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.

watch the trailer:

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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

January 14, 2015

 

a most violent Greetings again from the darkness. The tar pits of La Brea. Michael Corleone. These are the two things that come to mind as I grasp for descriptive terms to use for writer/director JC Chandor’s latest film. Picture a slow simmer never quite reaching the boiling point … that’s the designed tone here. It’s certainly not the period piece crime thriller that the trailer might have you poised for. In fact, there is more focus on marital communication than the criminal element so prevalent for the times.

In 1981, New York City was in the midst of an era filled with crime, corruption, violence and filth. Enter Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as a tough-minded, but idealistic owner of a heating oil business. Abel’s vision is to become the top oil distributor, and remain a really good guy in the process. When he tells his less-idealistic competitors to “have some pride in their work”, it’s good advice to an audience incapable of comprehending.  Despite regular violence and criminal activity against his drivers and trucks, Abel continues to deny he is at war … he truly believes if he can stay above the fracas, he can overcome the blight of his industry.

We never really see Abel have a good day. Even the high points are paired with hard knocks. A signed contract is followed by bank woes. A kid’s birthday party at the new house is interrupted by a search warrant. New market share is offset by a driver illegally defending himself. Each step Abel takes to realize his business vision is a potential land mine set by either his competitors or an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo). And those aren’t even his most animated battles. See, Abel has willed himself to extraordinary self-control. He never blows a gasket, even if the moment calls for it. The only exception to this is with his vicious business partner and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).

Anna grew up the daughter of a gangster … her dad once ran the business that she and Abel now run. Given the times, Anna takes a back seat to Abel and she handles the books, while he is the face of the business with banks, competitors and Teamsters. It’s not difficult to imagine a movie focusing on Anna rather than Abel, and a couple of times, she makes it quite clear that she views herself as the real backbone of the business – a much tougher leader than her doe-eyed husband.

Isaac and Chastain are exceptional here, and they both pull off very tough roles. Abel is a philosopher is a world of barbarians. He is the most polite angry person you have likely ever seen. Anna, on the other hand, is the pretty face masking a ruthless gangster. They each believe their own way is the best way. When Abel explains that ‘The result is known’, and that there is only ‘one path that is most right’, we immediately know he believes this and lives his life accordingly.

In addition to Isaac, Chastain and Oyelow, other actors deserve recognition for their work here: Albert Brooks is Abel’s consigliore, in a style reminiscent of his Drive character; Alessandro Nivola is the most frightening type of gangster – the quiet, powerful kind; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is outstanding in her only scene; Elyes Gabel captures the frustrated driver looking for hope; Peter Gerety is spot on as the Teamsters lead; and Jerry Adler is a most unusual Jewish business man.

The camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) helps make the style and story work. He films two of the most unusual chase scenes – one on foot across the highway, and another with a car and truck on railroad tracks and through a dark tunnel. Both are critical to story and character, and provide a stylistic flourish that pumps things up in a movie otherwise devoid of traditional action.

The story is captivating because of things that are intimated, rather than things that are said. A couple of other films set in this era are Prince of the City and Serpico, and though the tone and look may be familiar, Chandor’s approach is unique. It’s not difficult to imagine Oscar Isaac took his acting cues from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, and oddly enough, it’s possible to imagine him as Tony Montana in a Scarface remake! At the core of all of these characters … the American Dream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are wondering if something is “disrespectful” … Jessica Chastain will let you know!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting The Godfather or “The Sopranos” … this is the most gangster non-gangster movie I’ve seen

watch the trailer:

 


SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

watch the trailer:

 


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0