and being raised as a growing kid, but the ending will likely hit home with most every parent.

 

 LATE AFTERNOON (Ireland) 10 minutes

Louise Bagnall previously worked as an animator on the Oscar nominated SONG OF THE SEA, but this one is all hers. These days there is no shortage of projects putting dementia front and center, and we quickly realize the elderly Emily (voiced by the great Fionnula Flanagan) suffers from this dreaded affliction.

The fantastical dreamlike sequences carry us away in Emily’s memories of life. These snippets of her childhood and adult life tell us much about the woman who now finds happiness in a biscuit with her tea. The past and present are often a jumbled mess for Emily, and although her caretaker’s identity is no real mystery, it is still a wonderful moment when it clicks for Emily … even if we know it’s only for a short while.

 


VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material … even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved “from anarchist to purveyor of good taste”. Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora’s competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora’s ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life’s work when he died … he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this “hot” artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over – often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it’s best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he’s immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It’s rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through – artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film’s faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.

available on Netflix

watch the trailer: