SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. All movie watchers know that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. And now we know that the first rule of Telemarketing is STTS: Stick to the script. The similarities between the two movies may be few, but hip-hop artist (The Coup) turned first time filmmaker Boots Riley comes out swinging in this offbeat, quite clever satire on race, corporate culture, economic factions, social division, and politics. It makes for a nice companion piece to last year’s critical darling, GET OUT.

LaKeith Stanfield (GET OUT, SHORT TERM 12) stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a low key good dude living with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Four months behind on rent, Cash wants to do something important with his life, he just doesn’t know how … and his current financial circumstances aren’t helping. You may call him a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (a Lennon reference seems fitting for this film).

Cash’s best buddy Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) gets him an interview at a dingy basement telemarketing firm – an interview that clues us in on the type of humor we are in for. Thanks to advice from one of the veteran telemarketers (Danny Glover), Cash utilizes his “white voice” and immediately has remarkable success … and we get some pretty funny sales call visuals to correspond to the obvious capitalism statement.

Ultimately his sales success gets him promoted to the “power caller” level and his own mentor, accessible only through the gold elevator. This leads to conflict with his friends, his girlfriend and his own moral standards. See, the basement dwellers are being led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun) in an effort to unionize for a living wage and tolerable work environment. As Cash continues to pursue … well, uh … cash … his friends carry out their form of civil disobedience. This leads to police brutality, examples of corporate greed, and the downside to individual ambition.

Armie Hammer plays Steve Lift, the egomaniacal corporate d-bag who takes Cash under his wing – for the purpose of making more money. The sales pitch turns to “Worry Free”, a lifestyle being marketed through brain-washing advertisements for guaranteed food and shelter. One need only commit to a lifetime of corporate servitude. If that sounds like slavery, well, that’s the point Riley is making. It’s not so far off from the life many of us lead today, but of course this is presented in satirical fashion, so we are manipulated into laughing at ourselves and our society. There is even a popular reality TV show titled “I Got the S**T Kicked Out of Me”, and folks can’t get enough!

The story kind of flies off the rails in the second half with some wacko-science fiction genetic engineering. The equisapiens have to be seen, as no written description will do. Even this segment has purpose. It speaks to how individuals and corporations can seize power and head in a questionable direction – all in the name of progress, efficiency and stock price.

Stanfield excels in one of his first lead roles, and Ms. Thompson is her usual shining star. Kate Berlant (as the humorously named Diana DeBauchery) has a couple of excellent scenes, and David Cross and Patton Oswalt are terrific as the (extremely) white voices of Cash and Mr. _________ (played by Omari Hardwick).

Filmmaker Riley offers up not a call to arms, but rather a call to wake up! Many of the decisions here mirror real life. Personal success can cost us friends, and political and professional choices may challenge our inherent morals (here, bordering on Faustian). The film is both provocative and funny, though a bit messy at times. You’ll laugh while you think, or laugh after you think, or think after you laugh … somehow you’ll do both. OFFICE SPACE and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL may be the closest comparisons; just be cautious if Boots Riley ever invites you to join in some horse play.

watch the trailer:

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FINAL PORTRAIT (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Geoffrey Rush is such a uniquely talented performer that I wouldn’t hesitate to walk into any of his projects with little hint as to the subject matter. He is simply that good at what he does. Here he plays renowned Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a man Rush seems destined to play given their quite similar physical appearances. It’s a 90 minute joy ride (though it’s not really joyful) for anyone who enjoys watching an artist work … or in this case, an artist working as an artist.

Writer-director Stanley Tucci is best known for his acting career, and he also has an eye for the camera and clearly admires Giacometti and his work. Set in 1964 Paris, most of the film takes place in Giacometti’s shabby little compound that includes his studio and a bedroom he sometimes shares with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). Occasional forays take us to his favorite café, or walks through the city by his latest portrait subject, the American art writer James Lord (Armie Hammer). In fact, the film is based on Mr. Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait”, which details his experience posing for the master … a task that was originally promised to last a couple of hours, and turned into 3 weeks.

Also appearing are Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother and assistant, and Clemence Poesy (IN BRUGES) as Caroline, a local prostitute who also serves as Giacometti’s muse. It’s a fine and talented cast, but this just as easily could have been a one-actor play. Rush plays the lead as a typical artist in shambles – one who cares as little for relationships as he does about money, clothes and appearances. He’s perpetually rumpled with mussed hair and a dangling cigarette being his sole accessory.

He is both charming and miserable, sometimes in the same breath – unwittingly pitting his forlorn wife against his more pampered muse … never more obvious than when comparing gifts of a new dress versus a new BMW. Much of the time on screen is spent in the daily ritual: adjusting the chair just so, Lord sitting down and assuming the pose, an artistic gaze cast, followed by the careful selection of a particular brush. More often than not, Giacometti mutters an “Ahh F***”, and proceeds to start over (and over and over). An honored yet frustrated Mr. Lord is forced into numerous flight reschedules, as time means nothing to an artist.

Director Tucci shoots through the smudged window panes more than once, and when Giacometti tells Lord, “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you”, it really captures the tortured madness and brilliance of such an amazing artist. He doesn’t see the world the way most of us do, and that’s what sets his art apart. Of course the personal toll on the man and those around him is quite high … Giacometti passed away less than two years after the Lord portrait.

watch the trailer:


CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Although confusing the two is understandable, there is a difference between a story of romance and a story of love. That’s not to say that the two can’t overlap; in fact, they often do. In movies, romance is the dish most often served because it’s usually more interesting. Watching the flirtatious dance and often awkward exploratory stage of what was once called the rituals of courting offers a writer, actor and director infinitely more possibilities than what we associate with the years of deep connection labeled as love. Andre Aciman’s novel is adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame, and 3 times Oscar nominated for Best Director) and the script leans heavily on romance … lustful romance, to be specific.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE) is an expert at making movies that engage our senses. His movies delicately tease us – they slowly absorb us into the emotions and feelings of the characters. Very few filmmakers have the skill to subtly seduce the viewer, and draw us into the story so that we are no longer merely observing. It’s nuanced story-telling at the highest level.

Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) family spends the summer at their estate in northern Italy. You’ve likely never met a more cultured family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned professor, his mother (Amira Casar) a recognized translator, and Elio himself is a musical prodigy who whiles away the days by transcribing classical music and reading every book he can get his hands on. Oh, he also flirts with the local girls because he is, after all, a 17 year old boy. His intelligence and corresponding wit is of a much older person, standing in stark contrast to his innocence and childlike maturity level with all other pieces of life’s puzzle.

Elio’s world is rocked when his father’s newest research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), shows up. An “Americano” who offsets his extreme politeness with an unrefined “Later” when departing any encounter, Oliver explodes on the scene like a Greek God. He and Elio have an initial passive-aggressiveness towards each other as they test the boundaries for weakness, and more importantly, interest. Things move very slowly as the passion and curiosity brews during their bike rides, walks through the apricot orchards (forbidden fruit), swimming in every watering hole, and competitive banters on intellectual topics. There is a sensuality to most every scene, though those same scenes are filled with unspoken tension.

The sunlit beauty as each summer day passes initially masks the emotions, and the stunning setting, people, colors, and music is accentuated by the camera work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Nature is on display in its full glory; not just through trees, sunlight, and water, but in that elusive and unexplained connection between two people so strongly drawn to one another.

Director Guadagnino’s film easily slides into the romantic sub-genre of such films as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAROL, and the artistic approach provides a gentleness that even the peach scene can’t undo. Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be everywhere these days) has an extraordinary father/son scene near the end which reminds us that each one of us has a story on how life may or may not have turned out as planned. The gut-wrenching pain with sharing that story usually means it remains untold; however, the invaluable lesson is not lost on Elio. First love and first heartbreak bring both emotional ecstasy and emotional devastation, and whether you believe the film’s statement “We have less to give each new person”, you’ll likely agree that the use of Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way” is spot on.

watch the trailer:


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: