WILDLIFE (2018)

October 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Actors becoming directors is a Hollywood tradition going back many years, although it seems to be quite the trend these days. Just within the past 3 weeks, there have been feature film directorial debuts from Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, and now Paul Dano. You surely know Mr. Dano from his work as the uber-quiet brother from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, his dual role in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and his turn as the early years’ Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY. He’s a talented actor who now flaunts a near-master’s grasp of filmmaking.

It’s Montana in 1960 when we meet the Brinsons, a typical family of dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), mom Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and 14 year old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Jerry is a gregarious golf course employee, Jeanette is a former substitute teacher – now stay at home mom, and Joe is a mostly normal teenager who only attempts to play football in order to make his dad proud, and needs his mom’s help on his math homework. Jerry drinks a few beers each night and Jeanette cooks a nice family dinner. Nothing to see here.

This idyllic world is shaken to its core when Jerry gets fired from his job for not respecting the boundaries with club members (not what you’re thinking), and his manly pride won’t allow him to return to the job when the club reconsiders. Jeanette does what moms do – she takes a job as a swim teacher at the local YMCA to tide them over until Jerry can find a new job. It’s at this point when we realize son Joe has extraordinary observation skills for a teenage boy, and he has a front row seat to a disintegrating marriage. Bearing the shame and frustration of a man in this era who can’t provide for his family, Jerry abruptly leaves to go fight an out of control forest fire in the mountains.  Joe longs for normalcy – the only life he had known to this point.

Joe watches in quiet confusion as his mother evolves from doting housewife and caring mother to something and someone he doesn’t recognize. She changes how she talks, how she dresses and how she acts. Jeanette is experiencing the contradiction of knowing she needs a man, and not liking that feeling one bit. She latches on to a local car dealer named Warren Miller (Bill Camp). Miller is basically a master-predator seizing on his injured prey through the power of money and promise of stability, and this makes for some uncomfortable situations both for us as viewers and for Joe watching his mom.

This is a family drama that doubles as insight into the changing times – what defines happiness, what role to women play, how involved are kids in household. Based on a book by Richard Ford, the screenplay is co-written by director Dano and his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan (RUBY SPARKS, 2012). The story is one part feminist, one part coming-of-age, and one part societal shift. These are fully drawn, complex individuals that walk, talk and react like people tend to.

As Jerry, Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in his limited scenes, and Ed Oxenbould is an intriguing young actor and captures the essence of young Joe – especially that moment when kids realize their parents are individuals, not just devices put on earth to serve kids. This is Joe’s story, but it’s Mulligan’s film. What a terrific performance she delivers, which is not surprising, given her track record. Here she makes us feel everything Jeanette feels, and though this isn’t the kind of movie to reach out and grab you, Ms. Mulligan’s performance likely will. There is an expressive score, heavy on the woodwinds, from David Lang; and the cinematography from Diego Garcia is also spot on for era – as is the authentic set design.  Mr. Dano has delivered an exceptional piece of filmmaking for what will likely be a very limited audience. Those that seek it out will be rewarded.

watch the trailer:

 


MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer:

 


SUFFRAGETTE (2015)

November 5, 2015

suffragette Greetings again from the darkness. Most “issues” movies go big in their approach to society-changing events and those that led the charge. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007) and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, 2011) instead show us one little corner, a building block if you will, of the larger movement towards gaining women the right to vote in the UK. By focusing on the efforts of a small group of working class women in 1912, the struggle becomes one of flesh and blood, rather than granite statues.

Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a manual laborer at a commercial launderer. Her character is a composite of working class women of the time, and we come to appreciate her strength and the incredible sacrifices she makes for the greater cause. Maud seems to be a simple woman. She works hard, loves her son and is loyal to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). When first exposed to the civil disobedience of the suffragettes, Maud is caught in the crossfire of a rock-throwing frenzy. She recognizes faces and becomes intrigued with the mission. At first, Sonny tries to be supportive, but soon enough, he is confused, embarrassed and finally forced to take extreme measures. After all, no self-respecting man of the time could allow his wife to sneak about town throwing rocks, setting off bombs, and attending secretive meetings … all for the sake of some ridiculous notion of equality for women!

Helena Bonham Carter appears as the neighborhood pharmacist who is a key cog in the local movement – a movement that had been ongoing peacefully for decades. What’s interesting about her appearance is that Ms. Bonham-Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister of UK from 1908-1916. He was an outspoken opponent of the suffragette movement during its most critical time. Her appearance and role in the film is a bit of redemption for the actress and her family.

Deeds not Words. This became the rallying cry for these women thanks to their leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Meryl Streep makes an all-too-brief appearance as Ms. Pankhurst, but it’s a key moment in the film as it solidifies the cause for this group of women who needed to believe that they could make a difference.

Gender inequality seems such an insufficient term for what these women endured. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, unequal pay, hazardous work environments, and almost no child custody rights in disputes with men … these were all commonplace at the time, and the film does a terrific job of making the points without distracting from its central message. Director Gavron’s subtle use of differing color palettes is effective in distinguishing the man’s world from that of the women.

It’s clearly a snapshot of a society on the brink of a revolution, and a grounded yet emotional glimpse at those foot soldiers in the war on injustice. Though this story focuses on the UK, the end credits remind us that in the U.S., it took until 1920 to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote; and even more startling, Switzerland took until 1971 and the women of Saudi Arabia only this year obtained voting rights. The movie is a powerful personal story, and also an effective history lesson on the irrationality involved in bringing about humanistic change.

watch the trailer:

 

 


FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)

May 8, 2015

far from Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel or seen director John Schlesinger’s 1967 (and far more energetic) screen adaption starring Julie Christie, or even if you are a High School Literature student with the novel on your summer reading list, you will probably be interested in this more modern-day thinking approach from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt). It’s more modern not in look, but rather in the feminist perspective of Bathsheba Everdene (one of my favorite literary character names).

Carey Mulligan plays Ms. Everdene, and she is exceedingly independent and ambitious for the time period, while simultaneously being attractive in a more timeless manner. This rare combination results in three quite different suitors. She first meets sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), who is smitten with her spunk, and he proposes by offering her way out of poverty. She declines and the next time they cross paths, the tables have turned as she has inherited a farm and he has lost everything due to an untrained sheep dog. Next up is a proposal from a socially awkward, but highly successful neighborhood farmer. Michael Sheen plays William Boldwood, who is clueless in his courting skills, but understands that combining their farms would be a make-sense partnership. The third gent is Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a master of seduction by sword. She is sucked in by Troy’s element of danger, unaware of his recent wedding gone awry to local gal Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple).

As with most literary classics … and in fact, most books … the screen adaptation loses the detail and character development that make the book version so enjoyable. Still, we understand the essence of the main characters, and the actors each bring their own flavor to these roles. The story has always been first and foremost a study in persistence, and now director Vinterberg and Mulligan explore the modern day challenges faced by women in selecting a mate: slow and steady, financially set, or exciting and on edge. In simpler language, should she follow her head, wallet or heart?

watch the trailer:

 

 


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

December 15, 2013

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).

llewyn6 The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.

The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.

llewyn5 We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).

As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.

llewyn3 Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.

If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.

**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013.  Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc

 

 

 

 


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

May 14, 2013

great gatsby1 Greetings again from the darkness. Movie versions of beloved books are always a risky proposition. Devotees of the written word recoil in disgust when a filmmaker dares re-imagine a character or scene, while critics take delight in itemizing each and every stray from the source material. Director Baz Luhrmann is an artist. His canvas is the silver screen, and he thrives in presenting his interpretations and visions. When he agreed to take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s 88 year old masterpiece… one that consistently lands on the lists of top ten novels of all-time … he most assuredly prepared for the onslaught of criticism and outrage that would follow (and has). He must have also known that his work would delight and entertain those open-minded viewers not shackled to thoughts of a single “correct” form (it has).

great gatsby2 If you have seen Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Romeo + Juliet (1996), then you are prepared for a Gatsby vision significantly different from director Jack Clayton‘s somber and oft-dreary version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Taking a different route altogether, Luhrmann worked with Jay-Z on the soundtrack that mixes Roaring 20’s jazz classics with contemporary hip-hop. He worked with award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Martin (his wife) on creating a kaleidoscope of colors for dazzling outfits that range from Gatsby’s pastel suits and shirts to the glitzy and sparkling party dresses at his over-the-top parties. Additionally, Luhrmann invoked the newest 3-D technology to add even more emphasis to the visual spectacle that included free-flowing champagne, high-gloss and high-powered automobiles screaming down narrow roads, sky-filling fireworks, and enough glittery confetti to stop down a parade. Jay Gatsby may know how to throw party, but so does Baz Luhrmann!

great gatsby5 Knowing this movie was coming soon, I re-read Fitzgerald’s novel back in January. While I was once again struck by the depressing feeling it leaves you with (it is after all a tragedy), I was also reminded of what stunning prose the writer lays out. At times I find it borders on poetry. You may agree with many of the 1925 critics who claimed the characters are unlikeable and the plot has little to offer, though you must also acknowledge the work acts as a timeless reminder that the vast majority of us could never come close to writing something as beautiful.  I pity the next high school student who opts to watch Luhrmann’s movie rather than read Fitzgerald’s words.  That essay will likely miss some key themes … but at least the student will be treated to a visual feast!

great gatsby4 The cast members are talented and game for Luhrmann’s world. Leonardo DiCaprio infuses the mysterious Gatsby character with the uncertainty and teetering balance of secrecy, desperation and illusion that Redford never could. His obsession with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) may be difficult to understand, but then why should obsessive love make sense? Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s husband Tom) is a womanizing brute who sets apart his own inherited wealth and culture from that of Gatsby as East and West Egg. Tobey Maguire‘s Nick Carraway is our lone hope for normalcy. He is thrust into the Gatsby world and never really understands it … but then who could? The Carraway character is my single biggest complaint in regards to the movie. The framing device of Nick writing the story down for his psychiatrist as part of his therapy, means we get entirely too much Tobey Maguire and Nick Carraway for my tastes.

great gatsby7 It’s also a bit disappointing that we get so little of the strong supporting cast: Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s husband, and especially Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim and exciting newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, are seen and heard from entirely too few times. In fact, the Nick and Jordan connection from the book is mostly ignored. These are all fabulous actors who did what they could with the characters, but we should remind ourselves that Fitzgerald’s book was always more about the prose than the characters or plot. He told us what he wanted us to know more than have his characters show us. That was his art form. Baz Luhrmann’s art form is showing … and his show is quite a treat!

**NOTE: this is neither a documentary nor exact adaptation … it takes artistic license for automobiles, clothes and music (among other things)!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy varying interpretations of art OR you just can’t decide who makes the dreamiest Gatsby – Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a literary traditionalist and believe movie versions of classic books should not vary from the script (this one does).

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaBVLhcHcc0


SHAME

December 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Can a film be a beautifully crafted work of art AND also a movie that very few will enjoy, or even have an interest in seeing? Clearly, I am in the minority here as critics are raving about the insight and genius of writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger). McQueen is an art school graduate and has a terrific eye for color, tone, texture and visual acumen. Those talents (and plenty more) are all on display in Shame.

For me, there are two separate aspects to discuss: the look of the film, and the effectiveness of the story. The first deserves recognition and kudos, while the second has resulted in a total lack of interest and ambivalence. Evidently the goal was to detail and humanize the diagnosis of sex addiction, detailing the lack of emotional connection that follows this most personal of activities. The film is rate NC-17 for good reason. Not only are the two stars uninhibited, but much of the supporting cast joins in … too many to count.

I will not itemize the number of ways in which Brandon (Michael Fassbender) tends to his addiction. On the surface, he is a normal looking guy with a normal job in a generic Manhattan office building. We quickly learn that he is always alone and in angst … regardless if he is in a group at hour hour, hooking up with one of his endless stream of partners, or handling his own business. This guy is unable to find joy in anything that life offers.

His isolated world is one day invaded by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). We learn that their up-bringing has much to do with his always dour mood, and her desperate need for attention and care. They are both a mess … just in different ways. She has a line via voice mail that says “We aren’t bad people. We’re just from a bad place.”. That is meant to explain the rotting foundation without exposing us to another story of poor parenting skills. 

 The clearest indication that Brandon’s emotional issues are well beyond frayed, occurs when he actually starts to see a glimmer of relationship hope with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), only to have that end in performance failure. He quickly fixes the problem by resorting to what he does best … with no meaning attached.  The best sequence in the film occurs while Brandon eye flirts with a subway passenger, whom he loses in the crowd after the ride. She re-emerges late in the film clearly open to his attention.

Carey Mulligan is building a strong film career and her performance here is wonderful. Michael Fassbender has had a remarkable year with the latest X-Men, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, and Haywire. That is a dream year for an actor. The film is beautiful to look at and has stunning performances. All that for a movie that is not really very interesting and certainly lacks substantive entertainment value for the normal movie-goer.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the beat down of the story and focus on the artistic film qualities OR you just like to see movie stars naked.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching characters in the midst of life-long emotional abyss is less than appealing to you, not matter the high level of art direction

watch the trailer: