DESTROYER (2019)

January 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The rogue/burned-out cop obsessed with an old case or particular criminal nemesis is something we have seen many times before. Ordinarily there would be no reason to seek out yet another movie on the subject; however, this time the reason is obvious … Nicole Kidman.

Ms. Kidman, an Oscar winner for THE HOURS (2002), is an excellent actress and has had a wonderful career, but this is something altogether different for her. She plays LAPD Detective Erin Bell, a worn-down, emotionally shattered shell of the idealistic cop who, 17 years earlier, was part of an undercover operation that went tragically and violently wrong. Director Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009) bounces back and forth on the timelines – sometimes we are viewing Erin’s undercover work with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), and others we get the haggard Erin of present day. The contrast is stark.

The ghost of case past has returned, and we witness what has haunted her these many years. Past decisions and actions have rotted her spirit, while alcohol has since destroyed her body. She is a wreck – physically and emotionally, and her reputation within the force is shot. It wouldn’t be totally accurate to describe her as self-destructive since she has already destructed. The only thing keeping her going is booze and a desire for revenge.

Flashbacks take us through her early work with the crime gang led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a master of psychological manipulation (think Charles Manson). We also see Erin’s too-close connection to partner Chris, and a terrific bank heist scene explains how things went down. Now it’s 17 years later, and Silas has resurfaced. Erin wonders why. We also see Erin’s feeble attempts to be a mother to her 16 year old daughter (do the math) Shelby, played by Jade Pettyjohn. The two have only a sliver of a relationship as Shelby lives with Erin’s ex Ethan (the eternally underutilized Scoot McNairy).

Other support work is provided by Tatiana Maslany as one of Silas’ gang, and Bradley Whitford as a scummy defense attorney. Erin has a sequence with the latter that emphasizes just how alone she is. When asked where her partner is, we realize she has no partner with her and no back-up on the way … she is a lonely, desperate, rogue cop with a murky plan and a head clouded by booze.

Writing partners Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (known for CLASH OF THE TITANS and RIDE ALONG) deliver very few surprises with the script, leaving the burden on Ms. Kidman to keep us interested. And despite her character’s train wreck of a life, the performance is quite something to behold … her look, her gait, and even her whispered voice – all point to a woman hanging on by a thread and lacking basic daily energy to show any signs of hope. Director Kusama adds texture by showing many non-touristy areas of Los Angeles, and filming the two timelines in such a way that the structure works – although the Erin in shambles is far more intriguing than the younger one. On a separate note, there should be a special Oscar for the make-up team that managed to make the usually glamorous Ms. Kidman look realistically shattered.

watch the trailer:

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THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

watch the trailer:


I SAW THE LIGHT (2016)

March 31, 2016

I saw the light Greetings again from the darkness. Most Hollywood musical biopics follow a similar and predictable structure, which is why Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was so easily able to parody the genre. Of course, the legendary singer/songwriter Hank Williams deserves more than predictable storytelling … but unfortunately, that’s exactly what he gets here.

Tom Hiddleston delivers a spot on physical impersonation of Hank – right down to the slightly hunched over (due to Spina Bifida Occulta) posture and bouncy onstage waggle. Yes, the very British Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies, has managed to capture the presence of one of the all-time great Country and Western icons. Mr. Hiddleston worked on the beloved songs with Rodney Crowell and delivers some very nice singing – so nice in fact that the singing is distracting and misleading. Hank Williams sang his songs in angst … a tortured soul seemingly without choice in his need to share his art. No one could be expected to perform with that emotion, and the void is obvious.

As source material, director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius, 2008) utilizes “Hank Williams: The Biography” co-written by George Merritt, Colin Escott, and William MacEwen. It may be the least creative title possible for a biography, and the movie correlates perfectly. We track Hank’s early days as a struggling singer whose dream is to someday perform on the hallowed stage of The Grand Ole Opry, to his gas station marriage to Audrey May (Elizabeth Olsen), through his alcoholism, drug use, womanizing, superstardom, fall from grace, and ultimately tragic death at the age of 29.

Despite the nature of Williams’ short life, the film only skims the surface and rarely digs too deeply. The steady stream of women/wives is difficult to track … perhaps that’s the point. Audrey is the only one who gets much screen time and Ms. Olsen plays her as an ambitious shrew who comes across as impossible to like and as unwilling to work at the relationship. A staggering number of Hank Williams songs are embedded as merely interludes separating scenes of misery for all involved … especially Hank, who seems to find little joy in life.

We’ve all seen the destruction that fame often leads to, and when combined with Hank’s painful back disorder and relentless alcoholism, it’s little wonder his body simply surrendered at such an early age. The movie just seems a bit too high-gloss for such a tortured soul, and despite the best efforts of Tom Hiddleston, the film is not worthy of someone who left the musical legacy of Hank Williams.

watch the trailer:

 


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

December 22, 2013

banks1 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely it’s a coincidence that Disney Studios has released this movie just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins film. Regardless of the promotional angle, the story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) going all out to woo stuffy Brit writer PL Travers (Emma Thompson)actually turns out to be a well made and pretty interesting story of two stubborn people butting creative heads. Even better is a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative and collaborative process of bringing the Travers book(s) to the big screen.

Director John Lee Hancock is the perfect fit with his track record of glossy, feel-good, inspired by true life stories with The Blind Side and The Rookie. We never lose sight that this is a Disney production of a Disney story. The only Disney blemish shown is a quick shot of him stubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Mr. Disney was an expert at hiding his smoking habit from the public … well at least until he died from lung cancer in 1966, a mere two years after the premiere of Mary Poppins. Mostly Walt is depicted as working diligently to provide the trust and security that Travers sought in protecting her most precious flying nanny.

banks2 The real star here is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers. Her desperate need for money is mentioned once, but the story is more concerned with her innate need to protect the legacy of her story … no animation, no mean Mr Banks, no Dick Van Dyke, and no silly songs. Watching her interact with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) and the Disney screenwriter played by Bradley Whitford is the most fun this movie has to offer. Her “no, no, no” mindset is quite frustrating for the quite successful Disney creative team. The armchair psychology is really where the movie falters a bit. Watching Walt struggle to mesmerize Travers with his Disney magic feels a bit forced, and when combined with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, leave the audience way ahead in figuring out the key to her heart and mind.

Once the daddy issues come to light, we get Hanks’ best scene in the film. As he finally connects with Travers by laying bare his childhood (and fatherly) challenges, he eloquently explains the importance of imagination and storytelling for both children and adults. A desire to re-write or re-imagine our childhood seems to be at the core of many adults. It seems many dwell on the negative aspects of childhood, and even here, Travers’ dad (Colin Farrell) may be the nicest alcoholic who ever inspired their kid to be a writer.

PL Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) wrote 8 Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988, but was so unhappy with the film version that she never agreed to a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when she agreed to a stage version (no Americans allowed!). She passed away in 1996 at the age of 96, and the actual recordings played over the closing credits show just how well Ms. Thompson captured the strong will of the author.

**NOTE: Tom Hanks has an impressive family tree.  He is a distant cousin of Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln.

**NOTE: On his deathbed, the last words Walt Disney wrote were “Kurt Russell”.  The reason for this was never discovered, although Mr. Russell was under a 10 year contract with Disney at the time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the creative collaboration process between two very talented sides with extremely different motivations

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a kids’ or family movie about the classic Mary Poppins movie.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

 


SAVANNAH (2013)

August 13, 2013

savannah Greetings again from the darkness.  Beginning with “Based on a True Story”, the movie takes us on a bumpy ride known as the life and times of Ward Allen, a silver-tongued duck hunter with a free spirit like few others.  Director Annette Haywood-Carter utilizes Jack Cay Jr’s “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter” as her source material, and the marsh lands of Savannah make for a beautiful setting.

Jim Caviezel dives into the role of Ward Allen and it’s initially quite startling to see him play such a loqacious character … we are so accustomed to his normally quiet and stoic nature. Caviezel seems to revel in the courtroom scenes where he recites Shakespeare and charms the judge (Hal Holbrook) and gallery.  Flip a switch and the next scene will have Allen exchanging familiar glances and verbal jousts with his duck hunting buddy Christmas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed slave who is the perfect companion for Allen.

Evidently the real Mr. Allen was smart and engaging, but drank too much and constantly pushed the limits of legal hunting. His loyal dog, Rock, follows him everywhere and seems to anticipate his every need. This odd life takes a turn towards normalcy as Allen falls for a beautiful socialite played by Jaime Alexander. The two hit it off and get married, against the wishes of her father played by the great Sam Shepard. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the movie gets convoluted and loses focus, trying to be too many things at once.

Caviezel and Ejiofor have a really nice screen presence together, but the interjections of home life between Caviezel and Alexander just stomp out any flow to the story telling.  The attempts to make Mr. Allen a legendary, larger-than-life figure fall short because of the clunky script structure. The bookend with Christmas telling the stories to both a young and adult Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford) just beg for continued focus on the bond between kindred spirits Allen and Christmas.  The enigmatic Ward Allen was clearly an interesting man and I look forward to reading Cay’s book … it’s just disappointing that the script was not sharpened prior to filming.  It should be noted that there are a few tremendous songs throughout, including two very different versions of “Wade in the Water”.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsvg_zgbB1c

 


THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well I was not ready for the horror/zombie/slasher genre to be turned on its ear, but that’s exactly what co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (also director) have done here. Rest assured that your favorite aspects of horror films will be lampooned, or at least parodied. There are times you will jump and laugh simultaneously, but mostly I found myself checking off the influences/targets of the filmmakers.

There is no way to comment on this film without offering up spoilers, and I will not do that. What I can tell you is that you’ll be reminded of films such as Scream, Friday the 13th, Bubba Ho-Tep, Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead, Saw, and dare I say, elements of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone … you know the parts where you know there is more going on than you are seeing, but you can’t quite put it all together.

 The movie starts out with a tongue-in-cheek assembly of generic characters from most horror films: the fun-loving jock (Chris Hemsworth, pre-Thor), the “bad” girl (Anna Hutchison), the “good” girl (Kristen Connolly), the brainiac (Jesse Williams), and of course the comic relief stoner waxing philosophical (a very effective Fran Kranz). This group piles into a borrowed RV and heads to the cabin. And yes, we get the obligatory stop at the run down gas station manned by the straight-from-Deliverance attendant played by tobacco-spitting Tim De Zarn.

 We learn quickly that something odd is going on and our heroes are really playthings in some kind of cosmic game being conducted at an underground lab run by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. That much is shown in the trailer and that’s the end of what I will say. After that, the choice is yours … just like in the basement.

I have no idea whether to recommend this movie, and if so, to whom.  The last 15 minutes are pure mayhem, and you will either be fully onboard with this Disneyland ride gone bad, or you will have wanted to leave for the past hour. Filmed three years ago, but caught up in studio legalities, the movie was selected for opening night at SXSW and it truly is a twisted, even demented jab at all things horror. Only you can decide what comes next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your twisted, demented movie-watching personality has made you a horror/zombie/slasher expert and you don’t mind Whedon and Goddard poking a little fun at your genre … just don’t blame me.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: I didn’t just describe you in the “See” section

watch this trailer … or don’t, if you are planning to see the movie: