LOST GIRLS (2020)

March 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Long Island serial killer is a famous unsolved case, yet very few filmmakers would take on a true murder mystery that has no ending (The Boston Strangler and Zodiac excepted). Liz Garbus long ago established herself as an expert documentarian, and has earned Oscar nominations (WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? 2015; THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA 1998). My guess is she was initially attracted to this story as a documentary, but transitioned to her first narrative feature out of necessity. Working from the book by Robert Kolker and a screenplay from Michael Werwie (EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, 2019), Ms. Garbus and her talented cast offer up a different viewpoint of the crimes … the viewpoint of a mother who refuses to give up her daughter a second time.

Amy Ryan (Oscar nominated for GONE BABY GONE, 2007) gives a fierce and compelling performance as Mari Gilbert. Mari is a struggling single mom holding down two jobs – one as a construction worker, and one in a local diner. She is raising two daughters: Sherri (rising star Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) and Sarra (Oona Laurence, THE BEGUILED, 2017). Mari takes a phone call from her eldest daughter Shannan, expressing delight that the girl will visit for dinner, and with little hesitation, asks her daughter for some money to fill the gap left by reduced work hours.

Shannan never shows up, and a mysterious phone call the next morning sends Mari and her daughters into investigative mode. Daughter Sherri uncovers the secrets her mom has been keeping from her, while at the same time watching her mom tear into the cops for their apparent lack of interest in finding Shannan. Dean Winters (“Mayhem” from the insurance commercials) plays Detective Bostick, who barely hides his contempt for Mari and her missing ‘prostitute’ daughter. Police Commissioner Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) deals directly with Mari, and bears the brunt of her aggressive fight to keep her daughter’s case from fading.

Mari is wrestling with her own emotions regarding Shannan, and it’s really daughter Sherri (Ms. McKenzie) who becomes the most interesting character in the saga. Other key players are Kevin Corrigan as conspiracy theorist Joe Salise, Reed Birney as creepy Dr. Peter Hackett, and Lola Kirke (daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, and GONE GIRL) as Kim, the sister of one of the missing sex workers. With Mari pushing the cops, four bodies are discovered near a wealthy gated community called Oak Beach. There is a tremendous sequence involving 911 calls, and it plays right into the debate of whether this was incompetent police work or a cover-up. The lack of interest regarding missing girls seems to make it clear that the cops were hardly motivated to find the sex workers, and when Mari reminds them that these are daughters and sisters, it’s a powerful moment.

Director Garbus includes some actual news clips, and at the film’s conclusion we see a 2016 press conference with the real Mari Gilbert. Shannan disappeared in 2010, and 10-16 bodies have since been attributed to the Long Island serial killer – though the cases have never been solved. As a police procedural, the film has far too many gaps and skims over details and evidence. However, as a personal drama and commentary on police attitudes, it succeeds.

The film is now available on Netflix.

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LATE NIGHT (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ”A woman who hates women”. That is how talk show host Katherine Newbury is described. Oh, and her show’s ratings have been declining for 10 years, she doesn’t even know most of her writers by sight (or name), and we are led to believe that her age has something to do with the new network executive wanting to replace her. Five minutes in, my opinion was that Katherine Newbury doesn’t like people (not just women), is basically a narcissistic jerk, and her age has nothing to do with her being replaced … it’s the fact that her show is lame, she’s not appealing to viewers, and advertising revenues drop with poor ratings. It’s called business – not sexism or gender discrimination. Never once did this seem like someone getting a raw deal. However, it’s only a movie, so I tried to play along.

Very talented actors fill the screen. Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the stuck-in-her-ways, Emmy winning talk show host hanging on based on reputation and longevity in the business. Her character reminds me of David Letterman towards the end of his long run … scandal and all. Mindy Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a factory, err, chemical plant worker, who dreams of being a comedy writer, but puts no effort into actually learning the craft. Instead, luck puts her in the right place at the time the show needs a token hire. Enter Molly, a woman of color in a writers’ room full of white men. The interesting dynamic here is that most of the men in the room probably got their seat thanks to connections, while Molly got hers based on gender. Talent and skill seem to play no part for any of them.

The story is basically Molly trying to find her true self by helping Katherine modernize her evil ways and save her job. There are quite a few little sub-stories – can’t really call them subplots – that mostly distract from the overall direction, but serve the purpose of allowing punchlines or supposedly insightful social commentary. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s wise, Parkinson’s stricken husband, and the writers’ boys club includes Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Max Casella (“Ray Donovan”), Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA), and Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”). Ike Barinholtz plays the hot young comedian being groomed as Katherine’s replacement, and it’s Amy Ryan (“The Office”) who really registers as the network President. More of Ms. Ryan’s character and more attention to the network perspective would have improved the film.

Director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”) is working from the script by Ms. Kaling, whose real life experiences as a token hire in the industry could have been better presented. A lame stab at a romance distracts from the reactions of the threatened writers materializing in a lack of respect towards Molly, and most of the comedy felt forced and obvious, rather than real and painful (the sources of the best comedy). It’s a shame that most any episode of “30 Rock” or “The Office” provides more insightful commentary and comedy than this film. It’s such a missed opportunity.

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BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is absolutely nothing that compares to being a parent. Sorry, pet lovers, it’s not even close. And I’m not referring to the romantic notion of having one’s DNA live on as legacy. Rather, nothing compares to the weight of never-a-break responsibility felt in keeping a helpless newborn alive and properly nourished. And later, teaching the right life lessons so that it’s not your kid who bullies others in school, or steals, or damages the property of others. Someone’s kid is going to do those things, and most of us try our darndest to prevent it from being our kid. The reality is, that even the most attentive and best-intentioned parents can sometimes fall victim to a force beyond their control. Such is the situation in writer-director Felix Van Groeningen’s film (co-written with Luke Davis) based on the two memoirs penned by father and son David and Nic Sheff.

We open on David (Steve Carell) disclosing to a physician (Timothy Hutton) that his son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) is addicted to crystal meth, and asking two questions: 1. What is it doing to him? 2. What can I do to help him? The quiet desperation and pain is plainly evident on David’s face. We know immediately that this Steve Carell movie won’t be packed with laughs.

What follows is the harsh reality of drug addiction. Rehab – Relapse – Repeat. Much of the story is dedicated to David’s struggle and devotion to helping his son Nic in any way possible. He’s a helpless father who refuses to give up on his son, despite the constant desperation and frustration. Every glimmer of hope is soon crushed by yet another lie and more drugs. The film is such a downer that it makes LEAVING LAS VEGAS look like an old Disney classic.

Bouncing between timelines is a device that works for many stories, but here it seems to take away some of the poignancy and depth of some scenes. Just as we are being absorbed into a crucial moment, the film often breaks away to an earlier or later time. This is effective in getting the point across about the never-ending struggles, but we lose momentum on particular segments.

Supporting work comes courtesy of 4 talented actresses: Amy Ryan (as Nic’s mother and David’s ex-wife), Maury Tierney (as David’s current wife), Kaitlyn Dever (Nic’s girlfriend), and LisaGay Hamilton (involved in rehab). It’s a bit odd to see the mini-reunion of Ms. Ryan and Mr. Carell from their time on “The Office”, but mostly the on screen time is pretty limited for all four women. The reason this film works is the devastating work of two fine actors – Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet. We never doubt dad’s commitment, just as we never doubt son’s helplessness in getting clean.

The soundtrack acts as a boost to the dialogue with such songs (perhaps a bit too convenient and obvious) as John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”, and Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset”. It’s debatable whether it’s possible for a movie to look “too good”, but it’s a bit off-putting to admire the camera work while someone is struggling on screen with drug addiction. The downward spiral of drug addiction feeds on the misery, and while we all enjoy beautiful cinematography, this is the rare time that it’s distracting – possibly preventing viewers from going all in. The inherent lesson here is that we can’t always save people from themselves. Knowing what to do isn’t always possible, and sometimes there is simply no right answer … even with “Everything”.

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THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

July 13, 2016

infiltrator Greetings again from the darkness. The war on drugs has become a bit of a punchline in the real world, but has proven to be fertile ground for filmmaking: Sicario (2015), American Hustle (2013), Traffic (2000). Additionally, the popular Netflix show “Narcos” takes on the same Medellin drug cartel as this latest from director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011). The movie is based on the true events of Robert Mazur’s book “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel” (a title that’s very descriptive, if a bit long).

Bryan Cranston continues his impressive Hollywood run this time as Robert Mazur, the man who goes undercover to expose the money-laundering system of the cartel. His flamboyant alter-ego is known as Bob Musella, a character that allows Mazur (and Cranston) to show a side not typically seen. His antics get him inside Columbian Drug Lord Escobar’s organization in the mid-1980’s.

When Mazur realizes the traditional method of chasing the drugs isn’t working, he decides the age-old idiom “follow the money” might be a better approach. This takes him inside the world of international money laundering, and he learns that banks and governments are quite dependent on this huge business of drug money movement.

There are specific groups of people here: the government agencies, the small task force, the corrupt (and appreciative) bankers, the various levels within the cartel, and even Mazur’s family … all these forces intertwine to make life difficult for Mazur and his team, and provide a glimpse into the complexities of undercover work.

In addition to stellar work from Cranston, the cast is terrific. John Leguizamo plays Mazur’s motivated partner Abreu; Diane Kruger plays his undercover fiancé; Juliet Aubrey is Mazur’s real life wife who doesn’t much appreciate his declining the early retirement offer; Olympia Dukakis provides a dash of comedy relief as Mazur’s Aunt; Yul Vasquez is the creepy money manager for Escobar; Benjamin Bratt plays Roberto, Escobar’s right-hand man and the key to Mazur’s case; and Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is Roberto’s wife. Also present are Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs and the always great Michael Pare.

There are a couple of standout scenes – one involving chicken and voodoo, and another with a briefcase mishap, but my favorite is the Happy Anniversary cake scene in the restaurant where Mazur flashes his alter-ego Musella for his real wife to see … and she is understandably stunned.

The movie does a nice job of capturing the look and feel of the era (30 years ago), but it’s somehow missing the elevated suspense it portends to drag us and the characters through. Some elements seemed impossible to believe – why would Mazur risk his family’s safety? The timeline was a bit muddled. We aren’t sure how much time has passed, but there certainly don’t seem to be enough interactions before Roberto is telling Mazur he is “like family”. It plays a bit like those romance movies where the two leads are head over heels in love after a conversation or two. An element is missing and it affects the level of tension throughout the film. And that’s something even a Leonard Cohen song (“Everybody Knows”) can’t fix.

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LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016)

April 29, 2016

louder than bombs Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just can’t “get over it”. Three years after a war photographer dies in a suspicious car accident, her husband and two sons find themselves in various states of emotional distress. Everyone deals with guilt in their own way, but these three seem to be doing anything and everything to avoid actually dealing with the emotional fallout.

Writer/director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31) delivers his first English-speaking film with an assist from co-writer Eskil Vogt and a terrific cast. As we would expect from Mr. Trier, it’s a visually stylish film with some stunning images … and the timeline is anything but simple as we bounce from past to present, and from the perspective of different characters (sometimes with the same scene).

The creativity involved with the story telling and technical aspects have no impact whatsoever on the pacing. To say that the film is meticulously paced would be a kind way of saying many viewers may actually get restless/bored with how slowly things move at times. Trier uses this pacing to help us experience some of the frustration and discomfort that each of the characters feel.

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother/wife in some wonderful flashback and dream-like sequences, while Gabriel Byrne plays her surviving husband. Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, and Devin Druid as Conrad are the sons, and as brothers they struggle to connect with each other … just as the father struggles to connect with each of them. In fact, it’s a film filled with characters who lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to others. It’s no mystery why they are each miserable in their own way. The suppressed emotions are at times overwhelming, and it’s especially difficult to see the youngest son struggle with social aspects of high school … it’s a spellbinding performance from Devin Druid (“Olive Kitteridge”).

Jesse Eisenberg manages to tone down his usual hyper-obnoxious mannerisms, yet still create the most unlikable character in the film … and that’s saying a lot. Mr. Byrne delivers a solid performance as the Dad who is quite flawed, and other supporting work is provided by David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The shadow cast by this woman is enormous and deep … and for nearly two hours we watch the family she left behind come to grips with her death and each other. It’s a film done well, but only you can decide if it sounds like a good way to spend two hours.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

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BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer: