A PERFECT DAY (2016)

January 14, 2016

a perfect day Greetings again from the darkness. “Somewhere in the Balkans, 1995” is the notice we receive in the opening frame, and the post Kosovo War setting is less about fighting a war and more about finding humanity in the aftermath. Based on the novel by Paula Farias and adapted by Diego Farias and director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, the film follows a group of Aid Across Borders workers as they make their way through the community, attempting to navigate the cultural and political challenges to offering assistance.

The corpse in a drinking water well is the immediate challenge facing the aid workers. Benecio Del Toro (Mambru), Tim Robbins (B), Melanie Thierry (Sophie) and their interpreter Fedja Stukan (Damir) are facing a short deadline in order to save the well from contamination for local villagers. Most of the movie revolves around their quest to find a rope so they can hoist the large corpse from the water. Searching for rope may seem a flimsy story center, but on their journey, we get to know these characters, some of the local cultural differences (in regards to dead bodies), the bureaucratic red tape faced, and the always present danger faced by do-gooders from the outside.

It’s understandable that a group in this situation would utilize humor to offset the ugliness, and there is no shortage of one-liners and wise-cracks, especially from B (Robbins). His cowboy approach is in distinct contrast to the veteran Mambru and the idealistic rookie Sophie. Soon enough they are joined by a local youngster named Nikola (Eldar Reisdovic) and an inspector Katya (Olga Kurylenko) sent to determine if the Aid program should continue. Oh yes, Katya and Mumbru are former lovers and it obviously didn’t end well.

As they work their way through the ropes challenge and the threat of land mines, we learn through the actions of Mumbru that no matter how much one wants to help, it’s only natural (and sometimes painful) to ask yourself if you are truly making a difference, or simply wasting time in a place filled with people who don’t seem to care. The specific use of multiple songs is at times distracting, and other times a perfect match (Lou Reed, The Buzzcocks). Del Toro proves yet again that he is a fascinating screen presence, and the message is strong enough to warrant a watch.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

watch the trailer:

 

 


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

August 3, 2014

guardians Greetings again from the darkness.  Are you ready for a new brand of Marvel movie heroes?  You surely know Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, but it’s high time you are introduced to Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Groot and Drax – known collectively as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead of dark, brooding and super-serious, this group is not just funny … they are actually FUN!

The plot is admittedly a bit simple. Everyone is basically chasing a ball (the orb) around the universe.  Instead of good guys vs bad buys, it’s actually kinda bad guys vs really bad guys. See, the heroes of our story are, for the most part, criminals themselves. The main difference is, they aren’t on a quest for intergalactic super power or mega destruction like Ronan (Lee Pace).  Ronan makes for a pretty menacing villain, complete with a voice that shakes the theatre!

The band of misfits thrown together by circumstance actually provides much entertainment.  Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) is the self-nicknamed Star-Lord, better known as Peter Quill. The film begins in 1988 when his mother lay dying and he is abducted by aliens. Quill’s criminal activity has him crossing paths with Gamora, a green assassin played by Zoe Saldana; Rocket, a brilliant wise-cracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; Rocket’s bodyguard Groot, an unusually mobile tree with a limited vocabulary voiced by Vin Diesel; and the hulking, knife-wielding, bent on revenge Drax the Destroyer played by WWE star Dave “The Animal” Bautista.  It’s a rag-tag group of heroes unlike anything we have seen before.

Other colorful supporting work comes courtesy of a blue-faced Michael Rooker, who controls his lethal arrow through a series of whistles; Djimon Hounsou as a sparkly-eyed warrior; John C Riley as a galaxy cop; Karen Giillan as a smooth-headed daughter of Ronan; and Glenn Close as a community leader.  We also get the traditional Stan Lee cameo, plus Benecio Del Toro as The Collector (teased in Thor: The Dark World).  The music actually plays a strong supporting role with such classics as “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps”.

Despite the lack of familiarity with these characters for most viewers, writer/director James Gunn (Slither) does a terrific job of having us quickly connect and even groot … err, I mean root … for these guys. Quill’s possession of a Sony Walkman to play his mother’s mix tape of songs from the 1970’s and 80’s give the film a very different flavor, having the familiar songs pop up at just the right time.

Pratt does an admirable job in the lead, although compared to the GQ of Tony Stark/Iron Man, his Quill is more Mad Magazine (funny and easy to like)  The best comparison I have for Quill is Han Solo, and for the movie it harkens back to 1978’s Superman … both very high compliments. It’s also the first time I have been completely caught off guard and laughed out loud at a Jackson Pollack reference!

**NOTE: If I had seen this movie as an 11-year-old boy, I would probably think it’s the coolest movie ever made.  Of course, they didn’t make movies like this when I was 11, so I have to enjoy them now.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a comic book fan but kinda tired of the all too familiar string of Avengers OR you just want to sing along to some classic songs of yesteryear (please don’t sit by me)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a talking raccoon and tree are likely to give you nightmares, no matter how funny their lines are.

watch the trailer:

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


SAVAGES (2012)

July 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I guess this qualifies as director Oliver Stone returning to his dark side. Based on Don Winslow‘s novel, it certainly has the foundation to be a complex, down-and-dirty, twisted plot, double-crossing, love triangle, ultra-violent, drug-dealing smörgåsbord. And while it possesses all of those elements, it still manages to come across as some slick Michael Mann cable TV project.

The film begins with narration from O (Blake Lively) who tells us that just because she is telling us this story, doesn’t mean she is alive at the end. Huh?? She also tells us that she is love with two drug-dealing buddies. Yes, both of them. Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) is the ex-Seal and muscle in the business. Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is the gifted botanist who turns the magic Afghan seeds into the most potent pot in southern California. Oh, and Ben is also the ultimate philanthropist drug dealer. He builds schools in third world countries and invests in clean energy. After what felt like an eternity, the narration finally ended and I could stop yelling “Shut up, O” at the screen.

One day the boys receive a video via email. It’s an invitation to a business meeting with the Mexican Baja Drug cartel. Suffice to say that the video contained no balloons or party animals. It was more of a visual warning about what happens if you choose not to do business with them. The cartel front men are played by Demian Bichir (fresh off A Better Life) and Benecio Del Toro (MIA since The Wolfman). The queen of the cartel is Elena, played by Salma Hayak. Throw in a corrupt DEA agent, playing both sides against each other, portrayed by John Travolta, and all the pieces are in place for real fireworks once O is kidnapped (it’s in the trailer).

The rest of the movie is pretty much the war you would expect with some poor negotiation skills, torture and back-stabbing tossed in for fun. Overacting is the word of the day, especially from Travolta, Ms. Hayak and Emile Hirsch (money man). Still not sure what to make of Ms. Lively (The Town). The camera certainly loves her but it’s too early to tell if she has staying power as an actress. The only character that is really fun to watch is Lado, played by Del Toro. He is truly a frightening guy who also happens to have a deceptive mind on how to take over from the weak.

The whole good versus evil story line really only works if one side is good and one side is evil. If the good side (Ben) is a drug-dealer in a love triangle with his best friend, it’s much more difficult to muster empathy. Otherwise, when the necessary hostage/money exchanges occur, we really aren’t invested in the characters … and the action takes center stage. That’s the sign of a forgettable movie with no real heart.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see beautiful people playing drug dealers OR you want to see Benecio Del Toro at his sleazy best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a gritty, down and dirty drug dealing drama with the political extremism we have come to expect from director Oliver Stone

watch the trailer:

 


THE WOLFMAN (2010)

February 14, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness (and fog). OK, I admit it. I love this stuff. As a kid, I watched Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies again and again. The 1941 version with Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman is classic horror. Of course, the film itself wasn’t really so scary … instead, it’s the possibility of the transition from man to monster and then back again! Director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, The Rocketeer) stays true to the original story and shows us how far stunts, special effects and make-up have come in the last 69 years. Add in another terrific score from Danny Elfman and you get a few good jumps in your movie seat.

Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are absolutely perfect casting for the cursed father and son. Their transformations work well given their “natural” features … especially Del Toro, who looks as though he was born for the role.

Emily Blunt is the token eye candy, and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is the Scotland Yard detective on the hunt. Neither are really given much to do, but it doesn’t matter. The fun starts when the full moon arrives.

The down side is that the CGI are a bit weak when the creature is on all fours running, jumping and leaping tall buildings. But that’s a minor quibble when you consider the set design is breath-taking. Horse and carriage, cozy English pub in a quaint town, and a run down-once majestic castle that houses Mr. Hopkins and family.

I applaud the director for remaining true to the roots of the story and not “updating” it ala Twilight to show high school students in 21st century NYC as werewolves. Go in with the right attitude and this one will make for a fun Valentine date.