LIFE ITSELF (2018)

September 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a “downer” period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that this latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas – with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.

It’s highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It’s a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won’t debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.

Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Hero” and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator – a recurring theme throughout. It’s also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.

Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan’s face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to “The Gonzalez Family” of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier’s boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione’s olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle … or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson’s place after Chapter 1 is revealed.

Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back – to “stand up” after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.

watch the trailer:

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KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


THE 33 (2015)

November 12, 2015

the 33 Greetings again from the darkness. How do you structure a film based on a true story that lasted 69 days, occurred 5 years ago, and was followed live on TV by half of the global population? Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, 2012) delivers a film designed to tug on heartstrings, and is based on the book “Deep Down Dark” from Hector Tobar, as well as interviews with the key players.

In 2010, the San Jose copper/gold mine collapsed trapping 33 Chilean miners more than 2300 feet under tons of rubble and an unstable rock that dwarfed the Empire State Building. Through some pretty solid special effects, we are there for the collapse. It’s this segment and the immediate reactions from the miners that provide the film’s best segment. We feel the miner’s sense of panic and doom as they begin to come to grips with their plight.

The film rotates between three struggles: the isolation of the miners struggling to survive, the tent city populated by their families struggling to maintain hope, and the Chilean government struggling with the politics and public relations of a rescue mission. From a character standpoint, each of these three segments is given a face. Antonio Banderas as Mario becomes the focal point of the miners. He searches for an escape route, takes charge of the (very limited) food rations, and acts as referee and light of hope in an extremely volatile situation. Juliette Binoche (yes the French actress) is Maria, the sister of one of the trapped miners and the most assertive of those pushing the government to attempt a rescue. Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Goldborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, and the one who pushes the government to move forward with the costly rescue mission.

Other key characters include Bob Gunton as Chile’s President Pinera, Lou Diamond Phillips as “Don Lucho”, the safety inspector, Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer, James Brolin as Jeff Hart (leading the U.S. drilling team), Naomi Scott as Mario’s wife, and three of the other miners: Oscar Nunez, Mario Casas, and Juan Pablo Raba.

The most bizarre segment comes courtesy of miner hallucinations. It’s a fantasy-infused Last Supper sequence that plays out to the sounds of a Bellini opera, while the food and drink flow and the family members join in the joy. It’s not difficult to imagine the brain taking these poor gentlemen to such places of mental torture.

As if the approach is to make the most viewer-friendly buried miner film possible, we aren’t witness to much underground conflict, and the internal bickering within the Chilean government officials is kept to a minimum. We do get to see the media circus that occurred during the ordeal … of course, most of us witnessed it in real time.

Director Riggen has delivered a film that taps into the multitude of emotions for the different groups of people, rather than concentrating on the miserable situation of the miners. It’s a challenge to keep us interested in a true story of which we all know the ending, but most viewers will stay engaged with the characters. It should also be noted that the minimalistic score is some of the last work from the late, great James Horner.

Watch the trailer:

 

 


THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014)

August 18, 2014

expendables3 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether you saw the first two in this series will directly correlate to whether you head to the theatre for this third entry. The filmmakers’ attempt at attracting a younger audience by adding a “new” crew and dropping to a PG-13 rating backfires, and will not provide the legs this franchise needed for more installments.

The regular old geezers are back: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li (briefly), and Arnold Schwarzenneger. In addition, we get new “old” blood in the form of Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammar, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, and the dominating presence of Mel Gibson as the bad guy. The young blood comes in the form of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, boxer Victor Ortiz, and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey. The blandness of the newbies simply steals valuable screen time for the old folks, and the movie suffers because of it.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, comes courtesy of the all-time champion screen hog: Mr. Stallone. We understand that this  franchise is his baby, but why field an all-star team if you won’t let them play? Stallone gets a ridiculous number of close-ups and probably three times the dialogue of the runner-up. Snipes gets some time early in the film, replete with a reference to his real life prison sentence for tax evasion, and Ford and Arnold get in a few shots, but the only savior here is Mel Gibson. It’s a reminder of just how good he can be on screen … if we could only forget what a horrible person he can be off screen.

There is no need to go into detail on the plot or describe any of the characters. You know what you are getting if you buy a ticket. It’s just a shame the film’s direction and script aren’t at the level deserving of a cast that includes: Rambo, Mad Max, Blade, Conan, Han Solo, Hercules, Zorro, The Transporter, He-Man, and even … Sideshow Bob!

**NOTE: while Bruce Willis demanded too much money and does not appear this time, there is a Die Hard reference with the “other” Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi)

watch the trailer:

 

 


RUBY SPARKS (2012)

August 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well it took six years, but co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris finally deliver their follow-up to the smash hit Little Miss Sunshine. With a script from first time screenwriter Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan), we get an odd mash-up of would-be Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman, Stranger Than Fiction, and a “Twilight Zone” episode.

The story begins almost as a whimsical fantasy. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a blocked writer 10 years after writing the next great American novel, while he was still a teenager. The necessary comparisons to JD Salinger are made, and we witness Calvin as a socially-inept type who was never comfortable with his early success, and now can’t find a way to move on with life. Given a writing assignment by his shrink (Elliott Gould), Calvin discovers the true power of the written word is far beyond anything he had previously imagined.

 After a dream of meeting a lovely girl in the park, Calvin’s fingers tear through his manual typewriter and develop a story around his literal dream girl. And literal means literal. He runs into her downstairs. His creation has become his creation. Once he realizes they aren’t going to lock him away for insanity, Calvin and Ruby (also Zoe Kazan) begin a real relationship. Well as real as it can be with a girl who is not really real and whose actions can be changed simply by typing words on a page. If you think this sounds like a male fantasy, then you are in agreement with Calvin’s brother (Chris Messina).

 A trip to visit the brothers’ mothers (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) adds some humorous scenes while also signaling the beginning of trouble for Ruby and Calvin. It turns out that bringing your invented dream girl into the real world doesn’t always work so well. Who would have thought? There is much humor in the film including Steve Coogan as Calvin’s mentor. Deborah Ann Woll (“True Blood”) has a scene as Calvin’s ex-girlfriend and it is probably the best written scene in the film. Really good insight into how two people’s view of the same relationship can vary greatly.

 The story can be looked at from different perspectives. It certainly serves as insight into how a writer’s mind can work. Many writers need a muse … but few get to create their own! More importantly, it makes a statement on how we (well, not me) often try to control and manipulate the other person in our relationships. This is a sterling reminder to be careful what you ask for … you just might get it.

**Note: on a side note, it is refreshing to see a love story between two actors who look rather “normal” rather than so perfectly beautiful they appear to be a genetic experiment

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy off-beat, quirky humor with an underlying message

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to do is crawl inside the head of a Hollywood writer

watch the trailer:


HAYWIRE

January 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Caught an early screening of this one and my quick description is that it’s a mash-up of The Bourne Identity, Salt, and the original “Mod Squad” (it has a kind of retro feel). In other words, it’s a fun ride featuring stunning fight scenes filmed with an artistry that only director Steven Soderbergh can achieve.

Newcomer Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, an independent contractor … the type who handles dirty work for governments and the powerful people who must keep their hands somewhat clean. She gets double-crossed on a Barcelona job and becomes the target herself while in Dublin. So this lethal weapon goes on a globe-trotting mission of revenge and messes up people and hotel rooms in the process. If you think a woman can’t carry action scenes, then you don’t realize Ms. Carano is an MMA fighter. She is the real deal. Her physical skills are on full display and leave little doubt as to her deadly talent.

 Since this is a Soderbergh film, you know the cast is well-stocked. We get Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Ewan McGregor all at their smarmy best. Additionally we see Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton (as Mallory’s father). Trust me when I say not all of these character fare so well in their showdowns with Mallory. Though the script from Lem Dobbs is pretty basic, Soderbergh’s way of telling the story is compelling enough to keep us interested between Carano’s fights.

The color palette alternates between the brown/gold Soderbergh used for Traffic, and the blue/gray from his “Ocean’s” franchise. The jazzy score from David Holmes is a wonderful compliment to the wide variety of scenes and locations, and the tongue-in-cheek humor is expert enough to keep you smiling through the all too serious business chats. A perfect example of the wry humor is that the movie begins and ends with the same one syllable word (begins with an “S”).

Soderbergh is one of the few directors who refuses to get pigeon-holed into making a certain type of movie. Never short on style or visual flair, he touches many genres and here proves he can twist the action-thriller in a new, fun to watch direction. If you kick back and go for the ride, Haywire will show you a great time.

a note of trivia: Gina Carano is the daughter of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Glenn Carano

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Salt and the “Bourne” movies OR you want to see a woman totally capable of kicking ass

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are going to take it too seriously and expect a dose of heavy-handed Soderbergh filmmaking (he seems to actually have fun with this one)

watch the trailer:


THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La piel que habito, sp)

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will readily admit to being a huge Pedro Almodovar fan. His films regularly place on my “Best Of” list every two years. I so admire his creativity, tough women characters, visual acumen and multi-dimensional stories. With Almodovar, we can bank on some type of dalliance with death, a brush with sexual deviance, non-linear time lines, plots that twist and turn incessantly, a color palette to make Frida Kahlo envious and psychological darkness that forces us to look inward. All of these elements are present here … yet somehow it doesn’t quite click.

 Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon revered for his work in face transplants. What the medical profession doesn’t know is that Dr. Ledgard takes the mad scientist label to whole new dimension. And he does it with the coolness reserved for the other side of the pillow. I will not go into details of the story other than to say Banderas’ character would make Dr. Frankenstein turn away in disgust.

Dr. Ledgard lives in a beautiful mansion with his protective housekeeper played by Almodovar veteran Marissa Paredes. He also has a live-in patient named Vera, played wonderfully by Elena Anaya. You will recognize Ms. Anaya if you took my advice and tracked down Mesrine parts 1 and 2. Support work is also provided by Jim Cornet as Vicente. I wish I could tell you more of the characters, but can’t without giving away too much.

 Dr. Legard and Vera are two of the most fascinating characters ever written by Almodovar, and the film is a twisted road to discomfort all wrapped up in a silky smooth picture frame. From a filmmaking perspective, I couldn’t rate it much higher. From an entertainment perspective, it would be near the bottom of the most interesting or desirable Almodovar films. Am I disappointed? Sure, a little. But not enough to override my excitement for the next film by Almodovar!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you must see every Almodovar film OR you want to see Antonio Banderas in his most intense role in quite some time.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have yet to enter the film realm of Almodovar … this is not the best for an introduction

watch the trailer: