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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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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KALEIDOSCOPE (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Why is it that estranged mothers always seem to show up when we are frantically trying to clean up all evidence of a murder that took place in our apartment? OK, maybe that’s not really a common occurrence, but it’s certainly at the heart of this Hitchcockian psychological mind-bender from writer/director Rupert Jones. His brother, the very talented and always interesting Toby Jones, stars as the quiet ex-con attempting to get his life on track.

A pre-credit opening scene has Carl (Toby Jones) borrowing an uncharacteristically flashy (and quite hideous) shirt from a helpful neighbor for his date which was arranged online. After passing out on the sofa, Carl discovers his date Abby (Sinead Matthews) dead in the bathroom and flashes back to a brief moment of violence. Both Carl and we viewers are disoriented – a sensation that sticks with us until the end credits roll.

An ominous voicemail leads to a visit from Carl’s mother, played by Anne Reid. What follows are Mommy issues galore (on par with PSYCHO in this department). Mother and son have irreconcilable differences over something in the past, but she clearly understands his ‘tendencies’ better than he does – especially those related to women, alcohol and violence.

Director Jones has a very interesting visual style, as well as a unique approach to story-telling. He expects commitment and attention from viewers, and rewards those who play along. Despite the claustrophobic feel of Carl’s apartment, there are some creative camera angles to go with the imposing nighttime shots of the building’s exterior.

The three main actors are all excellent. Ms. Reid is a screen veteran who has spent most of her career on British projects, and she excels as the slightly creepy, domineering figure in Carl’s life. While the dialogue is minimal, Mr. Jones and Ms. Matthews, as Carl and Abby, have one exchange that really stands out.

Abby: “You’re a sneaky snake

Carl: “What do you think that makes you?”

Abby: “Nasty

It’s such a raw moment, and a turning point (along with the voicemail) in their evening. Much of our effort goes into slowly assembling the pieces and clues that are doled out along the way, and it takes a sharp eye to catch some of them … while we are challenged by others to determine if they are dreams, or actual memories. A kaleidoscope changes color, shape and perception as it’s twisted – just like this movie. It’s a fun ride if you enjoy the twists and turns of determining which parts of a nightmare are reality and which parts are something else.

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SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

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DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

November 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

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