MEAN DREAMS (2017)

March 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was one month to the day since the shocking news that Bill Paxton had died when I sat down to watch one of his final two movies (the other being The Circle, which hits theatres in a few weeks). His searing performance in this low-budget drama made me realize just what a gaping hole he leaves in the film world … and how fitting that his character is the antithesis of Paxton’s real world nice guy persona.

Director Nathan Morlando opens with a shot of a peaceful stroll through rural prairie land, providing no indication of the quietly intense misery that is coming. Jonas (Josh Wiggins) is a teenage boy working daily on the family ranch when he meets Casey (Sophie Nelisse), the new girl in town. The two quickly hit it off, and connect in a way neither has before. Jonas soon realizes that Casey’s cop dad (Paxton) abuses her, and spontaneously can shift between country charm and frightening intimidator.

Writers Kevin Coughlan and Ryan Grassby do a nice job of using minimal dialogue and subtle interactions to round out these characters. Paxton plays a corrupt cop who is an alcoholic and abusive dad, and a man overly protective of his daughter and distrusting of outsiders. Casey is played by Sophie Nelisse, who was so good in The Book Thief (2013). She is a smart girl who fears not just her father, but also a life that may prevent her from ever seeing the ocean. Josh Wiggins plays Jonas as a strong-willed young man who believes people should do the right thing, especially for their loved ones. Wiggins made a terrific film debut in 2014’s Hellion.

There is a lot going in this little independent feature. It’s a coming of age story, and a reminder of the anxiousness of youth and the power of first love. It’s also a disturbing story of a rotten-to-the-core man who has lost his way (if he ever had it). Lastly, it’s a chase movie that features a blend of beautiful and harsh scenery – filmed mostly in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. There is a tremendously tense sequence shot with the limited perspective offered by the covered bed of a pickup truck; and it’s a contrast between two youths trying to escape their situation, and two bad cops with little redeeming value. Maybe we’ve seen similar type movies, but never one with two excellent young actors and a menacing performance from the late great Bill Paxton.

watch the trailer:

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NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

November 1, 2014

nightcrawler Greetings again from the darkness. Many of us still catch ourselves asking “Why is this news?” while watching the local newscasts. We ask this despite knowing sensationalist journalism is the way of the world, and writer/director Dan Gilroy reminds us (in a rare comedy-thriller) … if it bleeds, it leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal continues his progression as one of the most fascinating actors working today. Here he plays Lou Bloom, a fast-talking, self-help studying, ultra-charming sociopath, with creepy bug eyes (thanks to a 20-25 lb weight loss) and an even creepier grin. Mr Gyllenhaal nails the role in a way that reminds of Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (Robert DeNiro was 33 at the time – the same age as Jake now).

Three other movies came to mind while watching this: Network (the lack of a conscience approach to ratings), Drive (the stylistic camera work and loner lead character), and Body Double (a fascinating Brian DePalma film from years ago). Rene Russo is the veteran news woman who encourages and enables the Bloom character to use his “good eye” to pursue the money shots … defined as anything that strikes fear into the suburban world.

Gyllenhaal is all in for his role as Bloom. Nightcrawling is the label given to stringers (private cameramen) who compete for the video that will lead the newscasts. Bloom’s google-based training has turned him into a Tony Robbins type who blows through dialogue at a speed every bit as fast as he drives his red Dodge Challenger to the next tragedy. Bloom is the epitome of charm in the wrong hands. Think Ted Bundy with a camera. While Bundy actually committed the murders, Bloom blurs the line between recorder of history and influencing the criminal action. He also delivers one of the first on screen ‘chasing a car chase’ scenes.

This is Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, though he has written over films, including The Bourne Legacy, which was directed by his brother Tony. Dan also wrote my of my favorite rarely seen films entitled The Fall (2006). Dan Gilroy is married to Rene Russo, and her calm, yet equally sleazy, presence works well with the quirky, in-your-face Gyllenhaal character. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (known for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson) beautifully captures the nighttime energy of Los Angeles, as well as the brutal and savage crime scenes.

Gyllenhaal is the real deal here, and somehow makes this frightening monster believable as a guy who could walk amongst us every day (or night). Early on in the film, his character is asking for a job and spouts off a line that includes a bit about being “raised in the self-esteem movement so popular in schools“. It’s our first glimpse of his psychosis which is also grounded in reality.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the extremely rare comedy-thriller OR you want to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s wildest performance yet

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the actual nightly news is creepy enough for you … no need to see how it could be even worse

watch the trailer:

 

 


EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

June 8, 2014

edge Greetings again from the darkness. Director Doug Liman is best known for his fine work at the beginning of the “Bourne” franchise. His latest has so many obstacles to overcome, a tip of the cap is in order for a thriller that isn’t altogether without merit.

These obstacles include such things the all too familiar sub-genre of alien-invasion, an overload of special effects, a familiar actress in an unfamiliar action-hero role, and above all others, the casting of the divisive Tom Cruise … whose detractors will certainly get a kick out of the nearly endless stream of on screen deaths his character experiences. After all, what’s more fun than bashing Cruise over and over and over again? On the plus side, the special effects are very well done; Emily Blunt (despite being the best tanned Brit ever) more than holds her own; and the role allows Tom Cruise to do the two things he does best: incredible stunts and action sequences, and transform from cocky d-bag to dependable, highly competent icon. Without much thought, it’s pretty easy to see the similarities to his characters in Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, and The Color of Money … and of course, his recent outing in Oblivion. There is also a convenient excuse for Cruise to lose his battle helmet, an unnecessary segment of him riding his motorcycle, and of course, the patented Cruise sprint is on display.

The movie itself begs for the obvious comparison to Groundhog Day and Source Code, with elements of Aliens, District 9, and The Matrix. Despite all the familiarity, this one kind of works thanks to the screenplay of Christopher McQuarrie (3 other Cruise movies) based on the 2004 novel from Hiroshi Sakurazaka entitled “All You Need is Kill”. Why the Producers chose this generic, daytime soap opera type title over the cool source material title is beyond me.

Cruise especially takes to the first half comedic moments, and that explains why the first half of the movie is much stronger than the second. The phrase “On your feet, Maggot” takes on the the Sonny and Cher role from Groundhog Day, and to great effect. Supporting work from Noah Taylor, Brendan Gleeson, and (a gleeful scene chewing) Bill Paxton add sufficient distraction from the heavy action moments.

So whether you enjoy special effects, intense action scenes, or just watching Tom Cruise get killed time and time again, you will probably find this one entertaining enough … even though not much will stick with you a day later.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: big budget Sci-Fi action movies on the big screen are your thing OR you can find humor in a Tom Cruise character being killed off over and over and over again … purely to advance the plot!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you consider alien-invasion movies to have reached the saturation point

watch the trailer:

 


NEAR DARK (1987)

October 24, 2013

near dark1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always fun to take a fresh look at a cult favorite, especially a quarter century since initial release. Near Dark is best known as Kathryn Bigelow’s first solo directorial effort … yes, the Oscar winning director of The Hurt Locker (plus Point Blank and Zero Dark Thirty). But that’s not why this one has a loyal following. It’s actually a very stylish (low budget) vampire/road trip/quasi-western that focuses on family. And it’s one of the very few vampire movies where the word “vampire” is never uttered.

Ms. Bigelow co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Red, who also wrote The Hitcher. Similarities abound, yet this one stands on its own thanks to the photography and the performances. We can’t help but notice three main actors come directly from James Cameron’s AliensBill Paxton, Lance Henrickson, and Jenette Goldstein. Of course, Mr. Cameron and Ms. Bigelow were in a relationship that resulted in marriage (and later ended in divorce). Near Dark lost at the box office to another near dark2vampire movie released at the same time, The Lost Boys. Having its production company go out of business provided no marketing help and Near Dark has since built a rabid following thanks to cable, DVD and midnight showings.

The basic story has a young local (rural Oklahoma) boy (Adrian Pasdar, who is married to one of the Dixie Chicks in real life) meeting a stranger in town (Jenny Wright, who played Rob Lowe’s wife in St Elmo’s Fire). Their initial sparks lead to necking .. get it? Next thing we know he is being dragged into a speeding Winnebago by Paxton, Henrickson, Goldstein, Wright and Joshua John Miller. We soon enough figure out it’s a traveling troupe of vampires and Caleb (the young local boy) is in big trouble.

There are a couple of well known/classic scenes: the sequence in the bar where we really get to see the personalities of each of this group, and the bungalow shootout where the bullet holes in the walls allow the deadly rays of sunshine to wreak havoc with the bloodsucking clan. Additionally, you will note some beautiful shots that confirm Ms. Bigelow’s background as an artist – the backlit shot of the group in the fog, and Caleb’s horse riding scene.

near dark3 For those accustomed to seeing the “cool” Bill Paxton, they will be surprised at his frenetic wild man act. You might also recall his stint a couple years prior in the The Terminator as one of the blue-haired punks that naked Arnold meets upon his arrival. Jenny Wright is fun to watch here and it’s a reminder of her talent, and what a shame that she retired/disappeared from the acting world in 1998. Others in support include Tim Thomerson as Caleb’s dad and (a very young) James LeGros as the frightened teenage cowboy playing pool in the bar scene. Caleb’s sister is played by Marcie Leeds, who played young Sarah (Barbara Hershey’s character) in Beaches.

A sure sign of 1980’s horror is the electronic score provided by Tangerine Dream. The score would be much different today, but it’s very much a part of the film’s fabric and style. In addition to the key actors coming from Cameron’s film, you will also note Aliens on the town’s theatre marquee.

Bram Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897 and since then it’s provided source material and inspiration for an amazing number of films. Some of the best known include: Nosferatu in 1922, Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Frank Langella in Dracula (1979), The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve (1983), Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula with Gary Oldman (1992), Tom Cruise in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk til Dawn (1996 with George Clooney), Blade (1998), and most recently the Twilight franchise, TV’s “True Blood“, the excellent Let the Right One In (2008) and the animated Hotel Transylvania (2012). Next up is an NBC series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the title role of “Dracula“. For the undead, it’s quite an impressive family tree of entertainment and horror.

 


2 GUNS (2013)

August 3, 2013

2 guns1 Greetings again from the darkness. The bar has been set with buddy flicks that mix comedy and action … Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours. The vast majority, including this one, fall short even while blatantly copying many elements from those classics. Guns blazing, rapid-fire repartee and huge explosions are requirements in this genre, as is an on screen bond between the two leads.

The good news is that instead of the original (tired) pairing of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, we get Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Denzel plays the straight man role just fine, but Wahlberg is way over the top. He is in his typical strained-too loud-frenzied talking mode that just comes across as trying too hard. Instead of a truckin’ t-shirt, he should have worn one that said ‘kiss me I’m cute and funny’.

2 guns3 For some reason, most of these movies make the vital mistake of not providing a fully developed and menacing villain. Somehow the script manages to waste the great Edward James Olmos as a drug lord. He does what he can with what he’s given, but it’s frustrating to see him become the punchline of lame joke. Bill Paxton seems to be the only one who was given much to work with in the script and he chews the scenery every chance he gets. We also get a quick scene with Fred Ward and I think we would all rather have more from him here and less from the generic James Marsden. Of course, all of these movies require the presence of a female and in this case we get Paula Patton, who 2 guns2not only suffers through horrific dialogue, but also some absurd gratuitous nudity.

As you might guess from the trailer, corruption and double-crosses abound, and the Denzel/Wahlberg duo produces a few sparks, but this script based on the Boom! graphic novel just doesn’t hold up for a feature length movie. Icelandic director Baltasar Kurmakur, whose previous outing was the ultra-serious action drama Contraband (also with Wahlberg) falls victim to the weak dialogue and inconsistent villainy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you fall for Wahlberg’s “charms” OR your preferences leans towards Tango and Cash style

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a juicy villain and smart dialogue is a requirement for your enjoyment of action-comedies

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVNe3RK2fgI


TITANIC (1997, 3D-2012)

April 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Of course I saw this one a couple of times when it was first released in 1997. Having only watched it once since, I was happy to hear it would get a re-release on its 15th anniversary … even if the marketing hook was the post-production 3D. My thought was with James Cameron working his technical magic, the 3D would be fine, and maybe even add to the spectacle of the sinking ship. After all, he was the mastermind behind Avatar, which with Hugo, are the only two films (in my opinion) that haven’t been weakened with 3D technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t overstate my disappointment in the 3D for Titanic. The colors and lighting are destroyed. When we first see young Rose (Kate Winslet) arrive to board the majestic ocean liner, her lavender hat appears almost gray through the 3D glasses. And later, the stunning crimson Renault, where Rose and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) get to “know” each other, appears dull and darkened. Additionally, so many face shots are darkened, rather than illuminated by the beautiful fixtures that adorn Titanic. I was so saddened to see such dullness on top of such greatness. Sure, there were a couple of times where the 3D gave a boost to a special effect, but the film is so beautifully made and such a technical marvel, that the impact is minimal to the positive.

What I will say is that despite my frustration with the technology, I do hope a new generation is introduced to the film. Personally, I am no fan of the love story between Jack and Rose. However, it is such a delight to see the young, eager versions of Little Leo and Kate as they go about their antics. They were 22 and 21 respectively during filming, and we now know them as mature actors and major movie stars. That wasn’t the case when Titanic first premiered.

The real genius of this film is two fold: the story-telling and the technical achievement. Gloria Stuart stars as 101 yr old Rose and she is used to perfection in telling the personal story of Titanic. Her love story with Jack allows director Cameron to show off the amazing ship from all angles … first class, third class, dining rooms and engine rooms. She also allows the viewer to connect with the characters on a personal level. The technical aspect is even more astounding. Sets, models, CGI, and documentary footage are all blended to form a cohesive presentation of one of the most dramatic events of the past 100 years.

Here are a few notes of interest regarding the movie and those involved. The movie was number one at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks and grossed more than $1.8 billion … a record that stood until Cameron’s Avatar eclipsed it. Cameron was already an established sci-fi director with Terminator I & II and Aliens, but he almost had the plug pulled by the production company due to cost overruns. Matthew McConaughey was the producer’s first choice for Jack, but (fortunately) Cameron held firm for DiCaprio. The elderly couple hugging each other in bed as the ship sinks were based on the Strauss’ who owned the Macy’s department store chain. And yes, there were Astor’s and Guggenheim’s onboard when it went down.  Kate Winslet (Best Actress) and Gloria Stuart (Best Supporting Actress) received nominations for playing the same character (Rose). If you have seen the movie before, pay particular attention to the secondary characters … the wardrobes and acting are tremendous: Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Kathy Bates as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Billy Zane as the fiancé, David Warner as his henchman, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the architect, and Jonathan Hyde as the sleazy ship owner. Also catch Suzy Amis in one of her last acting jobs before becoming Mrs. James Cameron … she plays the granddaughter to “old” Rose.

This is an historic film version of an historic event and should be seen by all movie lovers. Some of it is a bit hokey, but if you doubt the technical achievement, compare it to A Night to Remember, the 1958 version of the Titanic story.  And depending on your taste, crank up the closing credits and listen to Celine Dion belt out the Oscar winning Best Song.  She is, after all, “the greatest singer in the world” (an SNL gag).

watch the trailer for “the ship of dreams”:

 


HAYWIRE

January 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

watch the trailer: