THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have our stories. The stories that make up our life. Some of us dwell on the “bad” things, while others remember only the good times. A few even romanticize the past, which could also be termed embellishment. Where exactly on this scale that Jeannette Walls’ story falls is debatable, but the facts are that her life story is the foundation for a best-selling book and now a high-profile movie.

Ms. Walls’ memoir describes her unconventional childhood with bohemian parents who cared more for freedom and independence than for feeding their kids. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (a ‘must-follow’ filmmaker after his powerful 2013 indie gem SHORT TERM 12) chose this as his next project, co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and wisely opted to work again with Brie Larson, who stars as the oldest Jeannette (from late teens through adult).

The film bounces around in time from Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s to her time as a New York gossip columnist in 1989. The timeline isn’t all that bounces, as we watch this family of six, seemingly always on the run, ricochet across America with all their belongings strapped to the top of the battered station wagon – usually on the run from creditors or following the latest dream from Rex (Woody Harrelson).

Rex is the type of guy who rants against most everything that makes up what we know as society. He can’t (or won’t) hold a job and fills his trusting kids’ heads with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow – going as far as drawing up plans and specs for the off-the-grid fantasy home referenced in the title. Rex then spends what little money the dirt poor family has on drinking benders which cause him to become a nasty, abusive threat.

Rex’s wife Rose (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who somehow possesses even fewer parental instincts than her husband. Although she could be labeled an enabler of his abusive ways, she might actually be the more interesting of the two, even if the story (and Jeannette) focuses much more on Rex. The best scene in the movie is when mother and grown daughter share a restaurant booth, and the two worlds collide.

Of course the real story here is how Jeanette managed to rise above this less-than-desirable childhood and achieve her own form of freedom as a writer. The stark contrast between the squalor of her West Virginia shack and the million dollar apartment she later shares with her fiancé (Max Greenfield) makes this the ultimate depiction of the American Dream – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even when you don’t have boots).

The acting is stellar throughout. Mr. Harrelson could garner Oscar attention as he manages to capture both the dreamer and failure that was Rex. Ms. Watts maximizes her underwritten role and turns Rose into someone we believe we know and (at least partially) understand. Ms. Larson embodies both the desperation of a teenager whose environment forced her to be wise beyond her years, and the iciness of a grown-up trying so hard to leave the past behind. In just a few scenes, Robin Bartlett manages to create a memorable and horrific grandmother – one whose actions explain a great deal. The most remarkable performance of all, however, belongs to Ella Anderson (the only good thing about THE BOSS). She captures our hearts as the adolescent Jeannette – the closest thing to a parent this family had.

There are some similarities between this film and last year’s expertly crafted CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. In fact, two of the young actors (Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell) from that film also appear in THE GLASS CASTLE. The biggest difference being that Viggo Mortensen’s character could be considered to have an over-parenting approach, while Woody Harrelson’s Rex never over-did anything, except drink and dream.

The movie probably has a bit too much Hollywood gloss and sheen to adequately portray the hardships of a large family living in poverty, though the top notch acting keeps us glued to the screen. By the end, we can’t help but wonder if some of Ms. Walls’ romanticism of her father and past might be due as much to her immense writing talent as to her childhood challenges.

watch the trailer:

 


FREE FIRE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Searching back through more than a decade of film reviews, I can confirm that the phrase “slapstick shootout” has not previously been part of my movie lexicon … which is a relief since it could never be more accurately placed than in description of this latest from the husband and wife filmmaking team of director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump (prior works include High-Rise, Kill List and a few others). The zingers are plentiful – both in bullets and dialogue. It’s unlikely you’ve ever laughed as much during such a violent/gory/graphic assault on the senses (especially auditory).

Set in 1978 Boston, which allows for added humor via music, attire, hairstyles and vehicles, the basic premise is a meet-up for the deal between an IRA faction and a gun-dealer, with the brokers and “muscle” of each side along for the ride. When cases of AR70’s are presented instead of the ordered M16’s, the deal gets a bit shaky until cooler heads prevail. That is until one of the gun-runners recognizes an IRA guy as the one who disrespected his 17 year old cousin the night before. It’s at this point that the film cranks to a frenzy that would make the Mayhem commercial guy proud. It’s the visual definition of a cluster.

A stand-off and shootout occurs (with side deals and betrayals) over the next hour and yet the early comical dialogue somehow becomes next level great despite bullets whizzing through a terrific setting in an abandoned umbrella warehouse. Unlike in some movies, these bullets inflict pain (and the subsequent cries and wails). The characters continue to banter and threaten one another, all while dragging their lead-induced injuries across the dusty floor between various forms of protective shields strewn about the warehouse.

Normally I would concentrate on the major characters, but most everyone involved in the deal-gone-bad has at least a couple of memorable lines and moments. The gun-runners are led by Sharlto Copley as Vernon, a cocky, mouthy South African whose dialect sounds an awful like New Zealander Murray in the classic TV gem “Flight of the Conchords”. In a movie that seems impossible to steal, Copley comes the closest and his Vernon would make a perfect Halloween costume and annoying party guest. His cohorts are Marion (Babou Cesay), Gordan (Noah Taylor, Max 2002) and Harry (Jack Reynor, Sing Street, 2016). The IRA group is led by uptight Chris (Cillian Murphy), Stevo (a hilarious Sam Riley, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Frank (Michael Smiley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The two deal brokers are the ultra-debonair Ord (Armie Hammer) and the lone female Justine (Brie Larson). It’s a terrific cast having a ridiculously good time with a creative and rollicking script.

Know going in that the film is a very hard R-rating for violence, drug use (in the middle of the shootout), and a bounty of flowing F-words. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor those who take their standoffs too seriously. Director Wheatley employs a vast array of unusual camera angles to ensure the action never looks boring, and his use of secondary and tertiary sound (especially with dialogue) is expert and dizzying at times. Don’t expect too many layers or sub-plots. It’s simply a shoot ‘em up romp capitalizing on black comedy to the nth degree. John Denver might not have approved of the use of his song, and just remember, “We can’t all be nice girls”.

CAUTION: this is the RED BAND trailer and is NSFW or Kids:

 

 


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

watch the trailer:

 


ROOM (2015)

October 24, 2015

room Greetings again from the darkness. Tragically, stories of women being held captive have become all too common in this sometimes frightening world in which we live. Emma Donoghue had the high profile, real life situations of Jaycee Dugard, Elisabeth Fritzl and Amanda Berry (Ariel Castro) to draw from for her terrific novel upon which this film is based. While not easy for anyone (especially parents) to watch, it’s a well made movie with outstanding performances … including a career-changer from Brie Larson.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, a critical favorite from last year) takes us inside the world – or more accurately – the walls where Ma (Brie Larson) and her just turning 5 year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live. Seven years ago, Larson’s character was abducted while walking home from school, and since then she has given birth to Jack, and the two have been held captive in a small shed with only a skylight connecting to the outer spaces of life. The captor … known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) … periodically brings them supplies, while also regularly visiting to satisfy his more base needs with Ma.

For the first half of the film, we as viewers are held prisoners right along with Ma and Jack. We see what a patient and wonderful mother she is as she strives to provide some semblance of hope for her son, though in a nearly hopeless situation. When Jack turns 5, Ma begins to explain the outside world to him, as she knows they must try to escape in order for her son to have any semblance of a normal life. During this time, we are in awe of this 10 x 10 environment and how it is every bit the nightmare we have imagined while reading the articles and seeing the reports on real life ordeals.

The second half of the film is equally fascinating, as we watch young Jack and his sense of wonder and caution at discovering the real world. We also see the psychological trauma that Ma experiences after staying strong for so long. Assimilating into society brings different challenges for both Ma and Jack, plus those of her mother (Joan Allen), her father (William H Macy) and her mom’s new beau (Tom McCamus). The film doesn’t shy away from their reactions, though some are easier to stomach than others.

Providing any more details would soften the impact of the film, and this is one that is meant to be felt – even if it’s a true kick in the gut. The film is well cast and well acted, and young Jacob Tremblay captures our hearts quickly and joins the short list of child actors who go far beyond “cute” and into profound. Brie Larson exploded onto the acting scene in Short Term 12, one of my favorite movies of 2013; but it’s here where she steps into the elite level of actresses. She brings a tenacity and emotional strength that leaves us never doubting whether she has “her strong”.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

watch the trailer:

 


DON JON (2013)

September 26, 2013

don jon1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been a few months since I saw a screening, and I’m a bit surprised it’s getting a wide release (beginning September 27). On one hand, it’s the directorial debut of the very talented and popular Joseph Gordon-Levitt. On the other hand, the subject matter is not exactly mainstream … he plays a compulsive type who is addicted to online porn. Stereotypes abound!

There is a lot to like here (and no, the film is not pornographic in nature). It’s a front line observation of some things going on in society right now. Technology has quickly sucked away much of our face to face social interaction. Jon (JGL) has a compulsive personality. He is obsessed with cleaning his apartment, showing off his muscle car, perfecting his body at the gym, continuing his string of one-night stands with hot girls, confessing his sins to the priest, and last but not least … online porn. He sees nothing wrong with his addiction but readily admits his real life conquests don’t meet his standards – no matter how pretty or personable they might be. Still, he goes through the motions of dance club pursuits to keep up his image with his buddies.

don jon2 Even when he heads home for dinner with his family, communication is a mess. His sister (the great Brie Larson) never puts down her phone. His parents (Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) are bombastic and emotional. When Jon meets a “dime” (translated to a perfect 10 … why didn’t Blake Edwards think of that?), his mother talks only of grandkids and his dad congratulates him on “a nice piece of ___” (you get the point).

See, this “dime” is Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. She has the look Jon so values and since he has no concept of how a relationship works, she easily manipulates him to transition into her ideal man (rom-com movies, college courses, etc). In a very telling scene, Barbara and Jon take in a Rom-Com spoof “based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks” and starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. Barbara’s perfect man is a fictionalized knight in shining armor, while Jon’s perfect woman is the latest porn star. Though the issues are identical, neither sees their own flaws … only that of the other.

don jon3 The story takes a dramatic turn when Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) in a somewhat embarrassing incident (for him). The budding relationship between the older mentor and her student of life could have made a much more interesting movie as she guides him down a path of self-discovery.

JGL, Scarlett and Ms. Moore are all very good in their roles, as is the entire supporting cast (Danza especially comical as the perfectly cast dad). Although there are some very humorous scenes and lines in the film, I found it somewhat dis-spiriting due to the observations it makes on the young adult generation. The final act seemed a bit too clean for real life, but that doesn’t take away from what is really a nice first outing for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a filmmaker. Stay tuned as I expect even better from him in the future.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are brave enough for a peek at the social lives of single young adults in today’s world OR you want to see how the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitz handles his first hat trick: writer/director/actor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Scarlett’s “Jersey Shore” accent is more than your ears can stand.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6615kYTpOSU