FREE FIRE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Searching back through more than a decade of film reviews, I can confirm that the phrase “slapstick shootout” has not previously been part of my movie lexicon … which is a relief since it could never be more accurately placed than in description of this latest from the husband and wife filmmaking team of director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump (prior works include High-Rise, Kill List and a few others). The zingers are plentiful – both in bullets and dialogue. It’s unlikely you’ve ever laughed as much during such a violent/gory/graphic assault on the senses (especially auditory).

Set in 1978 Boston, which allows for added humor via music, attire, hairstyles and vehicles, the basic premise is a meet-up for the deal between an IRA faction and a gun-dealer, with the brokers and “muscle” of each side along for the ride. When cases of AR70’s are presented instead of the ordered M16’s, the deal gets a bit shaky until cooler heads prevail. That is until one of the gun-runners recognizes an IRA guy as the one who disrespected his 17 year old cousin the night before. It’s at this point that the film cranks to a frenzy that would make the Mayhem commercial guy proud. It’s the visual definition of a cluster.

A stand-off and shootout occurs (with side deals and betrayals) over the next hour and yet the early comical dialogue somehow becomes next level great despite bullets whizzing through a terrific setting in an abandoned umbrella warehouse. Unlike in some movies, these bullets inflict pain (and the subsequent cries and wails). The characters continue to banter and threaten one another, all while dragging their lead-induced injuries across the dusty floor between various forms of protective shields strewn about the warehouse.

Normally I would concentrate on the major characters, but most everyone involved in the deal-gone-bad has at least a couple of memorable lines and moments. The gun-runners are led by Sharlto Copley as Vernon, a cocky, mouthy South African whose dialect sounds an awful like New Zealander Murray in the classic TV gem “Flight of the Conchords”. In a movie that seems impossible to steal, Copley comes the closest and his Vernon would make a perfect Halloween costume and annoying party guest. His cohorts are Marion (Babou Cesay), Gordan (Noah Taylor, Max 2002) and Harry (Jack Reynor, Sing Street, 2016). The IRA group is led by uptight Chris (Cillian Murphy), Stevo (a hilarious Sam Riley, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Frank (Michael Smiley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The two deal brokers are the ultra-debonair Ord (Armie Hammer) and the lone female Justine (Brie Larson). It’s a terrific cast having a ridiculously good time with a creative and rollicking script.

Know going in that the film is a very hard R-rating for violence, drug use (in the middle of the shootout), and a bounty of flowing F-words. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor those who take their standoffs too seriously. Director Wheatley employs a vast array of unusual camera angles to ensure the action never looks boring, and his use of secondary and tertiary sound (especially with dialogue) is expert and dizzying at times. Don’t expect too many layers or sub-plots. It’s simply a shoot ‘em up romp capitalizing on black comedy to the nth degree. John Denver might not have approved of the use of his song, and just remember, “We can’t all be nice girls”.

CAUTION: this is the RED BAND trailer and is NSFW or Kids:

 

 


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

October 6, 2016

birth-of-a-nation Greetings again from the darkness. Rarely is a director’s feature film debut one that has historical and societal relevance … and certainly few first-timers would dare “borrow” the title of one of the most iconic films in cinematic history (regardless of the irony). But it seems Nate Parker may be no ordinary filmmaker. His 7 year passion project is well made, well acted and worthy of discussion.

Though the films share the title card (right down to the font), there are almost no similarities between Mr. Parker’s film and the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie. Griffith’s movie (set 30-40 years later) is known as the first blockbuster and historical epic, was the first film screened at The White House (by Woodrow Wilson), and has been studied for its advanced filmmaking techniques. It’s also notorious for the despicable portrayal of racism, and has even been credited/blamed for re-energizing the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s film is neither a remake nor a historical epic – it’s more of a biographical portrait of the most famous figure in the 1931 Southampton, Virginia uprising … Nat Turner.

This is the story of Nat Turner, but it’s clearly Nate Parker’s film. He is producer, co-writer (with Jean Celestin), director and lead actor (as Turner). Previously recognized for his acting (The Great Debaters, 2007), Parker’s passion for the story is evident. He takes creative license in some key elements (Turner’s marriage, the interracial baptism, the armory battle), but the fundamental truth that Turner was driven by his religious beliefs and visions to fight in order to free slaves is profound and ingrained in each scene.

Supporting work is solid and comes from Armie Hammer as Nat’s plantation owner and master, Penelope Ann Miller (The Shadow, 1994) as the plantation matriarch who teaches young Nat to read the bible (not the white man books), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, 1976) as the villainous slave hunting ranch hand, Mark Boone Junior as the scheming Reverend, Gabrielle Union as a rape victim, and Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away with Murder”) as Cherry (Turner’s wife).

Nat Turner’s uprising lasted a mere 48 hours, and resulted in the slaughtering of dozens of slave owners and their families. Of course, many slaves were also killed and the fallout was that slave owners became more wary of the possible actions of slaves … while it also provided a glimmer of hope, and generational stories, for those who remained enslaved.

Religion was a driving force in Turner’s actions, and it’s fascinating to see a movie acknowledge conflicting bible verses, and how support can be found for most any action … in this case, slavery AND the battle against it. Turner’s sermons to slaves evolve over time from a message of “obey your master” to the point where he is inspiring the uprising – all with words directly from the scripture.

The end for Nat Turner provides the end of the movie, but of course, it’s not the end of the story. One need only check today’s headlines to know that racial tensions are prevalent and that society still has a ways to go for equality and humanity for all. Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the more haunting songs one will ever hear in a movie (originally recorded in 1939 by Billie Holliday), but it’s spot-on in its inclusion. A detailed song about lynching grabs our attention amongst the whippings, force-feedings, rape and other torturous mistreatments.

Slavery has been portrayed on screen in such films as 12 Years a Slave, “Roots”, Django Unchained, and Amistad. Nate Parker’s film deserves to be mentioned among these projects, and there is little doubt we will hear and see even more from Parker as a filmmaker (and actor). As a final benefit, the film reminds us to never bring a hatchet to a canon fight.

**NOTE: for those who follow the NBA, you’ll notice Michael Finley and Tony Parker are Executive Producers for the film.

**NOTE TO AMC NorthPark: my movie buddy was not pleased with his $7.03 small popcorn. Being one of the few who pays with cash, he questions why you can’t make 3 cents less per bag rather than load down your customers with 97 cents change … to say nothing of the inefficiencies in having your concession workers count out the 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 2 pennies


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 22, 2015

man from uncle Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many of us left. I’m referring to fans of the 1960’s TV series who will always think of Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as the real United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – shortened to U.N.C.L.E. Of course, these days, the movie industry is committed to remakes, sequels and re-boots, and it’s not surprising that it takes “Superman” and “The Lone Ranger” to try and fill the shoes of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.

Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin join forces with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Gaby in a mission to thwart the sale of a nuclear warhead built under duress by Gaby’s estranged father. Also joining in the fun are Jared Harris as Sanders, Hugh Grant as Waverly (Mr. Carroll’s old role) and Elizabeth Debicki (she made quite an impression as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), who makes a very intriguing “bad guy” as Victoria.

A one word description of this movie would be pretty. Most EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are pretty. The clothes are pretty. The sets are pretty. The Italian locations are pretty, and Lord knows the people are pretty. Most of the lead actors have spent some time modeling: Cavill, Hammer, Vikander, Grant, Debicki, and Luca Calvana. Heck, David Beckham even has a cameo just to make sure every scene includes someone really pretty.

In the same year with the latest Mission: Impossible (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and James Bond (Spectre) movies, it’s understandable that the Sherlock Holmes writer/director team of Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach. Unfortunately, the comic chops are a bit weak on the leads, so while they look pretty … many of the punchlines come off pretty weak.

For any other surviving loyalists to the original TV series, the best advice would be to accept the movie for what it is, and avoid comparing to those classic memories. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme song only merits a few moments of airtime. Those unfamiliar with the original material will likely accept this as the Pirates of the Caribbean of spy movies, and understand that the current TV show “The Americans” handles the Cold War much more dramatically and intensely. However, if anyone is looking for pretty …

watch the pretty trailer:

 

 


THE LONE RANGER (2013)

July 6, 2013

lone ranger Greetings again from the darkness. The Western genre has always appealed to me. I love the clear division between good and bad. Heroes and Villains face-off and the good guys usually win, thereby protecting those too weak to protect themselves. TV had an impressive string of popular westerns: “The Rifleman”, “Maverick”, “The Big Valley”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke” (1955-75).

One of the most popular got it’s start on the radio in 1933: “The Lone Ranger“. When it hit TV in 1949, the great Clayton Moore donned the mask and badge, accompanied by Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Though they filmed a couple of movies, they were best known on the small screen. Then in 1981,  The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in theatres. It was directed by William Fraker and starred Klinton Spilsbury. If you have never seen it … Mr. Fraker never directed another movie and Mr. Spilsbury never acted again. Enough said.

lone ranger2 Thirty-three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and mega-star Johnny Depp have teamed up for a re-imagined Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. Yes, that is the proper order since this is mostly the story of Tonto, told by Tonto, with the camera focused on Tonto (Depp). There is very little respect for the roots of the story, and that’s probably because it would not be politically correct these days to have a subservient Comanche taking orders from a masked white man.

We first meet an aging Tonto as the “Noble Savage” in a 1933 Old West traveling museum. This approach reminds me of the far superior Little Big Man featuring Dustin Hoffman. Tonto proceeds to tell a young boy his version of history. We are never really sure if this is a tall tale or just a commentary on how our memory recalls events solely from our own perspective. Tonto’s character is given a full backstory, but John Reid, the square and square-jawed prosecutor who Tonto mentors into becoming the lone ranger4Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer) is presented as a naive buffoon. Reid’s courageous brother Dan is played by James Badge Dale, and the bad guys are played by Tom Wilkinson (Cole, the train baron), and William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish, the notorious outlaw who wiped out the Rangers).

It seems apparent that Verbinski was striving to create the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The template is familiar … lots of action and wise-cracking, replete with the newest caricature in the Johnny Depp repertoire. Though Depp has many critics, I am not one. To me, he is a modern day Red Skelton, and I admire the nuances of his Captain Jack Sparrow, Wily Wonka, Mad Hatter, and of course, Edward Scissorhands. Tonto is another feather in his cap (so to speak) and his decision to base the look on Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” adds a stark look along with fodder for comedy.  Depp performs an impressive stunt featuring a tall ladder and two trains … it plays like a tribute to the great Buster Keaton.

lone ranger3 Many film critics have been bashing the production – some even before the film’s release. In this day of information overload, we all are aware of the battle between the filmmakers and the studio. The final product does in fact wear the scars of entirely too many writers and budget mismanagement and limitations that come with the Disney brand. What should have been a perfect fit (ultimate good guy Lone Ranger) turned into a jumbled mess at times. The 2 1/2 hour movie easily could have been a full hour shorter. Maybe building two new locomotives worked great for realism, but was tough on the budget. With so few young movie-goers even aware of the Lone Ranger, creative freedom to re-imagine the character makes sense, but making him a klutzy sidekick probably doesn’t. So what we get are pre-release headlines telling us the film is a bomb. I find that unfair. It certainly appeared that most of the audience I was part of enjoyed the movie, though there were cracks about how long it was.

There are some very impressive segments within the film and having Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing over the heart-pounding climax adds a level of fun that most movies don’t have. The use of Monument Valley in Utah put me in the mood for a John Ford movie marathon.  So while I fully agree that the movie is much too long, the script should have been tightened, and more respect paid to the main character, it seems highly likely that the movie will be remembered much more fondly than film critics would have us believe … at least by those who give it a shot.

**NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, Britt Reid who became The Green Hornet, is the great nephew of John Reid (The Lone Ranger).

**NOTE: I totally missed the significance or tie-in of the blood-thirsty rabbits in this movie, though they did remind me of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbits.  If you “get” this, please explain to me.

**NOTE: Helena Bonham Carter.  ugh

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the critics and accept this as another blockbuster summer fun flick OR you want to see the latest addition to the Johnny Depp Hall of Oddity

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the All-American hero as seen in the long ago TV series (this is really not his story)

Below are two videos.  The first is the 27 second opening to the TV series.  The second is one of the full trailers to the new movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Td4RHvyAFsM

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L5pbgKyWs4


MIRROR MIRROR (2012)

April 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy Tales. The Brothers Grimm. Expectations for a delightful story and fascinating characters should not be doused. Blah is the best word I have for this version of the classic children’s story. The “updated” story is a mess, the characters are quite bland, and the few sets are limited in scope. On the bright side, the costumes are colorful and, for a change, disliking Julia Roberts will not place me in the minority … she is after all, the evil Queen.

It seems logical that a classic fairy tale movie should be either designed for kids, enhanced for adults, or a mixture of each (The Princess Bride comes to mind).  Despite being one of the most beloved stories of all time, this one appears to have been made for an audience not consisting of kids or adults.  I spent much of the movie distracted by Julia Roberts’ lips and Lily Collins eyebrows. Both are characters unto themselves. Julia Roberts should be the perfect evil Queen, but she seemed to put forth little effort with her lines … an odd mix of sarcasm for a kids’ movie. Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) is just bland. She has no screen presence at all and is swallowed up in her scenes with Roberts, Armie Hammer (the Prince) and the band of dwarves.

There are so many things I could comment on, but most would be negative, so I’ll just (mostly) leave it alone. Being a fan of director Tarsem Singh (The Fall), there were moments where his remarkable eye for colorful visuals provided hope, but the lack of quality story-telling was just too much to overcome. The evil Queen spa treatment just seemed to be a one-off idea that got stuck into the film … scorpion and bee stings, parrot poop, and grub worms in ears probably seemed comical on the page.  Not so much on the screen.  The story has always made a statement on the quest for eternal beauty/youth, but this queen just comes across as desperate.  It was nice to see Danny Woodburn (Mickey on “Seinfeld”) as one of the dwarves, and I thought Armie Hammer found the proper chord in his performance.  As a viewer, stick to the 1937 Disney version, or hold out hope for the much darker version coming out later this year, Snow White and the Huntsman (with Kristen Stewart).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how a creative director can turn a fascinating fairy tale into a bland ball at the palace.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have young kids … they probably won’t enjoy it, laugh much or even be frightened of the witch.

watch the trailer:

 


J. EDGAR

November 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.

The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.

 Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.

An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.

 The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.

 Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.

 As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.

If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover

watch the trailer: