SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE INTERN (2015)

September 24, 2015

intern Greetings again from the darkness. A feel-good mainstream movie featuring two big time movie stars will likely have box office success and cause a lot of people to laugh out loud. In other words, the latest from writer/director Nancy Meyers should be celebrated for its entertainment value, rather than picked apart by film critics. Ok, I’ll give it a try.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who just can’t seem to find meaning in hobbies and the leisure life. He applies and is selected for the “Senior Intern” program at About the Fit, a fast-growing online clothing company run by its founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). In addition to being a Type A driven and obsessed-with-details company leader (the type that rides her bike through the office to save time), Jules also has a husband, a young daughter and a fabulous brownstone. What she doesn’t have is enough sleep, any friends, or enough time to enjoy any of the good stuff.  You aren’t alone if a buddy flick with DeNiro and Hathaway seems unusual to you.

At the same time Ben arrives on the scene, Jules is struggling with her investors’ decision to hire a more experienced CEO so that the company can maintain its phenomenal growth. That’s about as deep as the business talk ever gets (but just try to keep track of all the Apple product placements). Jules initially spurns Ben, but of course, he soon becomes invaluable around the office, and while blinking his eyes, becomes her most valued confidant and adviser.

Much of the comedy is derived from Ben’s interactions with the young employees. It’s quite simply a ‘generation gap comedy’ that makes all the points it needs to make without really breaking a sweat: senior citizens are a wealth of knowledge and can bring value to an organization or relationship, young people can learn from elders (it’s OK to shave everyday and dress for success) … and vice versa (computers are our friend), there still exists some animosity between stay at home moms and working moms, stay at home dads face challenges of their own, running a company is hard work both physically and mentally, communication often requires more than a text or email, and staying true to one’s self is not always easy.

Ms. Meyers has brought us other mainstream films such as It’s Complicated (2009) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003), and she has a feel for presenting the upper-middle class as a punchline for the masses. She likes showing successful people in uncomfortable situations … leaning heavy on awkward, while avoiding dangerous altogether. Her latest is a feel good movie that makes you laugh, without causing you to think about anything in your life that might bring you down. And there is real value in that.

Ok, I tried, but there are some things that must be pointed out. There was so much of Ms. Meyers’ script that was begging to be pushed to the edge and analyzed from a societal aspect. Her specialty is rounding off the corners so that no one gets hurt, and because of that the film is bereft of conflict … the single most important element for a meaningful scene. For example, the conflict between Jules and her husband occurs in a hotel room, which would be fine except … only one of them is there!  Also, we never really get any of the story from Ben’s perspective. Instead, we are just to believe that his Gandhi-like influence on co-workers is the only reward he seeks. I also found myself bothered a bit in the quick glimpse we get into Ben’s personal life. He blows off the advances of Linda Lavin and pursues Rene Russo … understandable, but a bit off-putting given that this female writer chose to have him hook up with the 11 years younger character, rather than the one closer to his own age.  There are many other similar type issues that warrant discussion, but that’s why it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this one, rather than asking “what if?”

watch the trailer:

 

 


SONG ONE (2014)

January 21, 2015

 

Song One Greetings again from the darkness. Fresh off her Oscar winning performance and infamous onscreen haircut in Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway stars in this infinitely smaller film from writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland.  A Sundance Film Festival entry, the movie winds through the clubs, coffee shops and second hand stores that make up the indie music scene in northern Brooklyn.

Ben Rosenfield (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Henry, the kind of musician so enamored with his own folk sound that he is willing to play for pocket change in the subway tunnels. Failing to adhere to mother rule #1, Henry pays the price for not looking both ways prior to crossing a street in front of a New York cabbie. Next thing we know, he is comatose in a hospital bed. Henry’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) beckons wayward daughter Franny (Anne Hathaway) home from her worldly pursuit of a Ph.d in Anthropology.

When last they spoke Franny and brother Henry had one of those nasty sibling fights where angry words were spoken and no apology followed. It’s been six months and now a guilt-ridden Franny sits by his hospital bed hoping for a shot at redemption. She soon discovers Henry’s journal and begins re-tracing his favorite hang-outs and bands. This journey leads her to a meeting with Henry’s musical idol James Forester (played by Johnny Flynn). Lacking suspense, the story leads right where one would expect – James and Franny taking a liking to each other, Franny discovers her own love for music, and the songwriting block that has burdened James slowly breaks down.

The film is at its best in the musical moments. Flynn is a very talented guy as a musician (not so much as an actor), and 5 or 6 live musical acts make appearances as the story unfolds. Most of the quiet scenes between Hathaway and Flynn seem a bit awkward, but not awkward in the good way that leads to real romance. Connection and re-connection are quite common in times of tragedy, as we are at our most emotionally vulnerable state. The biggest issue here is that everything develops just as we would expect … no surprises, no twists. Even the re-connection of Franny and her mother is a sweet scene where Franny sings along to America’s “I Need You”.

Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame) and Jonathan Rice co-wrote the original songs used in the film, and as stated, a hand full of other bands perform their own material. For a musically based romantic drama, it does have a couple of really nice scenes, but for the most part, the drama and romance lag the music.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

watch the trailer:


TMI (1-3-12)

January 3, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 Christopher Nolan and crew are in post-production for the final entry in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  The story picks up 8 years after The Dark Knight and again features Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Michael Caine as Alfred. This time Batman faces off against the hulking, one-man army Bane, played by Tom Hardy.  There is also an appearance by Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway.  Nolan has stated that there will be approximately 50 minutes of IMAX footage in this final chapter.  Release date is July 20, 2012