MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gumshoe film noir from the 1940’s and 1950’s is probably my favorite genre after suspense thrillers. Classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, KISS ME DEADLY, A LONELY PLACE, LAURA, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY draw me in with style, mood, and character flaws. Tough guys and clever women combined with secrets, empty clues, and false bunny trails can mesmerize me for hours. Evidently Edward Norton shares my affection for this genre, as he purposefully shifted the time frame of Jonathan Lethem’s novel from 1999 to 1957 for the big screen adaptation.

Norton dons 4 hats for his passion project that’s been brewing for almost a decade. He writes, directs (his second time at the helm), produces, and stars as Lionel Essog, the assistant to Private Investigator Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis). Lionel, often referred to as “Brooklyn” or “Freak Show” suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, causing him many uncomfortable moments of awkward verbal outbursts and physical tics, while also blessing him with a photographic memory and world class attention to detail. The concern here was that Norton the actor would turn the character into a gumshoe “Rain Man”, but that never happens, as his affliction rarely overshadows a scene or the story.

One of the first things we notice is that the film looks beautiful. The costumes (Amy Roth) and set design (Beth Mickle, Kara Zeigon) and cinematography (2-time Oscar nominee Dick Pope) are all spot on and top notch. The classic cars are especially impressive, despite my pet peeve of each being perfectly washed and waxed in every scene. Daniel Pemberton’s retro score perfectly captures the neo-noir moments.

This era in New York included jazz clubs, corrupt politicians and power struggles for profiteering from the growth. Norton’s film delivers The King’s Rooster jazz club with the great Michael Kenneth Williams as the featured trumpet player … he looks like a natural on stage in the smoky club. We also, of course, have plenty of big time corruption and scheming. The main culprit being City Planner Moses Randolph, the epitome of corruption and racism. Alec Baldwin could play this role in his sleep, and he performs admirably in the not-so-subtle riff on the real life Robert Moses.

The film’s opening sequence leaves Lionel committed to solving the murder of Minna, his mentor and (only) friend. His co-workers played by Dallas Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Ethan Suplee come in and out of the story, contributing very little. Things are most interesting when Lionel crosses paths with brilliant city engineer Paul (Willem Dafoe in a less salty role than in THE LIGHTHOUSE) and activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), in a role that would have benefitted from some beefing up in the script. Other supporting roles are filled by Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, and Josh Pais.

The story follows a path not dissimilar to the all-time classic CHINATOWN, and it’s in that comparison where the weaknesses in Norton’s film are most evident. The dialogue never quite clicks like it should, and at times it comes across like the actors are simply playing dress up 1950’s-style, rather than actually experiencing the struggles of the story. Everything just seems too ‘clean’ for this genre, even the moments of violence. It’s the details that make the difference in this genre, and even Norton’s voiceover is mishandled. As narrator, his voice is low and gruff which is customary for noir; however, while in character, the voice is high-pitched and sporadic. Both voices are as they should be, but since it’s the same character, the contrast takes us out of the moment when the narrator chimes in. The Tourette’s Association of America gave its stamp of approval to the film, and we do walk away with sage advice: “Never lie to a woman who is smarter than you.”

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BOUNDARIES (2018)

July 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the more recent cinematic trends has been stories involving an adult child facing the plight of caring for an elderly parent. Some have chosen the comedic route, while others lean towards the all-too-real burden carried by care-givers. Writer-director Shana Feste (COUNTRY STRONG, 2010) continues her streak of tolerable fluff in this tale of a stressed single mother raising a challenging teenager while also dealing with daddy issues, and the octogenarian daddy at the source.

The film opens with said stressed mother Laura Jaconi (played by Vera Farmiga) in the midst of a therapy session as she talks through those long-simmering daddy issues … and we get the feeling these same discussions have occurred numerous times over the years. As an actress, Ms. Farmiga is at her best in frazzled mode, and here she’s a perfect fit. Her son Hoyt/Henry (Lewis McDougall, who was so good in A MONSTER CALLS) is a social misfit at his school, thanks in part to his mostly unwelcome and quite vivid artwork depicting faculty (and others) in various unclothed states. When he is expelled, private school becomes the best alternative, and Laura’s need for cash coincides with her estranged father’s (Christopher Plummer) simultaneous expulsion from his retirement center … for morality reasons.

Daughter Laura has her dad listed as “Don’t Pick Up” on her cell phone, and we understand before her that he is a rascal with a criminal streak. He even serves up an extremely rare pedophile joke – at the expense of his grandson. Laura’s ongoing challenges are intensified when circumstances require her to drive her and her son cross country in a classic Rolls Royce that never comes close to blending in with the surroundings. The purpose of the road trip is so the father/grandfather can make secretive pot-selling trips along the way. This allows for cameos from such recognizable folks as Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which is Laura’s ex-husband and biological father of her son.

Adding to the frenzy is Laura’s commitment to her real lot in life – that of serial animal rescuer. Dogs are EVERYWHERE throughout the film – to the point that her father labels her the Pied Piper of mange. These type of interactions, along with the ruse of adult diapers and a bow and arrow sequence keep the film on the verge of slapstick; however, we can never accept that we are supposed to get a comedic kick out of Laura’s too-much-to-handle lot, since it’s mostly depressing.

Kristen Schaal as Laura’s sister and insecure California goofball is always a welcome addition to any film, and Yahva Abdul-Mateen II brings a nice touch to one of the few characters we’d like to get to know better. Lousy childhood memories connected to present-day adult troubles just don’t combine for effective humor in the light that the filmmaker seems to be aiming for. Though well-acted, a grown woman still in need of daddy’s approval is just a bit too predictable and too much of a downer to work.

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I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

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SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


ADULT BEGINNERS (2015)

May 21, 2015

adult beginners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s certainly understandable that the Duplass Brothers (“The League”) are working relentlessly to take advantage of their window of creative opportunity. In the vein of their HBO show “Togetherness”, this is another com-dram with the theme of thirty-somethings coming to terms with adulthood and responsibility.

In their role as Producers for this latest project, Team Duplass has assembled a strong group: director Ross Katz (himself best known as a Producer of In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation), and funny folks Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Garces, and Celia Weston. Unfortunately, the script does not rise to the level of the on screen talent, leaving us with a mostly benign story with few laughs and little message.

Things kick off with Kroll’s character in full crash-and-burn mode when his entrepreneurial offering “Mind’s I” implodes just before it is scheduled for rollout. He loses his money, his investors’ money, and most any semblance of the fair weather friends one accumulates while living the high life in NYC. Packing up what little dignity he retains, Kroll heads to the suburbs to live with his pregnant sister (Rose Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3 year old son Teddy.

It’s not that the path is obvious, but rather than it’s executed so blandly. The zingers and physical humor are mostly lacking, and the film can’t seem to decide if it wants us to laugh, or if it would rather prove how tough parenthood and adulthood and responsibility can be. Bobby Moynihan spikes the comedy in a short scene, and Paula Garces may be the most interesting character despite only appearing in a few scenes. The swimming lessons sequences led by Jane Krakowski are mostly vacuous, and are used instead to focus on the insecurities of Kroll and Byrne. As in “Togetherness”, the kids seem to be an afterthought … like a lamp … but less than a sconce.

The scenes are well paced and the story clicks right along, but overall it plays more like a TV show … albeit one with an abundance of cursing, too few laughs, and no new insight into the tough world that awaits as we step out of childhood (evidently in our mid-30’s).

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DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

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CHEF (2014)

June 16, 2014

chef Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it’s nice to to just sit back and enjoy a pretty simple and familiar story with (mostly) likable people and an uplifting message. Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on movies … it’s just that I found this little movie made me laugh and smile, and despite the formulaic approach (it plays like a sports movie) it made me care what happened to the characters (even though there was never any real doubt).

Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the chef at a swanky L.A. restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. When a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt) is headed their way, chef and owner butt heads like the true artist and bean-counter they are. The Chef wants to wow the critic with a unique meal, while the owner wants to stick to what’s been filling seats for a decade. Guess who wins? Once the Chef’s public berating of the critic goes viral on social media, the soul-searching begins. Our hero soon learns that all phases of life – including parenting and cooking – work out much better when passion and full attention are in place. The film is a not so subtle reminder to all of us that our attitude determines our altitude (thanks to Zig Ziglar).

This is a remarkable cast, many of which appear on screen for only a short time. The Chef’s lead assistants are comprised of Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. The maitre’d is Scarlett Johansson. Chef’s ex-wife is played by Sophia Vergara, and her other ex-husband is Robert Downey Jr in a hilariously mind-muddling scene. Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as the fast-talking publicist and comedian Russell Peters plays a photo-happy Miami Beach cop. Even Emjay Anthony, as the young son Percy, has some nice moments.

Mr. Favreau has had a remarkably varied film career as a writer, director, producer and actor. He wears all of those hats here. It’s clearly a personal project for him and he wears it well, though a bit of script tightening could have elevated the film a notch. You might remember him from writing and starring in (with Vince Vaughn) Swingers in 1996, and of course, he more recently directed colossal blockbusters Iron Man and Iron Man II. It’s been quite a career, and it’s nice to see him take on the smaller, more personal projects again.

The best “foodie” movies I can recall are Mostly Martha (2001), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the animated classic Ratatouille (2007). This latest culinary comedy from Favreau definitely holds it’s own, and gives us an exceptional soundtrack and road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin and back to LA. My only wish was that the language had been toned down for a PG-13 rating so that more families could enjoy it together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  a low-budget, star-studded, charming, funny road trip foodie movie with father-son bonding is just what you need in the midst of blockbuster summer season.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a fluffy comedy utilizing the gimmickry of superstars in brief roles is too lightweight for your movie tastes.

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