SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER (2020)

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s not a word.” “It’s a word.” Anyone who has ever played Scrabble has both shrieked the phrases and been the target of those same screeches from opponents. Word play is in full effect during the feature film debut of director Carl Hunter (a former British pop star). The script comes from the short story “Triple Word Score” by writer Frank Cotrell Boyce, who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent and underrated MILLIONS (2004).

The basic premise has a father searching for his long-missing oldest son. The son stormed out during a hotly contested family game of Scrabble, so dad thinks he can track him down by playing the game online many hours each day. Bill Nighy plays Alan, the owner of Mellor’s Tailor Shop (though he rarely seems to work) and the aforementioned father-on-a-quest. Somewhat annoyed by his father’s pursuit, though still supportive as much as possible, is Alan’s youngest son Peter (Sam Riley, Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016). Peter refers to himself as “not the Prodigal Son”, which is the underlying theme of the story and the father-son relationship.

“Very Quadrophenia” Alan says as he walks by a group of scooter-riding folks. It’s just one of the whip-smart lines Bill Nighy sneaks in. Mr. Nighy has always had a unique on screen energy – one that keeps us off-balance yet eager to see where he leads. He’s perfectly cast for a film that delicately balances deadpan and offbeat humor with awkward relationships and dark moments. Alan is the type of guy who will Scrabble-hustle (and maybe even cheat) a grieving dad for 200 quid, and then turn around and take his gamer-grandson Jack (Louis Healy) from an anti-social to a quite “spruce” young man capable of flirting with his bus stop fantasy Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire, “The Five”).

Grief and family dynamics are the core of the story, and the father-son wranglings between Alan and Peter are especially crucial. The film has a somber tone spiced with whimsy to serve up an unusual feel. To go along with that, Production Designer Tim Deckel and Set Decorator David Morison conjure up the visuals we might expect from Wes Anderson or early Tim Burton … colorful wallpaper and vivid furnishings … right down to the knick-knacks and even a label-maker. The aesthetic choices by the filmmaker and crew really combine nicely with the performances in a film that may arrive at a predictable ending, but only after a most interesting journey. We do learn what the title means, and it’s important not to mix up, confuse, or muddle this one with the recent teen abortion drama, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.

Virtual Cinema June 12, 2020 and On Demand July 10, 2020

watch the trailer:


EMMA. (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Choosing Jane Austen’s beloved 1815 novel for one’s feature film directorial debut is an ambitious decision, and one for which photographer Autumn de Wilde proves she is up to the challenge. Ms. de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton may have added a period to the title to distinguish this version from the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, or perhaps it was a personal stamp proclaiming this to be the definitive version. Regardless, coming on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s superb LITTLE WOMEN, both films blend a timeless literary classic with contemporary talent and attitude. Additionally, viewers may note some tonal similarities to this and the 2018 hit THE FAVOURITE (for which Oliva Colman won an Oscar).

It’s one of the finest crafted and most famous opening lines in the history of literature: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The decision to cast mega-talented rising star Anya Taylor-Joy (THOROUGHBREDS, THE WITCH) as Emma provides a level of deliciously wicked entertainment that we can only hope Ms. Austen envisioned. Emma is spoiled and not really very likable, and though she sees herself as an all-knowing matchmaker, her family wealth and social status do little to override the quite common level of immaturity and faux-wisdom associated with her age.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, you may experience a slow build-up to connection with the characters … of which there are many who appear early on and with little introduction. Emma lives in her “comfortable” home Hartfield with her father (an offbeat and slyly comical Bill Nighy). Days are spent visiting and being visited by a community of folks who seem to have little to worry about in life other than who might marry whom. When young Harriet Smith (a terrific Mia Goth, A CURE FOR WELLNESS, 2017) comes to live with Emma, Harriet’s naivety causes her to easily fall under Emma’s matchmaking spell – resulting in some awkward moments and regretful decisions.

Interesting characters are everywhere we turn. Mr. Elton (an energetic and riotous Josh O’Connor) is the local vicar who is both amusing (“Inn-O-cence”) and a bit difficult to read, as Emma misinterprets his intentions causing one of the more startling developments. Frank Churchill (a stout and smirking Callum Turner) is initially one of the community’s more mysterious characters, and his looks and future holdings make him a desirable catch. Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) carries on a nuanced rivalry with Emma, and brings a new dynamic when she visits her chatty and ‘’try-so-hard” aunt, Miss Bates (a marvelous turn from Miranda Hart). As viewers we find Miss Bates to be at least as entertaining as Emma herself. Later in the film, Mr. Elton takes a bride (Tanya Reynolds), and her character provides a welcome and unsettling spark at just the right time.

Of course, it’s Mr. Knightley (played by musician Johnny Flynn, BEAST, 2017) who provides the moral backbone of the story. He seems to be the only one (other than her father) who recognizes the shred of goodness buried within Emma. Mr. Flynn gives a soulful performance, and is responsible for the single most touching scene in the film – a simple gesture of asking for a dance. Beyond that, his verbal sparring with Emma is usually morality based, or at straddling the line between politeness and rudeness. Ms. Taylor-Joy and Mr. Flynn and Ms. Hart are stand-outs in a superb cast that delivers the goods in each and every scene.

What makes the Austen novel, and the film, so captivating are the issues of romance, marriage, age, and social status woven into each moment – each dramatic turn laced with comedic undertones. Subtext abounds in every conversation and interaction, and words spoken do not always carry the same message as body language or a glance. To top things off, the film is beautiful to look at. The dreary lighting often associated with period pieces is non-existent, and the costumes and set design are extraordinary. The score from Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer is a perfect fit, and allows us to recall that for the 1996 EMMA, composer Rachel Portman won the Oscar … the last female to win until this year when Hildur Guonadottir won for JOKER. It should also be noted that the 1995 film CLUELESS with Alicia Silverstone was a modern-day take on the Austen novel, and regardless of the format (or whether there is a period in the title), Emma continues to be “handsome, clever, and rich.”

watch the trailer:


THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2015)

March 5, 2015

second best exotic Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been about 4 years since the delightful first film, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, was a box office hit. My review of that film was the first time I used the phrase “gray cinema” – describing a growing genre specifically targeting the aging population. Neither director John Madden nor writer Ol Parker have had much going on since, and they re-team for this sequel that should satisfy most of the sure-to-return core audience.

Spirited and energetic hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) is back and has his sights set on expansion to a nearby second property. Most of the original residents are also back: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Lilette Dubey returns as Sonny’s mother, Tina Desai is now his fiancé, and Penelope Wilton resurfaces after dumping Bill Nighy in the first movie. New faces to the scene include Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn, along with a few other lesser, but effective supporting roles.

A similar extended pre-opening credit sequence is again utilized to catch us up on the status of the regulars. Maggie Smith is now co-managing the hotel. Judi Dench is a buyer of local fabrics. Bill Nighy is a willing, but inept tour guide. Celie Imrie is juggling two wealthy suitors. Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are working – at jobs and at a relationship. Mr Patel and Ms Smith take a business meeting to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Strathairn with a design on financing the second property. Mostly the trip is an excuse for Dame Maggie to crack wise about us uncultured Americans, and few can deliver a one-liner like this lady.

It’s also on this trip, where Patel’s character begins a change in tone. In the first movie, his character was eager, naïve, pleasant and charming. This time, his ambitious nature is over-the-top and actually quite annoying (by design yes, but still annoying). This single feature affects the pleasant nature and unnecessarily puts us on edge and prevents us from connecting with a key character.

What’s very clear is that this film misses the structure of Ms. Moggach’s novel, and the numerous sub-stories come at us so quickly that every character is mostly surface level with no real depth allowed. The best exchanges are between Ms Dench and Ms Smith (one being 19 days older than the other), while poor Mr Nighy is treated like a wounded puppy for much of the story. Also lacking is the cultural clash so prevalent in the first, and instead we witness a group that has acclimated to the surroundings preventing any real interesting conflict – though the colorful sights of town are still amazing to see. The “high-speed” tuk-tuk chase adds an element of humor, and of course we get the Bollywood-style dance number at the end of Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Despite the flaws, there are still plenty of laughs and loads of charm, and it’s certainly a pleasure to see a welcome response to the question “Is age a barrier to happiness?”. The actors and the setting make this an enjoyable two hours, though some may question the attempt at a deeper philosophical approach at the end.

watch the trailer:

 


JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2012)

March 2, 2013

jack Greetings again from the darkness. As a kid, I always enjoyed “Jack and Beanstalk” as a bedtime story. However, I never quite understood why Jack was a hero for stealing from the giant. Was I the only kid who felt a bit sorry for the giant? Along comes director Bryan Singer and frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and the backstory clarifies things for me. The humans and giants had a long ago battle that ended when King Eric banished the giants to a land between heaven and earth. King Eric is either referred to as “The Great” or “The Evil” depending on whether you are a human or a giant.

The prologue offers up simultaneous bedtime beanstalk stories for young Jack, living with his widowed dad, and the young Princess Isabelle, who lives in the castle. Flash forward 10 years and Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is living with his grumpy uncle (his dad died), and Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is a young lady being forced to marry the King’s (Ian McShane) trusted adviser Roderick, played as a scoundrel by Stanley Tucci. Isabelle is a bit too adventurous for the King and jack3the next thing we know, she has escaped from the castle and stumbled into Jack’s humble abode. Of course, this happens on the same day that Jack traded the horse for the magic beans. The beanstalk appears and the real fun begins.

Ewen McGregor leads the King’s army and is in charge of the rescue party that must climb the beanstalk. Of course, Jack gets to go because of his inside information, and Roderick goes because he is in the midst of an ill-fated power play … a requirement in Fairy Tales! The best CGI in the film occurs in the land of the giants. Their first appearance is very impressive and we get to sit back and enjoy the special effects wizardry. This is action-adventure at a very satisfactory level and the creepy giants add a new level to what we have seen on screen. The battle scenes are a great deal of fun and provide some visuals that are quite intense.

jack2 Which leads to the main point here … who is the movie made for? It’s entirely too frightening for young kids who might enjoy the bedtime story, but I’m sure most teens are way too cool to see a movie about a kids’ book. This is terrific entertainment that many ages would enjoy, but my guess is very few will venture to the theatre for it. Support work is also provided by Ewen Bremner, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy (who voices the two-headed giant). There will be comparisons to The Princess Bride, but that’s a bit unfair. While they both have princesses and farm boys, Rob Reiner’s film is a classic.

This is a wonderful story with terrific visuals, interesting characters, unique humor (pig in a blanket), and wild battle scenes … there is even a quite clever ending that made me laugh. Director Bryan Singer has received a lifetime pass from me thanks to his classic The Usual Suspects, but he definitely injected some spice into a traditional tale, and it deserves a look.

What’s that smell?  Ahhh … it’s the blood of an Englishman

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the bedtime story as a kid OR you want to see the best movie giants yet

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are scared of giants OR you have a magic bean phobia

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng9rjC8MOgU

 


THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)

May 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The closest I can come to saying anything negative about the film is that it is a bit predictable, and I wish we had time to get to better explore these characters. That said, it is quite an entertaining ride to take with some of Britain’s finest actors. Filled with both comedy and insight, the Ol Parker script of the Deborah Moggach novel (“These Foolish Things”) may be the jump start to a new film genre … gray cinema.

In the pre-opening credit sequence, we get introductions to seven Brits who are all at a crossroads in life … each past the career stage (either voluntarily or otherwise) but not ready to disappear into a meaningless existence waiting to die. They each respond to an advertisement for a hotel in Jaipur, India which caters to the “elderly and beautiful”. Its biggest selling point is probably the low cost of retirement. Still, it’s an adventure of the scale most of our heroes have never taken.

We meet Evelyn (Judi Dench) as the recent widow who discovers her beloved husband left her a mountain of debt; Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) a hapless married couple who have invested their savings into their daughter’s internet company; Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a racist and longtime housekeeper for the rich who has been put out to pasture while in need of a new hip; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a high court judge who is fed up with responsibility and seeking to reconnect with a long ago lover; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are the lonely hearts looking for love, or in his case, loving.

 They arrive at the Indian resort to be met by its proprietor Sonny, a wildly exuberant and overly optimistic Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny has inherited the rundown property from his father and has huge dreams of turning it into a showplace for retirees from abroad … he literally wants to outsource old age for all the countries who have no use for the elderly. A sad truth for both the English and Americans.

The joy of the story comes from the transformation of each of the characters as they slowly discover more about the country and, in turn, more about themselves. Graham’s discovery is especially touching, while Jean’s takes a proverbial slap in the face from her long-suffering, quasi-henpecked husband Douglas. Even young Sonny learns about life decisions thanks to his guests and the actions of his mother and girlfriend.

With the general population aging, expect to see more films in this vein … aimed at the age group who is approaching the crossroads, but not yet ready to give up living. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has delivered a charming seriocomedy, but I expect others will take a more in-depth and analytical view at some point.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining story about some very interesting characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth study of the crossroads senior citizens face as their careers come to an end and a path must be chosen.

watch the trailer:


RANGO

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I just can’t believe it. Last year I was raving about Toy Story 3 being my favorite film of the year, and now here I am again extolling the excellence of another animated feature. However, Rango is a different experience … these are all new characters and a whole new look for animation. I would even say this is more a film for grown-ups than for kids, though kids will certainly get a kick out of Rango, a colorful chameleon energetically voiced by Johnny Depp.

 The story and film pay homage to many classic movies and especially to spaghetti westerns. You will easily spot the tributes to Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Hunter S Thompson, Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, High Noon, and of course Chinatown. The main story line is nearly identical to Chinatown … the control of a town’s water. Here we get the Mayor, voiced by Ned Beatty, in the John Huston role. For film fans, this is just so much fun!

Rango the chameleon is a very likable character who just wants to make friends. He dreams of being a hero so that people will look up to him. Of course, he learns the hard way what being a hero really means. The town of Dirt, the desert, and multitude of characters are all fantastically drawn. There are times the film has a look of live action with terrific lighting and detail, and the colors are perfect.

 The voice acting in the film is truly outstanding and it starts with Depp’s fine work. Also contributing are Ned Beatty (Mayor), Bill Nighy (Rattlesnake Jake), Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Alfred Molina (Armadillo), Ray Winstone, Charles Fleisher (from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Timothy Olyphant as the Clint Eastwood character no-named Spirit of the West. There is also a useful and very funny Mariachi band that pops up periodically to push the story along.

Director Gore Verbinski is known best for his Pirates of the Caribbean movies (with Depp) and he really gets to go all out on his visual style here. He is helped immensely by George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and their first foray into animation. Heads up Pixar … you definitely have some tough competition!

A note of caution: I did notice a lot of younger kids seemed to get bored and had trouble following the story.  There are some terrific action scenes, but there is also a great deal of time spent on the story and characters – not exactly perfect for keeping a kid’s attention.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you love a good western or good animation (this one is both)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have very young kids … there are long dialogue-driven sequences between the few action effects