YOUTH IN OREGON (2017)

February 4, 2017

youth-in-oregon Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those tough little indie movies that would fit right in at most film festivals. Directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, the film has a few exceptional scenes, yet once it’s over, it’s pretty easy to just leave it behind. That shouldn’t happen with a story dealing with a theme of death with dignity. Shouldn’t there be a desire to talk about the issue, or at least spend some time in thought?

Perhaps the reason this one isn’t the gut-punch we expect is that while the central reason for the story is 80 year old Ray’s (Frank Langella) desire to end life on his terms, the vast majority of screen time is devoted to the exceptionally dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It’s not an “issue” movie, and dysfunctional family movies are about as common as superhero movies these days … we’ve become a bit numb.

Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) are living with their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband Brian (Billy Crudup) and Kate and Brian’s teenage daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a crowded house where emotions run high, voices are usually amped to 11, and Kate and Brian’s marriage is stressed to the limit with responsibilities.

Bad news at the doctor’s office leads Ray to the crucial decision on his future. He announces this while giving the most uncomfortable birthday speech ever at dinner that evening … “I want to die.” It’s a terrific scene and each person’s reaction is priceless – to the point where we almost wish it were in slow motion so as not to miss anything.

Typically poor teenage judgment by daughter Annie means mother Kate stays at home for discipline, while Brian reluctantly agrees to drive Ray cross country to Oregon to find out if he qualifies under the mercy killing law. Estelle and her always present booze come along for the ride, but it’s mostly the strained relationship between Ray and Brian that generate the fireworks. Along the way, they add Ray’s estranged gay son Danny (Josh Lucas), as well as Brian’s angry college age son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Once they reach Oregon, another wonderful scene/sequence occurs as Ray meets up with a longtime friend who has made the same decision. It’s a well handled and well acted portion of the story.

Ray’s decision to hide his medical diagnosis from the family is the source of the most recent conflict, but there’s a history in this family. Isn’t that always the case? A lack of communication often causes even more issues than too much honesty. The abundance of dysfunction can’t be offset by some peaceful bird-watching, and all of the frustration and anger prevents the necessary conversations on the more interesting topic … a reason to live vs. a desire to die. A slight re-focus would have taken more advantage of the terrific performance of Langella, and added some fun to the post movie discussion.

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20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

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JACKIE (2016)

December 10, 2016

jackie Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.

The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.

To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).

Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.

The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.

Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.

Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SPOTLIGHT (2015)

November 12, 2015

spotlight Greetings again from the darkness. Faith. A word that easily could have been the title of this gripping and heart-wrenching film. Faith can be defined as trust and belief. Faith can also be defined as religion and ideology. Few things are more devastating than broken faith … the core of this “based on actual events” story of The Boston Globe’s exposure of rampant child molestation by dozens of Catholic priests, and the systematic cover-up by “The Church”.

It’s challenging to name a movie that is as well-made as this one, while also being as difficult to watch. We know the story … we even know how it snow-balled globally … but the raw emotions of disgust and sheer anger permeate much of our being as we watch it unfold on screen. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) and it’s worthy of favorable comparison to other investigative newspaper films like The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007), and even the granddaddy of them all … All The President’s Men (1976).

The opening scene takes place in a 1976 Boston police station. A priest has been accused of molesting a child. Within a couple of minutes we witness the empty promises, the intimidation, and the cover up. So much is conveyed in this brief opener, not the least of which comes courtesy of the ambivalence of the veteran cop as he shrugs it off as ‘just another day’ in front of an idealistic rookie cop. This is accompanied by Howard Shore’s spot-on score, with the best parts featuring only a piano and bass.

Flash forward to 2001 as we meet the investigative journalist team called “Spotlight”. It’s led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery), whose father was the editor of The Washington Post during the Woodward/Bernstein/Watergate era. New to The Globe is managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Unlike the others, Mr. Baron is neither a Boston local nor a Catholic. In fact, we catch him reading Dan Shaughnessy’s book “The Curse of the Bambino”, just so he can get a better feel for the community and its people.

What is most fascinating about the movie is that it focuses on the investigative aspects – just how diligent the reporters were in putting the story together – and how fluid the process was … the story led them, not vice versa. There was no media agenda to “get” the church. Instead, the reporters experienced natural shock as each piece of the puzzle was discovered. One of their key sources was a priest-turned-psychologist (voiced by Richard Jenkins) who helped them put scope to the numbers. Another was Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the leader of a victim’s group, who had tried before to provide documentation to the press. Saviano is the perfect example of how someone so passionate about a cause can be viewed with such skepticism … right up to the point when they are proven correct. Three attorneys add perspective to the cover-up. Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) made a career of settling cases (and silencing victims) for the church. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the polar opposite – he fights vigorously to get the victims heard, while Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) is caught in the middle – settling cases for the church and struggling with his conscience. Other interesting characters include Paul Guilfoyle as Pete Conley, a smooth-talking power-broker for the church, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law – the man at the top who eventually apologized and was rewarded with a high-ranking position at The Vatican.

The film is so well crafted and acted that it features more than a few “best scenes”. Sacha has a brief encounter with a former priest on his front door stoop. The priest freely admits to molesting kids and his rationalization will certainly deliver chills to most any viewer. Since this is Boston, it makes perfect sense for the reporters to be so distracted by the story, that it supersedes the Red Sox game they are attending at Fenway Park. Being that the investigation lasted well into 2001, it’s quite informative to watch a news agency shift directions for the September 11 tragedy, and along with the nation, put all else on hold. Finally, there is a point in the movie where we as viewers have just about had our fill of extreme emotions – we either need to hit something or throw up – and reporter Rezendes comes through with exactly what is needed: an emotional outburst and release of exasperation rivaling anything previously seen on screen. It’s a wonderful moment for Ruffalo as an actor, and a peak moment for viewers.

The story hit the front page of The Boston Globe in January 2002. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its superlative investigative journalism. The report vindicated so many who had been taken advantage of, and exposed the colossal arrogance of the church. The innocence of a child vs the power of God. The story broke the faith that so many once held, and started a global (as evidenced by the closing credits) reckoning and awakening that was desperately needed. The film offers a line of dialogue, “It takes a village to raise a kid … or abuse one.” In other words, it took the often silent actions of so many to allow this despicably evil horror to continue. In a tribute to the newspaper profession, it took a small group of dedicated reporters to pull back a curtain that should never again be shut. Let’s have faith in that.

watch the trailer:

 


GLASS CHIN (2015)

June 24, 2015

glass chin Greetings again from the darkness. “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by” is a familiar line sung by Bruce Springsteen, and writer/director Noah Buschel brings that New Jersey sentiment to his latest film. We follow the travails of a former boxer struggling with the faded spotlight and his perceived lack of respect, while also seemingly oblivious to the maintenance his personal relationship requires.

Corey Stoll (familiar to “House of Cards” fans) plays Bud “The Saint” Gordon, a retired boxer whose self-named local neighborhood hangout recently closed its doors. Bud is trying to figure out how to reclaim the good life afforded by his boxing winnings, and is opposed to his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) taking a waitress job to help out. He agrees to train a young up-and-coming boxer prepare for a fight, while also agreeing to work with a shady shyster named J.J. (Billy Crudup). Bud and J.J. have a history, and it’s soon pretty clear that J.J. is some type of offbeat (he owns a snow leopard) kingpin or mobster, who finds a financial and psychological edge in all dealings.

Yul Vazquez plays J.J.’s lead henchman and has the “flashiest” (his character name is Flash) role in the film, although Crudup’s character could have been even more fun if allotted more screen time. Also making brief appearances are Kelly Lynch, Katherine Waterston, and David Johansen. Of course, Mr. Johansen is a former member of The New York Dolls, and their song “Trash” plays a key role in one of Bud’s earliest scenes working with Flash.

There is an unmistakable class theme – the have’s vs the have-nots. The two sides are clear in Manhattan vs. New Jersey, and J.J. vs. Bud. The most interesting part of the story is with Bud’s attempt to figure out the harsh ways of life, even as we viewers recognize he requires no shades for his future. Although both themes are pretty familiar in the movie world, Mr. Buschel opts to only scratch the surface on both the faded hero and the mob world. Instead, it’s more of a dialogue-driven drama that questions where the line in the morality sand is drawn.

watch the trailer:

 

 


EAT PRAY LOVE (2010)

August 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Though I secretly hoped the tongue-in-cheek comparison of this movie to The Expendables would get me off the hook from writing what I really thought, some of you have requested full comments.  The reason I avoided putting any comments down about the film version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling novel was honestly that the movie just really annoyed and even angered me … and my reasons aren’t very politically correct.

Julia Roberts stars as a woman who is on a mission to find meaning for her life. “Logically”, the route to self-discovery is a one year sabbatical with 4 month stints in Italy, India and Bali. Already, I am irritated … Rarely does one need to GO somewhere to FIND their self. If this were necessary, the world would be even a more screwed up place because “dropping out” for a year means we leave our responsibilities, friends and loved ones behind.

Speaking of loved ones. Julia’s character is on a mission to prove she has worth beyond that derived from being partner to a man. So here is her track record over the 2 and a half hours: She dumps her husband who loves her. She dumps the boy toy whose bed she immediately fell into after the divorce. She spurns her Italian interpreter and a lonely Texan and finds herself on a beach with a naked party boy. She spurns Javier Bardem … at least until she reconsiders and realizes that this is JAVIER BARDEM! For someone trying so hard to prove a man isn’t necessary, she spends an inordinate amount of time WITH men.

I realize this was an Oprah-blessed book, but the amount of whining, self-indulgence and narcissism was beyond my tolerance level. Even the choice of director seems pre-fab: Ryan Murphy of “Glee” fame. Talk about going with the flavor of the day.

Caught in the web of thankless supporting roles were Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis and Hadi Subiyanto as Ketut, the toothless guru. This guru reads Julia’s palm and she immediately decides to throw away  her life. When they meet again, this guru doesn’t even remember her! Seriously, you don’t need a guru to tell you to follow the golden rule, that if you give love it will come back to you, and make some time for yourself.

OK, I will admit the film captured the beauty of Italy and Bali. And the music mixture of Neil Young and Mozart (The Magic Flute) helped ease my pain. But overall, this was a year long journey and I felt every single moment sitting in that theatre.