WALKING OUT (2017)

October 5, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Man vs Nature movies tend to remind us of both our tenacity when things go badly, and our lack of control or overall insignificance in the big picture of life. This tends to be true in the mountains, on the water, under the ocean, in caves and in space. Twin brothers Alex Smith and Andrew J Smith have adapted and co-directed this film from a short story by David Quammen. The filmmakers were raised in Montana, and have an inherent feel for the stunning and often treacherous landscape.

Matt Bomer, in a sharp left-turn from his usual pretty-boy roles, plays Cal, a live-off-the-land mountain man with seemingly few needs outside of food, water and a desire to connect with his teenage son through a hunting trip. Josh Wiggins (who exploded on the scene in 2014’s HELLION) plays David, a suburban Texas boy who is out of his element without his cell phone. The opening panoramic view of snow-covered mountains is contrasted with David’s engrossed concentration on his hand-held video game as the plane approaches the landing zone. “How was your year?” is David’s greeting from Cal, instantly elucidating their relationship.

Cal excitedly reports to David that he has been tracking a bull moose for 11 weeks, and wants this to be David’s first big game kill. We are constantly reminded that this isn’t trophy hunting, and that this single moose will provide Cal enough meat for a year. David has no real interest in killing a moose, but longs to connect with his father … and “longs” is interpreted through the teenager’s shrugs, glances and body language. Wiggins plays David with the subtle authenticity of the teenagers most of us have known, raised, and at one time, been.

As Cal explains the history of the mountains, he also works in stories of his youth when his father (David’s grandfather) was teaching him the ethics of nature. Numerous flashbacks feature Bill Pullman and Alex Neustaedter (as young Cal). The flashbacks are a bit artsy, and sometimes intrusive, but in the end, form a parallel story structure that works.

A couple of poor decisions lead to an accident that could be straight out of the Dick Cheney’s field guide to hunting. Cal and David are both injured – Cal severely so. It’s at this point where David must grow up quickly. The skills he has learned, or at least absorbed, are now necessary if he expects to save his father’s life. What was a story of two polar opposite blood relatives trying to connect, transitions instantaneously into one of survival, maturity, persistence, and love.

Movies such as THE REVENANT and THE EDGE come to mind, but this one is short on thrills, and is instead a trudging struggle to survive – taking a quiet approach, rather than a showy one. Lily Gladstone, fresh off her terrific work in CERTAIN WOMEN, has a brief sequence near the film’s end. The beautiful landscape and terrain is captured by cinematographer Todd McMullen, while Ernst Reijseger’s score effectively complements the odd mixture of slow pacing and non-stop danger. Whether you are trying to live a reclusive life off the land, or simply one of the many parents attempting to connect with their kids, keep in mind that regardless of the beauty of the mountains, “snow is not our friend”.

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

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CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

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THE EQUALIZER (2014)

September 28, 2014

equalizer Greetings again from the darkness. While you are likely familiar with slapstick comedy, this latest from director Antoine Fuqua could be described as slapstick action. This fits because the implements of destruction include barbed wire, a power drill, a book (hardcover, of course), a nail gun, and even a corkscrew. Such an unusual assortment takes a bit of edge off the the extremely graphic violence. If the kills weren’t so gruesome, we might be tempted to chuckle. The titular character is the MacGuyver of Special Ops.

Writer Richard Wenk adapts the story from the terrific TV series which ran from 1985-89. It starred the late, great Edward Woodward as a classy, sophisticated guy who believed in justice for those who needed help against the odds. For the movie, Denzel Washington (re-teaming with his Training Day director) takes over for Mr. Woodward as Robert “Bob” McCall … the seemingly normal guy with extraordinary skills used to balance the scales.

McCall lives a quiet life with OCD tendencies. He is a friendly guy liked by his co-workers at the home improvement box store (imagine Clark Kent working at Home Depot), and even mentors an overweight hispanic young man in his quest to pass the security guard test. McCall is also an insomniac who hangs out after hours reading Hemingway at a local diner, passing along words of hope and wisdom to an underage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). None of these people have any idea of McCall’s previous career with “the company”. Our only glimpse of this is a quick visit to the home of characters from his past, played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

Our villains here are the Russian mob, and it’s tough to beat that accent for a juicy villain. David Meunier (Johnny Crowder of “Justified” fame) is our first goon, followed up by the slick and menacing Marton Csokas (The Debt) who has an impressive resume of his own. It would have been interesting to have more screen time together for Csokas and Denzel, but we understand why that’s not practical.

Similar to the Bourne movies, the good guy always seems to be a step ahead of the bad, but that has little impact on our ability to find fun in the action. Director Fuqua provides four or five really stylistic shots (including super slo-mo), but also relies on Michael Bay-splosions for one laughable scene at the loading docks. A missed opportunity is the film’s score. We are slammed with a thumping bass line through much of the movie, rather than utilizing the Stuart Copeland theme from the TV series. Expect McCall to arrange the flatware just so, and continue to dish out justice in at least one sequel.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of action movies and enjoy very creative methods of hand-to-hand combat OR you were a fan of the TV series OR you always wondered if shot glasses or corkscrews had other uses.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: graphic gore and violence, even when provided by the always suave and cool Denzel Washington, is not to your taste

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THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

July 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based upon the work of crime novelist Jim Thompson, who is quite famous as a writer and whose works have often been translated to film. This time oft-creepy director Michael Winterbottom is in charge and comes pretty close to creating a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the bits that fall short, very nearly ruin the film.

Psychological crime thrillers can be the most fascinating genre (see Inception), but only when the lead psycho is relatable in some sense and the story is complete. Here, Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance as the dude you don’t want your daughter to date. There is a deep darkness hidden behind his aw-shucks facade of innocence and cutesy west Texas drawl.

The violence is expected, yet still shocking, when it first rears its head on poor Jessica Alba. We feel the first punch. What happens in this first encounter catches us off-guard and leaves us wanting to know more background on Affleck’s character. Instead, we are really only spectators in his plan of violence that seems to have no real goal. Think Natural Born Killers. Heck, even Ted Bundy had a real plan!

The creepiness factor is upped a bit since most everyone associated with the crimes seems to suspect Affleck’s character, but no one knows what to do or how to stop him. Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas and Simon Baker (miscast) give it a go. Personally I wanted more of the Koteas character as well as Ned Beatty, who plays a powerful developer against whom Affleck holds a grudge.

Bill Pullman is tossed in near the end to help wrap things up, but mostly the ending is as unsatisfying as the rest of the story. It is uncomfortable to watch Affleck’s character, so devoid of morals and empty of soul, but it feels wasted on a small town deputy sheriff with no vision. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing … but it makes for a much weaker film.