LIGHT OF MY LIFE (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening scene features an adolescent child spellbound by the bedtime story being told by a father. The story is an enhanced and personalized version of Noah’s Ark, and the scene goes on for at least 10 minutes … the camera never leaving their faces. What appears to be a simple campout turns curious, if not a bit ominous, as the father is next shown taking down a rigged security system and hiding certain personal items. This is the narrative feature directorial debut for Casey Affleck, who also wrote the story, produced the film, and is the lead actor (the father noted above).

As the daily rituals of these two characters unfold, the pieces of the puzzle come together and we learn there has been what is described as QTB – a female plague – that has killed off most of the females on the planet. As if a world of only men isn’t frightening enough, the father’s traveling companion is soon revealed to be a young girl disguised as a boy. This creates the ominous tone and explains the ever-present danger for these two, as rumor has it that the few remaining women are being held captive in camps to prevent the entire species from being eliminated. This is the story of one man’s efforts to protect his precious daughter from a society gone awry.

Anna Pniowsky establishes herself as a young actress to keep an eye on, as she is terrific as Rag, the daughter in disguise. Wise beyond her years, and though she has a general understanding of the constant threat, she is also quite curious about herself, her mother, and this bizarre world she is traversing with the only person in the world she can trust. Elisabeth Moss appears as the mother during flashbacks for Affleck’s character. This previous home life was a peaceful and loving environment, but the mother was stricken by the plague not long after giving birth to the daughter.

In contrast to the motherly environment, this father-daughter bond and existence requires constant preparation for escape. They must always be ready to “go” at a moment’s notice. Their red alerts and back-up plans are discussed and repeated. Their life in hiding means they never know who they can trust, and their solution is to distrust everyone – even though the father explains not all men are the enemy. His low key sense of calmness masks the constant stress they face.

Mr. Affleck is an Oscar winning actor (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), and he shows some promise as a filmmaker (after his previous experiment with Joaquin Phoenix in I’M STILL HERE). Expert cinematography is provided by Emmy winner Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective” season one). At its core, the film is a story of the bond between father and daughter; however, it’s wrapped in a survival story. They strive to survive the next hour, the next day, and the next night. The film is a blend of CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), THE ROAD (2009) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), yet it brings a different tone and an emphasis to just how far a parent will go to protect their child. It’s a dystopian tale with a splash of gender identity questions, and a bond between father and daughter best surmised with their own words, “I love you to the sun and back.”

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THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison’s lyrics, “This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end” have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that’s true, he couldn’t have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.

Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year’s indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 “New Yorker” article by David Grann, and it’s based on a true story – one that’s a bit difficult to believe … well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way – often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It’s the perfect character for Redford’s trademark twinkle and grin acting style.

Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence – something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker’s “crew” is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as “The Over the Hill Gang” (in contrast to “The Hole in the Wall Gang” from Redford’s classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt’s wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell’s granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it’s understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.

Joe Anderson’s cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker’s gun once … and that’s in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!

Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford’s film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker’s prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it’s not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he’s moving his career off screen, let’s bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, “I’m better when I move”.

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A GHOST STORY (2017)

July 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve not previously seen a movie like this latest from writer/director David Lowery. Detractors will likely roll their eyes and ask “and why would we?”, while those who find a connection here will pontificate endlessly on the existential meaning of life, love, loss and legacy. Polarized reactions to the film will lead to some colorful post-viewing discussions … exactly what would be expected from an artsy non-horror movie entitled A Ghost Story.

Yes, there is a ghost. However this ghost is neither friendly Casper nor angry spirit. Instead, for the vast majority of the run time, we see a white sheet covered Casey Affleck (at least we are told it’s him) standing in static melancholic repose. We do initially meet Affleck’s composer character in what appears to be a somewhat normal up-and-down relationship with his wife, played by Rooney Mara. In the midst of a passive-aggressive argument about whether to move from their somewhat dumpy suburban rental, Affleck’s character is killed in an automobile accident mere feet from their driveway. We next see him back in the house, draped in a bedsheet (one way to keep wardrobe costs under control), and watching his grief-stricken wife through blackened eye holes.

We come to understand that the ghost is confined to the home and time seems to bounce from present to future to past. The residents change, but the ghost doesn’t. Periodically the ghost flashes anger or some other act that disrupts the real world, but mostly he just stands and observes longingly.

A word of caution is in order. This is a deep cut, art house indie that features very little dialogue, almost no plot, and numerous extended fixed shots with no payoff for your anticipation. Oh, and it’s shot in the old fashioned almost square aspect ratio. There are no creepy clowns under the bed or in the storm drains, and there is an absence of cheap jump-scares (OK, there is one that is the director’s prank on the audience). This is more abstract experimental filmmaking than traditional horror, so choose your viewing partner accordingly.

Filmmaker Lowery previously collaborated with Affleck and Mara on the critically acclaimed 2013 Ain’t Then Bodies Saints, and this one was filmed in secret just after Lowery completed Pete’s Dragon. It takes a meditative approach to some of the issues we all ponder at times. Lines such as “We do what we can to endure”, and “You do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone” … these provide the clues when you begin to wonder what the film is trying to tell you. In fact, it isn’t telling you anything. It’s encouraging you to think. The film may lack a traditional narrative structure, but if taken with an open mind, it can generate some introspection that most movies wouldn’t even attempt to inspire.

In addition to Affleck and Mara, the small cast also includes Liz Cardenas Franke (the film’s producer) as the landlord, and singer-songwriter Will Oldham as a hipster philosopher/prognosticator who is given entirely too much screen time. Daniel Hart contributes an excellent use of music – especially considering the minimal dialogue and non-existent special effects. The film doesn’t solve the mysteries of the universe, but it does answer the question of whether Rooney Mara can eat an entire pie in one uninterrupted shot. Expect descriptions as disparate as: inexplicable, pretentious, boring, thought-provoking, and existential … whatever your reaction, you wouldn’t be wrong.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

November 23, 2016

manchester Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.

If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.

The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).

The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.

In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.

This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.

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THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

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INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

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AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

May 18, 2014

ain't Greetings again from the darkness. Finally catching up with this one after it received such critical raves on the festival circuit last year. It’s one of those films that cause so many “normal” movie goers to question the tastes of critics. It certainly has the look and feel of a terrific independent art-house film, but as they say, looks can be deceiving.

The cast is outstanding and play off each other and the setting exceedingly well. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine are a pleasure to watch … they make it easy to KNOW these characters. Daniel Hart’s score is the perfect balance of haunting and complimentary – understated at its best. The most exceptional thing of all is the cinematography of Bradford Young. The look of the film is right there with the best of Terrence Malick … and that amplifies the film’s biggest problem. The story is highly recollective of Malick’s Badlands, and that’s where the shortcomings jump out. There is just not much substance to this story – it’s really just another in the line of disillusioned criminals dreaming of a clean slate.

Writer/director David Lowery is a definite talent, but his dependency on look and feel prevent this one from reaching greatness. We recognize immediately that this can’t end well. The only question is how badly will it get for each of the main characters. Crime may not pay, but some criminals just seem to keep paying … and drag down others with them. For those that enjoy the indies, this is one to catch up with … and filmmaker David Lowery’s best work is still ahead of him.

**NOTE: This may be one of the worst movie titles of all time

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