THE STRANGE ONES (2018)

January 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having been well received at film festivals throughout 2017, this film is journey of patience for both the characters and its viewers. Co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have expanded their 2011 short film into their first feature length film, and though some evidence of ‘stretching’ is present, so is a somber, moody style that provides an interesting look and feel.

It’s more mysterious and atmospheric than it is thriller, and at times it even has a “Twilight Zone” vibe. Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) are traveling together as brothers, though we never really believe they are related. An impending dread hovers around each move they make, and the film tortures/teases us with unspecified relationships and connections. Nick and Sam are semi-desperate and clearly on the run, yet it’s not until the end when things somewhat come together.

Young Freedson-Jackson is the key to the film, and his facial reactions are critical. His astounding blank stares seem to hold meaning. It’s a bleak film with a gloomy tone, and while I’m all for slow and deliberate story-telling, the technique is usually more effective when there is a reason for it. This is a deep cut indie that lacks mass appeal, but for those patient enough to commit, the supernatural aura will likely keep you engaged for the run time.

watch the trailer:

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

watch the trailer:

 


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc


IN TIME

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now this is a terrific premise for a sci-fi story. You have surely heard the phrase: “Time is Money”. Well in this world, Time is not just money, it is Life itself. Time is everything … and it’s displayed for all to see via a glowing neon green counter on each person’s forearm.

The film has an odd look for a futuristic sci-fi film. Vehicles look like modernized versions of 1970’s classics, but fashion and other technology seem basically unchanged. Society is divided more severely than today, but the commentary is clear … there are haves and have-nots, whether the currency is money or time.

 All people live until age 25 at which time they stop aging and the clock starts. They are given ONE year and are free to earn, gamble or spend their time … heck, some even gamble. When your clock hits thirteen Zeroes, you drop dead immediately. So, the working class is isolated in time zones, running from place to place and taking extra shifts at the plant just to pay the rent. The rich live in Connecticut (some things never change) and try to find ways to leisurely spend their days that will never end.

 Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, one of the poor ones. In a scene that will have you scratching your head, Olivia Wilde plays his mom (remember, you stop aging at 25). Will has a chance meeting with Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has lived more than 100 years and still has more than a century left. After a deep, philosophical conversation, Will ends up with Henry’s time and becomes a murder suspect.

Will runs off to Connecticut and is pursued by the Timekeeper Police led by a creepy Cillian Murphy. Will ends up in the lavish home of Philippe Weiss (Vincent Katheiser from Mad Men) and falls for his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Will and Sylvia end up on the lam and turn into the ultimate Time Bandits … Robin Hood who steals time from the rich and distributes to the poor.

 While the premise is promising, some of the best stuff is left untouched. Henry Hamilton would have been a fascinating character to get a little more backstory on. Cillian Murphy’s character is obviously talented and a bit burned out. It’s a bit disconcerting to see most of the people in a movie look all about the same age, but that’s a very cool product of this society. As is the “big board” of time that looks eerily similar to the Stock Market boards we see that track movement every moment of the day. Time is precious and is of course watched over.  Also, I never figured out how the whole arm-based time counter began, so more history would have been welcome.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol also brought us Gattaca and Lord of War. I would have liked this one to go a bit deeper, but it’s fun to watch Timberlake and Seyfried playing Bonnie and Clyde. Thinking about this from a monetary standpoint is pretty interesting, but it also reminds us that there’s never enough time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always up for a sci-fi film that doubles as an editorial on the class system OR you want further proof that Justin Timberlake is on his way to being a legit movie star.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a real sci-fi lover and plot holes send you into a days-long funk OR you are apt to sprain an ankle just watching Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried sprint in high heels throughout the film

watch the trailer: