KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

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PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is quite probably the first ghost story where the most suspenseful moments center on the texts popping up on a smart phone screen. From writer/director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), this one is more than a ghost story – it’s also a story of grief, a search for identity, and yes, that desire or need to connect with the afterlife.

It’s important to note that the film kicks off not with Maureen (Kristen Stewart) carrying out her duties as described in the title, but rather by being dropped off at a once grand country home, now abandoned and the source of some terrific sound mixing. Creaking floorboards, squeaking doors and groaning walls all serenade Maureen as she spends the night in search of the spirit world. We soon learn she was actually hoping to connect with her recently deceased brother Lewis … a twin with whom she had a pact that whomever passed first (they shared a heart “malformation”) would make contact with the other from beyond.

Maureen then returns to her day job as personal shopper and all-around go-fer to her egotistical celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a high profile fashion model whose snooty ways have Maureen spewing hatred of her job during Skype sessions with her long-distance boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin). With incessantly slumped shoulders, Maureen zips around Paris on her scooter toting shopping bags filled with expensive dresses, jewelry and shoes. She’s on the outskirts of wealth and celebrity, but the to-do notes and lack of personal interaction with Kyra epitomize how far outside the circle Maureen really sits.

There are moments of acting support from Sigrid Bouaziz as Lewis’ girlfriend, and Lars Eidinger as a suspiciously low-key creep, but it’s Kristen Stewart who carries the full weight of the film, and continues her streak of very interesting work. She does so in a manner not shy about showing her body, but also with the authentic body language of someone whose frustration grows with each successive text from “unknown”. As a modern twist to the traditional thriller, the film also ties in the past with such touches as Swedish mystic Hilma of Klint and amateur spirit hunter Victor Hugo. It’s understandable how Mr. Assaya’s film received both boos AND a standing ovation at Cannes … no one is really sure how to react to the first texting ghost story!

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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!

watch the trailer:

 


SPLIT (2017)

January 28, 2017

split Greetings again from the darkness. As a filmmaker, the public’s expectations become a burden rather than a blessing once you write and director back-to-back movies like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). M Night Shyamalan has never been able to replicate the box office or critical success that he enjoyed with those two films … but, oh how he has tried. It’s this latest that finally makes us believe he is at least having fun again.

James McAvoy plays Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and … well … he plays a guy with 23 distinct personalities. As you might imagine, some of these personalities are nicer than others, while some are stronger in their fight for the spotlight. As Dennis, a button-upped neat freak, he captures 3 teenage girls and holds them captive. At first, the purpose is a bit murky, but the delay does allow the girls to meet some of the personalities.

The girls are Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from The Bronze), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Claire and Marcia are the popular girls who react with typical teenage emotions, while Casey pushes for patience and observation. It’s Casey who may be the film’s most interesting character as childhood flashbacks occur that are first thought to explain her survival skills, but soon enough disclose a darker, more unfortunate past. The younger Casey is coolly played by newcomer Izzie Coffey, and holds her own with Sebastian Arcelus (her dad) and Brad William Henke (her Uncle John).

The always terrific Betty Buckley is outstanding as Dr Fletcher, the psychologist treating McAvoy’s character(s). Ms. Buckley adds class and a connection to the real world that gives us hope for the future of the girls being held. McAvoy really seems to be enjoying the acting challenge and shape-shifting that accompanies this mental disorder, and he will likely creep you out a few times. Cinematographer Mike Gioukakis was a key to the look and mood of It Follows, and his camera work here is superb in mostly confined areas. Sure, the whole thing is preposterous, but it’s fun and wicked … and with this director, you can expect a surprise or twist – even after all these years.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

 


GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

watch the trailer:

 


ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

January 22, 2017

alone-in-berlin Greetings again from the darkness. When war hits close to home, the grieving of surviving family members never ends. At the end of World War II, author Hans Fallada was given access to the Gestapo file of Otto and Elise Hampel. Fallada wrote a 1947 novel based on their story, and in 2009 it was translated to English for his bestseller “Every Man Dies Alone”. Director Vincent Perez collaborated with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries to adapt the novel for the big screen.

Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Elise (Emma Thompson) play a mostly quiet, working class couple who pay the ultimate price for a cause in which they don’t believe. Their protest takes the form of a clandestine 2 person operation. They systematically distribute postcards with anti-Hitler messages … nearly 300 of the cards between 1940 and 1942. It’s a drip campaign that takes the form of non-violent political resistance, and certainly rankles those of the Third Reich.

Daniel Bruhl plays Escherich, the Nazi officer put in charge of the investigation (labeled Operation: Hobgoblin). He is charged with finding the source of the cards and punishing those responsible. As the hunt drags on, Escherich is presented as a Nazi with a conscience, and bears the brunt of his superior’s frustration, while living in as much fear as those he is chasing.

The film has a somber tone, and somehow never generates the tension or dread that this couple must have been dealing with on a daily basis for so long. In fact, Alexandre Desplat’s score seems to fit a movie much more intense than what we are watching on screen. Mr. Gleeson delivers his usual grounded and believable performance despite a script that could have used a bit more potency. The film does deliver the always powerful message of having no regrets when you are standing up for what’s right.

watch the trailer: