LONG SHOT (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN (1990).

We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.

When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.

Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.

Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.

Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.

watch the trailer:

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THE AFTERMATH (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1945 on the heels of the Allied forces victory in WWII. British officer Lewis Morgan is charged with overseeing the military’s role in beginning the process of returning a sense of normalcy back to Hamburg (and assisting with hunting Nazi loyalists). He is joined there by his wife Rachel, and they are to occupy a beautiful mansion that has been “requisitioned” from a German architect and his daughter. Captain Morgan makes the unusual offer of having the man and his daughter remain in the house, rather than relocate to one of the dreadful camps, where food and privacy is scarce. Here’s a tip gentlemen: never invite Alexander Skarsgard to live in the same house as your significant other.

Captain Morgan is played by Jason Clarke, and his wife Rachel by Keira Knightley. The aforementioned Skarsgard is Stephen Lubert, and Flora Thieman plays Freda, his rebellious teenage daughter. On her train ride in, Rachel hears a young girl discussing the rule of “no fraternizing” with the German people. Of course, we know (even if Rachel doesn’t know yet) that it’s not the little girl who is going to break this rule. An awkward reunion for Morgan and his wife indicates something is amiss. We soon learn that their young son was killed 4 years prior in a bombing – a hardship they share with Mr. Lubert, whose wife was also killed during the war. Clearly the loss of her son still impacts Rachel to the point that she rarely finds a moment of happiness.

If this was a “Seinfeld” episode, this is where ‘yada, yada, yada’ would be inserted, letting us know that a tryst between Lubert and Rachel occurs while husband Morgan is out on duty, and that romp brings her instantly back to life … with smiles and piano playing. This little lovefest is contrasted with the rubble of Hamburg. The city is literally in ruins. The visuals are impressive, but we never get a feel for the challenge of rebuilding infrastructure and lives. Instead, we get more forbidden love.

Director James Kent is known mostly for his TV work, and the film is based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It would be a mistake to assume, given the outstanding three lead actors, that this is a prestigious WWII drama. An accurate description would be ‘soap opera.’ The set design, costumes, and cast are first rate, but the direction, script, and editing scream soap opera. I believe my final count was 12. That’s 12 shots of someone gazing out of a window … train windows, car windows, house windows, bus windows … every window gets its shot of winsome gazing. It’s best you know going in to expect a soap opera … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

watch the trailer:


THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (2019)

March 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. More. Better. Faster. Most industries have those goals, and this story from French-Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen focuses on high-frequency stock traders … particularly a race between two competitive firms to cut one millisecond off the processing time. We learn that one millisecond is roughly one flap of a hummingbird wing (hence the film’s title).

We also learn that one millisecond can translate into hundreds of millions in profits, which is why cousins Vincent and Anton walk away from their jobs at the Eva Torres brokerage firm to pursue their dream of shaving that single millisecond. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking visionary and deal-maker, while Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the computer programming whiz. Yes, you read that correctly. Sex symbol Skarsgard (“True Blood”, “Big Little Lies”) plays a paunchy, balding, computer nerd with zero social skills. He also delivers the film’s most enjoyable dance moves … it’s a moment to which any programmer can relate.

If any of the above (other than Anton’s dance) seems the least bit exciting or enticing, you should know that the bulk of the film deals with the digging and drilling (there’s even a montage) required to lay the fiber optic cable that will allow this extra-quick data delivery. Their plan is to tunnel from Kansas City to New Jersey in a perfectly straight line. Because of this, we get conversations with homeowners, conversations with Amish, conversations with drilling experts, and conversations with those who want this to happen, and those who don’t. Have you ever thought about drilling through a granite mountain that is located in the middle of a park? Neither have I, and I wouldn’t have thought of it again if not for writing this review.

To clarify, this is a story that seems like it could be true, but isn’t. Most of the screen time is devoted to either underground drilling, computer programming, or intellectual property. And while I’m sure each of these categories have their fans, most will agree the transfer to cinema does not come off especially entertaining. In fact, it’s so dry that the filmmaker felt the need to include a cancer sub-plot in hopes that we might find Vincent a bit more appealing as a character. It should be noted that since his Oscar nomination for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mr. Eisenberg has displayed a remarkable lack of variation in the roles he’s chosen and characters he’s played. At this point, we mostly just find him annoying, rather than brilliant or even mildly interesting.

Salma Hayek plays Eva Torres, former boss of the cousins, and now laser-focused in not letting the boys win. Ms. Hayek is given relatively little screen time, and is portrayed as the villain … although her goals are no different than Vincent’s and Anton’s. Michael Mando plays Mark Vega, the partner and drilling expert the boys choose to project manage this undertaking. Mr. Mando is best known as Nacho from both “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”. Ayisha Issa brings a momentary jolt to the proceedings as a mountain driller, but the film simply drags when neither Mr. Skarsgard nor Ms. Hayek are on screen.

Technology is a very difficult topic to make visually entertaining. I’m not talking about the high-tech special effects that go into making the wildly successful superhero movies that are so popular these days. No, I’m referring to actual technology … programming and data analysis. The list of technology-focused films includes: SNEAKERS, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, OFFICE SPACE, HACKERS, WAR GAMES, SWORDFISH, and THE IMITATION GAME. The best of these understood that the story around the technology was more vital than the actual programming being done. And all of them were wise enough to avoid drilling and digging. Then again, none of the others featured a dancing Skarsgard.

watch the trailer:

 


THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015)

August 21, 2015

Diary of Teenage Girl Greetings again from the darkness. It takes some talent – acting, writing, directing – to make a watchable movie that centers on a teenage girl sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend.  Ordinarily that would be considered a (nausea-inducing) spoiler; however, it is disclosed in the trailer and is the focus of the best-selling YA novel from Phoebe Gloeckner. The author claims the story is “semi-autobiographical”, but we are all better off not knowing which parts she actually experienced.

The film begins in 1976 San Francisco with 15 year old Minnie (Bel Powley) celebrating her recent sexual escapades. As we hang with Minnie, we see and hear her dictating her diary entries into a microphone and clunky cassette deck. The thing that immediately jumps out as a difference in this film is the authenticity in its portrayal of teenage girls and the thoughts and perspectives of Minnie.  She lets us in on her desire to be desired and her conscious decision to give up her virginity to Monroe. Ahh yes, Monroe. The biggest issue here (and it’s a major issue – not just legally, but morally) is that Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is the boyfriend of Minnie’s mom (Kristen Wiig).

There are many complex aspects to the story, and you must get past the repeated illegal (no matter how consensual) sexual activity (it’s only a movie) to appreciate the rare insight from a teenage female perspective. Minnie is an artist being raised by what can conservatively be termed a lackluster parent. Her mom Charlotte spends much of her time drinking and drugging, setting a less-than-stellar example for her two daughters. It’s no wonder Minnie works so hard at being noticed and desired … feelings she mistakes for love. Witnessing the teenage brain attempt to transition to adulthood is excruciatingly painful, and a reminder that emotional maturity is a process and not an on/off switch.

Bel Powley is a new screen presence to most of us, and she is shockingly strong in carrying much of the movie. Alexander Skarsgard never once backs off from his thankless role – knowing full well his actions will disgust many viewers. Kristen Wiig brings nuance to her role as crappy parent, while Christopher Meloni, Margarita Levieva and Abby Wait are all strong in support.

Any film that kicks off with Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic” and later shows a clip of “H.R. Puffenstuff” deserves a shot, and first time director Marielle Heller rarely makes a safe choice in the presentation of Minnie’s journey. It’s a rare film that forgoes “teenage cuteness” for emotional growth. The film states that alienation is good for your art, and Ms. Heller and Mr. Gloeckner risk audience alienation for their courageous storytelling.  It’s no wonder the film has been a favorite on the film festival circuit.

watch the trailer:

 


THE EAST (2013)

July 1, 2013

east1 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij re-teams with his Sound of My Voice co-writer and actress Brit Marling (Another Earth) to deliver another cult-based story. This time they focus on big, bad corporations and the eco-terrorists who target them.

Ms. Marling’s character is hired by Patricia Clarkson’s Security Company that specializes in protecting big corporations from the terrorist attacks and acts of revenge that these cults of anarchists perpetuate. Marling goes undercover to learn the secrets of The East, one of the particularly aggressive cult-like groups. The leader of The East is played by Alexander Skarsgard, who works with an overly-zealous and bitter Ellen Page and former med student Toby Kebbell.

east3 Are these idealists, anarchists, eco-activists or eco-terrorists? Is their “eye for an eye” philosophy a form of retribution or is it meant to draw attention so that a wrong can be righted? Are there extremes to which they won’t go? This group doesn’t seem united in their answers to these questions, though their deep woods hangout draws comparisons to Charles Manson’s compound.

As Marling becomes part of the group, she participates in the “jams”, which are the actual strikes against the companies and the decision makers in charge. Specifically, they give a pharmaceutical giant a taste of their own medicine … getting the desired results, which they watch online. Of course, there is always the risk of prison and/or injury and things don’t always go according to plan.

east4 The cast is pretty talented and also includes Jason Ritter, Shiloh Fernandez and Julia Ormond. The story will remind a bit of Sound of My Voice, and also Martha Marcy May Marlene. In other words, the attraction of the cult and commitment to cause. The set-up to the story is very well done, and it’s no real surprise as opposing ideals and conflicts creep into a group of idealists. Is violence necessary or are there more effective methods to make one’s protest heard and spur change? While the movie lacks the edge of the best indies, it still makes for good movie discussion … and crosses into real life beliefs and, personal and political stances.

**NOTE: Brit Marling is one of those rare combinations of Writer/Actress, and she is talented at both. She would be a wise choice as a prediction of future Oscar winner at some point … the only question is whether that will come as a writer or actress.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Sound of My Voice and/or Martha Marcy May Marlene OR you’re in the mood for a intriguing story during this time of blockbuster summer releases OR you just want to see Alexander Skarsgard in full scraggily mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you refuse to believe big corporations would never put profit above public well-being OR you’re looking for a few good laughs (not sure this one has even one)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oPoTrnHQ3I


WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013)

June 10, 2013

maisie1 Greetings again from the darkness. An ultra-modern indie update of the 1897 Henry James novel introduces us to parents we know, but wish we didn’t. Steve Coogan plays Beale, a self-absorbed art dealer. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a self-absorbed rock star. OK, you and I may not know art dealers and rock stars, but we know self-absorbed types and we know they make terrible parents. So not only do we know it, but it’s also what Maisie knows.

Five outstanding performances and strong work by co-directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel prevent this one from spinning off into the neverlands of melodramatic muck. Onata Aprile is a wonder as Maisie. She displays none of the typical “movie kid” precociousness. The movie (and James novel) are told from her point of view. We see the fragmented bits and pieces she experiences as her parents fight. Rather than a full story drowning in details, we share her maisie3moments of late pick-ups, early drop-offs and forgotten trips.

Soon enough Beale and Susanna are divorced and the real wars begin. These despicable adults make little effort in hiding their hatred of each other from 6 year old Maisie. It becomes background noise to her life. Further proof of the epic narcissism from both: Beale soon marries Margot the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna reacts by marrying Lincoln, a simple-minded band gopher and bartender played by studly but Alexander Skarsgard. The most startling moment of the movie occurs when Lincoln first begins playing with Maisie … it’s as if we had almost forgotten what it means to give your attention to a child.

maisie2 This is not an easy film to watch … at least if you understand that parenting means putting yourself second. The directors do a wonderful job of showing us how Maisie takes in moments and what memories she makes from these. The neglect and false moments of caring from her parents make her acceptance of the attention to her step-parents even more poignant. We can’t help but hope things work out for this little girl and it’s a reminder that childhood innocence cannot be recaptured once lost … and it’s worth hanging on to for as long as possible.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a realistic and terrific performance from child actor Onata Aprile OR you’ve always believed that Henry James doesn’t translate to the big screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to see is two more pathetic parents

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68pgeWPc-QI


DISCONNECT (2013)

April 14, 2013

disconnect1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s an impressive cast. The director, Henry Alex Rubin, gave us the excellent documentary Murderball.  Unfortunately the material here is mostly obvious and cliché-filled with no real message, other than our dependency on technology is leading us to be less “connected” to those real life people we live with. Is there anyone who doesn’t know this … other than the characters in this movie?

I’m calling this movie “Crash on the World Wide Web”. Crash was the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture. It had multiple story lines andworked extremely hard to appear very important, just like this one does. Disconnect shows us the Boyd’s – a family comprised of a workaholic lawyer dad (Jason Bateman always on the blackberry), a teenage daughter (Haley Ramm), a teenage loner son, and a mom (Hope Davis) who has no close bond with any of them. The boy (played by Jonah Bobo from Crazy Stupid Love) is cyber-bullied by two cruel boys (Colin Ford from a We Bought a disconnect3Zoo, and Aviad Bernstein).

We also meet a married couple played by Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard. They learn they are the victims of identity theft and the source could be her online support chat room (grieving the loss of their young son) or his online gambling problem. They hire a cyber-crime expert (Frank Grillo) to help them track down the alleged perpetrator (Michael Nyqvist). This expert also happens to be the father of Colin Ford’s character – the cyber-bully from story 1.

disconnect4Finally we see an ambitious local TV reporter (Andrea Riceborough) who stumbles onto an online sex chat room featuring young stud Max Thieriot. As the trust builds between these two, we know disaster is fast approaching.

The two father-son relationships take a turn after both fathers “invade” the privacy of the boys’ online accounts. What they learn is painful and enlightening. The real point or message of the stories seem to be that technology is killing real communication and human interaction. This is the disconnect that is occurring while online connections are thriving. Did we really need a movie to tell us this?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are somehow oblivious to the inherent dangers of online communication OR if you are unaware that teenagers can be cruel and loneliness is open to all ages OR you want to see why I prefer Jason Bateman in dramatic roles rather than comedies

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have been the victim of identity theft or cyber-bullying … no need to re-live that pain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqCcQOlDM4o