YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t shy away from tough material. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. Following the emotional turmoil of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) she delivers her latest, which can best be described as brutal. The brutality here is not the on screen violence – we get mostly the aftermath or only see the ‘edges’ of terrible deeds. No, the brutality here is in a world that needs a man like Joe.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former military man who lives with his mother. Joe has a particular set of skills that fit into the narrow career niche of rescuing kidnapped girls and ridding society of their captors. Rather than a hired gun, Joe is a hired hammer … ball-peen hammer being his sentimental and strategic weapon of choice. Joe is also a bit mentally unstable, likely suicidal, and haunted by inner demons. Yet he is also patient and kind with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts).

Joe’s most recent job is to find and rescue a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underground sex ring run by some powerful political types. The job is a success right up until it isn’t. It’s at this point when Joe finds a reason to live … vengeance. It’s also when Mr. Phoenix becomes a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination. He’s a hulk of a man with a lumbering gait experiences and dozens of body scars. He has these flashbacks which are so short spurts, at times they feel like mere teases. Soon enough we assemble the pieces to know the baggage from a traumatic childhood event, and the front lines of a horrific war, have created this shell of a man with his own set of principles.

John Doman and Alessandro Nivola have minor supporting roles, but this one rides on the battered and no longer symmetrical shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, and the creative stylings of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. It is imagery combined with performance and the result is spellbinding. If you can handle it, the film provides a cinematic journey to depths not typically reached.

Best not to fill in many of the film’s specifics, but the comparisons to TAXI DRIVER are apropos. I found myself wondering if Paul Schrader was consulted in the adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ source material book. The city streets and dank hotel rooms scream gritty 1970’s thriller, and the recurring shots of plastic bags over the head emphasize the claustrophobia Joe experiences. This is doubtless meant to be commentary on politicians and the corrupt power they wield, but it works less as that and more as a glimpse at one man’s darkness. Add to that the pulsating score from Jonny Greenwood, and the creepy use of “My Angel Baby” by Rosie and Originals, and only one word can describe Ms. Ramsay’s film … brutal.

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READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While there is a massive target audience for Steven Spielberg’s return to fantasy adventure filmmaking, I am most certainly not part of that esteemed group. Although I very much enjoy throwbacks and tributes, I haven’t touched a video game controller in 3 decades, and of course have not read Ernest Cline’s popular novel – the source material that inspired Mr. Spielberg to veer from his recent heavy dramas (the exception being THE BFG). Still, being a movie lover, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project.

Seemingly a match made in Virtual Reality heaven, we get one of the premier fantasy filmmakers joining forces with a screenwriter (Zak Penn) who has had success with comic book adaptions, and a bestselling first novel from a geeky author. Fascinating to watch, the film plays like Mr. Spielberg’s $175 million personal toy box.

There is a story, though one could argue it exists solely for the purpose of pushing the visual FX envelope. A Steve Jobs-type guru named Halliday (Mark Rylance) designed a 3-part contest of skill and strategy with the grand prize being full control over OASIS – a virtual world that allows the players to be anyone or anything they desire. Since Halliday’s death, most people in this dystopian future of the year 2045 spend their waking hours immersed in OASIS. Some use it as an escape from their bleak lives, while others are attempting to solve the mysteries of the 3 keys.

Set in Columbus, Ohio, which we are informed is the fastest growing city in the world (why??), there are two factions vying for the grand prize: true gamers/gunters and megacorporation IOI being run by corporate villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Tye Sheridan (MUD) stars as Wade Watts, whose avatar is Parzival, one of the more thoughtful characters. Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS) plays Ar3mis, a rebel gunter (egg hunter) out more for revenge than victory. They are part of a group of misfits who label themselves ‘High-Five’, even though Parzival gets left hanging every time.

Near non-stop action and relentless pacing result in a whirlwind of lights and colors and visuals that are mixed with more 1980’s pop culture references than anyone could possibly catch in one viewing. As a primer, you should brace yourself for a key role from THE IRON GIANT (1999), as well as various appearances and nods to TRON, BACK TO THE FUTURE, Freddie Krueger, Chucky from CHILD’S PLAY, the Holy hand grenade (Monty Python), the infamous Big Foot monster truck, a speeding DeLorean, the 1960’s era Batmobile, that hideous A-Team van, Christine from CHRISTINE (1983), John Hughes, King Kong, BEETLEJUICE, and a personal favorite, Buckaroo Bonzai. It’s also a kick to see the Rubik renamed Zemeckis Cube. The most stunning sequence for this old geezer was the virtual recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), especially the focus on Room 237. It’s these kind of nostalgic injections that prevent it from coming across as an overblown CGI spectacle with VR goggles.

Others in the cast (more time as voices than real people) include Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), TJ Miller as a bounty hunter with some of the film’s best one-liners, Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, and Phillip Zhao as Sho. Surely you’ve figured out that this one isn’t about the cast. OASIS is where your imagination rules and Easter eggs are driving plot lines. Alan Silvestri takes over the music from usual Spielberg collaborator John Williams, and delivers one of my favorite references (and one of the oldest) in the film – WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski must have been exhausted by the time filming was complete, though we can’t always tell what was filmed and what was created in the lab. Spielberg is a master manipulator when it comes to nostalgia, though we can’t help but wonder if he is making a statement with this being the next evolution as our society becomes ever-more-involved with their phones and personal devices. At least maybe some kid will leave this film with a greater appreciation of research.

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7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Freedom fighters or terrorists? Which label gets applied is often dependent upon one’s point of view. In 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens was hijacked. Director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”, ROBOCOP, 2014) brings us the big screen version of Gregory Burke’s (’71) screenplay.

The 7 day ordeal bounces between the captors and hostages at the abandoned terminal in Uganda and the political maneuverings of the Israeli government officials as they deliberate whether to break with policy and negotiate with terrorists. There are also flashbacks to the planning stages with the hijackers, in an attempt to help us understand their perspective.

Daniel Bruhl plays Wilifried Bose and Rosamund Pike plays Brigitte Kuhlmann. These are the two main hijackers who get most of our attention. Mr. Bruhl seems destined to always play the ultra-serious character, and Ms. Pike is once again miscast … something that happens whenever she is cast. Although she seems to throw down her best Patty Hearst look, we never really buy these two as committed to the cause, which prevents the necessary build-up of suspense.

The film’s biggest flaw is not capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by Nonso Anozie’s Idi Amin Dada, and even more disappointing is the abbreviated scenes between Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Yizhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, FOXTROT). The two actors excel in their head-to-head confrontations, but we feel cheated every time it cuts away.

Once a strategy is formed, we are introduced to the Special Ops team (IDF). They only have a day or two to train and rehearse, and one of the key players is Ben Schnetzer (THE BOOK THIEF, 2013). He and his girlfriend quarrel over his duty, which keeps him away from her dancing performance with Batsheva Dance Company.  As Operation Thunderbolt proceeds, the crosscuts between Special Ops training and the dance rehearsals are setting the stage for the film’s climax.

So the hijackers never really generate the feeling of danger, the government deliberations are cut short, and the filmmaker takes a huge creative risk by synchronizing the final rescue mission with the opening night dance performance. The film is negatively impacted by poor pacing, an overall lack of tension for such a terrifying historical event, and questionable, albeit creative, story-telling structure. It does serve the purpose of educating those unfamiliar with the story, and it’s a reminder that even 4 decades later, the Israeli – Palestinian hostilities continue. As a special note of interest, the only Special Ops member killed in the raid was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel.

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GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.


LOS ANGELES OVERNIGHT (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Low budget independents must be analyzed differently than a tentpole or a status-pic with money behind it. That’s only fair, and in fact, quite necessary for cinematic sanity. This first feature film from director Michael Chrisoulakis is one that we might catch at a film festival, and at first glance, it appears he has done everything right. The film has a blend of familiar faces and newcomers. Much effort has gone into the stylish look of the film, and there is even unconventional music accompanying the oddball characters.

Sometimes taking all the right steps still doesn’t mean the finished product will click with audiences, and that appears to be the case here. Priscilla (Arielle Brachfeld) is being treated by her hypnotherapist played by legendary director Peter Bogdanovich in a terrific opening that grabs our attention immediately. Priscilla is a struggling/aspiring actress who is also a Marilyn Monroe waitress at a crummy little diner.

Benny (Azim Rizk) is one of the diners few customers, and his motivation is less about food and more about Priscilla. One day she overhears a couple of small time crooks (led by Lin Shaye) chatting in riddles – “Apple Jacks down the rabbit hole”. Financially strapped Priscilla proceeds to draw lovestruck mechanic Benny into a situation that will likely end badly.

Writer Guy J Jackson (who also plays one of the criminals) seems to try and shove all of his ideas into the script, so what’s lacking is a cohesive story or any chance for viewers to connect to Priscilla – or certainly any other character.  We can’t even take the “big” crime boss seriously since his goal is to build some type of sanctuary that will benefit humanity. Benny does have the best line in the film when he admits, “I dance like a mechanic”. Other comedic bits mostly fall flat (although a tip of the cap for the mortgage broker joke), as do most of the attempts at building suspense, due in part to an excess of groan-inducing dialogue.

The film is a noir-wannabe with some effort given towards the atmosphere and tone, but the overwrought electronic score is too generic, and the arbitrary slow-motion effects simply remind us of the lack of budget (better to take advantage of imagination). One of the worst cinematic on-foot chase scenes takes up a chunk of the film, but on the bright side, we do get the rarely seen Sally Kirkland, and it is fun to pick out the director’s influences based on how a scene plays out. The jury is still out on Ms. Brachfeld. She might be worth keeping an eye on, as she has a Miranda July quality about her, though without the comedic instincts. First films are challenging, and there might be enough here to push Mr. Chrisoulakis on to better projects.


THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Allowing three regular guys to play themselves in the cinematic re-telling of their courageous and heroic actions is a fitting tribute to the men, and it’s an approach that we must be willing to cut some slack. On August 21, 2015, a terrorist aboard the Thalys train bound for Paris was thwarted in his attempt to carry out his mission of evil. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler ultimately subdued the terrorist (who won’t be named here), likely saving many lives.

The real world heroics fall right in line with director Clint Eastwood’s two most recent films, SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER. Unfortunately, while we admire his decision to allow these heroes to re-enact their life-saving bravery, we can’t let slide the downright boring first two-thirds of the film taking us through the origin story of their childhood (Sacramento 2005) to the backpacking trip that put them on that train. Some of the scenes are inexplicable. For instance, Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the mothers of Spencer and Alek respectively, and their confrontation with the boys’ elementary school teacher is a candidate for the worst and most embarrassing scene of the year.

Based on the book “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes” (written by the three men and journalist Jeffrey E Stern), the script is adapted by Dorothy Blyskal, and when combined with some of the director’s choices, generates some unintended audience laughter … rarely a good thing. Watching three regular guys – three lifelong buddies – retrace their steps through Germany, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam is almost tolerable because these are really nice guys. However, we can’t get over the feeling that we are watching home movies of our friends’ trip – a trip we weren’t even on. Jokes about selfie sticks and hangovers don’t make it any easier.

When the film finally gets to the moment of truth on the train, we end up where we should have started … admiring the heroics of three regular guys: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler. We witness then French President Francois Hollande awarding them with the Legion of Honour. Themes of God, military and friendship are commonplace in Eastwood films, and eagle-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of Alek wearing a “man with no name” t-shirt (in honor of the director). Bottom line, it plays like a film about nothing – until the end when it’s really about something special.

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ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The grandson of J Paul Getty, the wealthiest man in the world, was kidnapped while in Rome in 1973. That fascinating story holds more than enough drama for an engaging movie, and certainly did not need the notoriety or artistic challenges brought on by the Kevin Spacey scandal. With filming completed and a release date mere weeks away, director Ridley Scott made the decision to erase all evidence of Mr. Spacey’s J Paul Getty, and replace him with Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. The “do-over” is nearly seamless and it’s not a stretch to believe the second version turned out better than the first.

The precisely descriptive titled 1995 John Pearson book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty” is adapted by screenwriter David Scarpa, and it’s the storytelling instincts of Mr. Ridley, and remarkable acting of Mr. Plummer and Michelle Williams that keep us engaged for the 132 minute run time.

16 year old John Paul Getty III is played by rising star Charlie Plummer (“Boardwalk Empire”, no relation to Christopher), and though this is the story of his kidnapping and violent torture, the movie mostly focuses on the contrasting personalities of his devoted mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his miserly grandfather J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the wealthiest man in the world. She is a woman totally committed to her children while spurning the strings attached to family money. He, on the other hand, has devoted his life to money and winning, ignoring anything that might be construed as loyalty or compassion to family. With Mr. Plummer having just starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, this is just about the easiest transition an actor could hope for, given so little prep time for a new role.

The billionaire Getty refuses to pay the ransom, instead dispatching his security specialist Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate the boy’s release. As a former CIA operative, Chase misreads both the situation with the abductors and the strength and determination of Gail. We get periodic looks at the captors and the environment where the grandson is being held. Romain Duris (THE BEAT THAT MY HEAR SKIPPED) is excellent as Cinquanta, the captor who spends the most time with the boy. The “ear” scene is explicit enough to elicit groans and shrieks from the audience, so be advised.

We are not like you” is what the younger Getty tells us as narrator, and he’s right. The ultra-rich live in a different world than you and I (assuming you aren’t one of “them”), and that’s never more clear than when the elder Getty explains his preference for things over people. While we never empathize with the rich miser, director Scott at least helps us understand what made him tick. To him, life was a negotiation and it’s all about winning – though his definition of winning could be debated.

The two octogenarians, Mr. Scott (80) and Mr. Plummer (88) work wonders with the outstanding Ms. Williams to make this a relatable story and captivating movie. The elder Getty died in 1976, two months to the day after Howard Hughes, while the grandson Getty had a massive drug overdose in 1981, and died in poor health in 2011, leaving behind his son, actor Balthazar Getty.

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