THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramas, by definition, carry added depth and weight to stories that sometimes seem almost beyond belief. Such is the true story of the 1960 Mossad mission to capture Adolph Eichmann, the noted architect of the Final Solution, who was hiding in plain sight in Argentina. You might think there have already been enough Holocaust movies, but director Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) hones in on the personal aspects of loss and anger, and the need for justice.

Matthew Orton’s first screenplay benefits greatly from a terrific cast, especially the two main characters played by Ben Kingsley (Adolph Eichmann) and Oscar Isaac (Mossad agent Peter Malkin). Sir Ben is notably restrained in his performance of the last surviving mastermind of the Holocaust, and one of the most despised men on the planet. His subdued performance aligns perfectly with the “ordinary” man of which we’ve since read. Mr. Isaac adds the element of psychology in his “good cop” approach to getting Eichmann to crack.

Playing much like a heist movie, we see the team assembled and the quite convoluted plan devised. The high risk strategy underscores the desperation so many felt in their need to see Eichmann pay for his atrocities. The manhunt required some political tip-toeing, and we even gain a history lesson on the role of the Catholic Church. A tip from a “secret” Jewish daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) and her father (Peter Strauss) set things in motion. Sylvia (Ms. Richardson) actually dates Klaus Eichmann (played by Joe Alwyn), who is a picture-perfect Aryan carrying on the horrid Nazi tradition of hatred.

Of course, Klaus is the son of Adolph, and the one who spills the beans about his father being “a big deal” in the war … thereby ruining the quiet and mostly unassuming life they have been living with Adolph’s wife (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Scacchi). Sylvia and Klaus meet at a movie when she shushes him and his friends. Director Weitz even includes a clip of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that not coincidentally stars his mother, Susan Kohner. It’s a nice touch.

Much of the film takes place in the safe house where Adolph Eichmann is blindfolded and spoon-fed. It’s here that the psychological games and political maneuverings begin. Supporting actors who add strength to the film include team members Melanie Laurent (Hanna), Michael Aranov (chief negotiator Zvi), Lior Raz (as the demanding team director), Nick Kroll, and Simon Russell Beale (as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). There is a history of bumpy romance between Hanna and Peter, though it adds little to the story.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is terrific, especially during a creative and informative opening credit sequence. “Who did you lose?” is a recurring question throughout, as it’s 1960 and everyone involved lost someone – a driving force behind their persistence and commitment to the cause. The film is focused on the mission to capture, not the details of the subsequent trial; however it does close with archival photos of the actual trial – adding historical relevance to this fine dramatization.

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AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

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PAPILLON (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like most every remake that comes around begs the question, “Why?” This is especially true when the film being remade is a favorite such as 1973’s PAPILLON. The original was directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON, THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), and starred two legendary actors, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr, and was based on the Henri Carriere books “Papillon” and “Banco”. Mr. Carriere was, of course, the titular Papillon himself, and though the specifics of his stories have been met with skepticism over the years, he nonetheless delivered some fascinating material.

So why make the film again 45 years later? Well this is a kinder, gentler version and features two of today’s most popular actors: Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as Papillon and Louis Dega, respectively. The screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski (PRISONERS) focuses more on the friendship and less on the brutal prison environment. Director Michael Noer (I’m admittedly unfamiliar with his previous work) delivers a movie that looks very good and works as an example of loyalty and bonding.

The film opens in 1931 Paris and we witness Papillon (so known because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest) doing what he does … safecracking for a powerful mobster. He seems to be living the good life with his girlfriend (played by Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter) and they have plans to escape this life of crime – always an ominous sign in movies. Sure enough, he is framed for murder and sent to the penal colony in French Guiana. It’s there that he meets Louis Dega (Malek), a master counterfeiter. Dega is a soft and slight man, and the wad of cash hidden in his nether-regions puts a target squarely on his back. So Papillon’s brawn and need for cash to grease the wheels of his escape, and Dega’s need for protection, make this the match made in heaven (or in this case, hell).

Being a man of eternal optimism, Papillon never loses faith that he will escape, even when the warden (a terrific Yorick van Wageningen from Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) explains that hope is his enemy. The years spent in solitary confinement rob Papillon of years and weight, but never hope. A final stint on Devil’s Island reunites the two men who share a bond that only such harsh circumstances could build. Since we know that Henri Carriere wrote the manuscripts for the books in 1969, the ending is known before we start; however it’s the telling of the story that allows us to come to know both Papillon and Dega.

This latest script does a better job of developing the friendship, as well as providing Papi’s past and reason to live. The original nailed a man’s commitment to surviving, while this one makes hope more of a philosophy. Lacking the magic of McQueen, Mr. Noer’s version doesn’t quite compare, but for those who have never seen the 1973 film, this one should prove quite engaging – even if we old-timers don’t buy into the kinder/gentler approach.

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BLAZE (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “I don’t want to be a star, I wants to be a legend.” The first quote comes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and the second is drawled by Blaze Foley as he snuggles with his muse and lover in the back of a pickup truck. We can imagine the first quote inspired many stories over the years by those who knew Blaze, and it might also have served as a driving force for writer/director Ethan Hawke as he crafted this graceful tribute to an underappreciated songwriter and his too short life.

Mr. Hawke is a 2-time Oscar nominee as an actor, and his best known previous turn as director was for CHELSEA WALLS (2001). He (a distant relative of Tennessee Williams) has also been twice Oscar nominated as a writer (BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT), and his movies are often music related or influenced. His latest is a biopic of a mostly unrecognized country-folk artist, and Hawke collaborated with Sybil Rosen to adapt her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”. It’s Ms. Rosen who shared the bed of that pickup referenced in the first paragraph above.

Ben Dickey plays Blaze and Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Not only does Dickey capture the spirit and sound of Foley’s music, but the scenes with Blaze and Sybil as a couple are some of the most touching and realistic relationship sequences we’ve seen on screen. We understand their connection … and their disconnection. It’s proof that two people can be both ‘made for each other’ and ‘wrong for each other’. Director Hawke utilizes different time periods, as well as a framing device in the form of a radio interview. None of this works in traditional biopic manner as the interview features the great troubadour and musical poet Townes Van Zandt (played exceptionally well by Charlie Sexton) recollecting the times (both good and bad) he spent with his friend Blaze. He’s joined by another Foley friend and collaborator, Zee (Josh Hamilton) as the two color in the blanks to ensure the legendary status desired by Blaze. The DJ is voiced by Ethan Hawke, who is only seen from behind.

In addition to the radio interview and the relationship with Sybil, we also have multiple scenes of Blaze’s final live show being recorded at the old Austin Outhouse. The nearly two hours of music and philosophizing were turned into a record release that remains (nearly 30 years later) a mesmerizing listen. These 3 very distinct pieces fit together to bring Blaze into focus as both a songwriter and troubled man – one who found himself in too many fights and, ultimately, on the wrong end of a gunshot in 1989.

Philosophy and homespun wisdom and catchphrases flow from Blaze during his songs and even when he’s just hanging with his buddies or Sybil. The real Sybil Rosen plays her own mother in a scene where Blaze meets the parents, and there is a touching moment in the film where Blaze plays for his estranged dad (a wonderful, albeit brief performance from Kris Kristofferson), the founder of The Singing Fuller Family where Blaze got his musical start. It’s these kind of touches that elevate the film into a must see whether you are familiar with Blaze Foley or not.

BLAZE FOLEY: DUCT TAPE MESSIAH is a 2011 documentary that would nicely compliment Mr. Hawke’s film, although this version contains much more humor – including cameos by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell as Zephyr Records executives. With Louis Black (founder of SXSW and a former film class TA of yours truly) as an Executive Producer, and songs by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, this little gem is likely to awaken viewers to a bygone era of music that tends to be remembered only for Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and Merle.

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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. With so much attention on this being a rare mainstream movie with an “all Asian cast”, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that it’s much more than this generation’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Director John M Chu has delivered a very entertaining, though a bit slick and glossy, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy with touches of cultural awareness. It also features a few noteworthy performances, including a star-making turn from Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”).

Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, the screenplay is written by Peter Chiarelli (THE PROPOSAL) and TV writer Adele Lim. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an energetic, American-born Chinese economics professor, and her boyfriend Nick Young is played by big screen newcomer Henry Golding. A successful and confident person on her own, Rachel, having been raised by a hard-working single mother (who fled China while pregnant), assumes her charming and handsome boyfriend is equally grounded. It’s not until she agrees to accompany him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding that she begins to pry the truth – most of the truth – out of him. See, Nick and his family are quasi-royalty in Singapore … one of the wealthiest families in the city and country.

Upon arriving, Rachel quickly learns that Nick’s mother is certainly not open to the idea of her son, the company’s heir-apparent, having anything to do with a woman lacking the required pedigree – namely money and a Chinese legacy. Michelle Yeoh (CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON) plays the icy Eleanor Young, and is quite elegant in her disdain for Rachel, and in capturing the relationship between Asian mother and son. Some of the best scenes are the interactions between Rachel and Eleanor – each so eager to succeed in their polar opposite missions. Facing widespread accusations of gold-digging, Rachel retreats to the comfort of her old college friend Goh Peik Lin, played by a fast-talking and quite hilarious Awkwafina (OCEAN’S 8).

The humor is prevalent throughout, with some of it being quite outrageous. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun play Peik Lin’s parents … the caricatures of new money. Jimmy O Yang is the high-roller never-grown-up frat boy type responsible for the outlandish bachelor party; Nico Santos is Oliver, the self-titled ‘rainbow sheep of the family’; and Ronnie Chieng is the obnoxious family member everyone avoids. The comedy provided by this group prevents the dramatic elements from ever being too weighty for viewers. This holds true even with the short-changed sub-plot featuring Nick’s beautiful sister Astrid (a scene-stealing Gemma Chan) and her disintegrating marriage to another “outsider”.

Opulence and obscene wealth is on full display, leaving us a bit unsure (by design) exactly where the emphasis should be placed on the title. Although it has the required elements of a fairy tale, it’s certainly not run-of-the-mill. Cinderella allowed a kind-hearted woman to be rescued from slave labor and a basement bed. This Cinderella story doesn’t exactly rescue Rachel, who is a strong, self-made woman. Instead, it ups the ante by having her harshly judged … while in fact, she is the one who should be sitting in judgment – first of a boyfriend who was never honest, and then with a family who assumes she’s not good enough to be one of them.

In a tip of the cap the aforementioned THE JOY LUCK CLUB, Lisa Lu (now 91 years old) plays Kevin’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, and one who has played a role in making Eleanor the protector of family and tradition. Eleanor’s guiding philosophy and contempt towards Rachel is summed up in her line, “All Americans think about is their own happiness”. It’s one of the moments where we do wish the film would dig a bit deeper and further explain the traditions and cultural differences that cause such venom spewing towards Rachel.

Director Chu has had a stream of poorly reviewed films (NOW YOU SEE ME 2, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, STEP 2), but that likely stops here. His social media montage early in the film is a visual feast, and the camera work (by Vanja Cernjul) over Singapore is stunning. The soundtrack offers Asian versions of some well-known songs, including Cheryl K singing “Money (that’s what I want)”, a Berry Gordy song which we are accustomed to hearing sung by John Lennon. Credit goes to casting as well, since Ms. Yeoh and Ms. Lu are Asian acting royalty, and Ms. Wu and the dashing Mr. Golding are sure to see their careers skyrocket.

The director and producers are also to be commended for making the rare decision of choosing art over money. They were so committed to the film finding a theatrical audience that they turned down huge bucks from Netflix for the rights. It’s a risk that will likely payoff for them. Is it a simple love story made complicated by family, economics, tradition, and class differences … or is it a story of tradition and wealth that attempts to salvage the purity of a love story regardless of class? Either way, it’s a relatable story and one that will surely entertain most anyone who watches. As a bonus, you’ll pick up a banana joke that you’d best not repeat.

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MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

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