NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro anxiously await his new projects knowing full well that each will have a stylish atmosphere, a certain fantastical creepiness, and characters a bit outside the norm (whatever normal is these days). Beyond that, the mystique derives from whatever new approach the extraordinarily talented filmmaker will surprise us with this time. For his first follow-up to his Oscar winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan have adapted the 1947 cult noir classic by director Edmund Goulding (starring Tyrone Power), which itself was adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

Bradley Cooper (an 8 time Oscar nominee) stars as Stan Carlisle in what is a terrific opening sequence. We witness Stan leaving his past in ashes, then catching the bus out of town, until he steps off and follows a dwarf into the heart of a carnival where sideshows and freaks are the attraction. Through this progression, Stan utters nary a word for quite an extended period. Soon enough, Stan has become part of the fabric of the carnival, thanks to Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) giving him a job, and mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) giving him more than that. Stan is a quick study and takes in Clem’s history of “the geek”, and more importantly, he absorbs all secrets and the code from the telepathy show Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) constructed. They not only pass along their trade secrets, but also a warning to avoid “spook shows”, which involves bringing up the dead for audience members.

Stan takes to the con quite naturally, and soon he is teaming with ‘electric girl’ Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to fine-tune their own psychic shows. Their relationship grows and within a few years, the two are performing at swanky hotels for high-society audience. It’s at this point where the movie transitions abruptly from the raunchy carnival setting with tattered tent flaps, floors of hay, and freaks and gadgets, to stunningly sleek Art Deco, fancy dress, and fancier words. One evening, Stan battles wits with an audience member, and his life path is altered again. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) is a psychologist who stays a step ahead of Stan, though he never realizes she has drawn him into her scheme, leading him to believe they are working together.

For those who have not seen the 1947 film, you won’t know that the central idea that folks need to believe in something is minimized, while Cooper’s differing approach to the role will not matter. However, for fans of the earlier film, it seems clear his intentions are less sinister, and he merely views his new skill as a path to wealth. Additionally, his aversion to alcohol too obviously foretells a role in his ultimate downfall. Ms. Blanchett relishes her role as a most intelligent noir femme fatale, and at times, simply overpowers Cooper in their scenes … although these scenes are gorgeous. This cast is absurdly talented and deep, and also includes Richard Jenkins, (Oscar winner) Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Ron Perlman, and Peter MacNeil. Mr. Cooper and Ms. Blanchett are the featured performers, although my preference would have been more Dafoe and Collette.

Perhaps the real stars of the film are the technical team members: Production Designer Tamara Deverell, Art Director Brandt Gordon, Set Director Shane Vileau, and Costume Designer Luis Sequeira. In fact, one of Ms. Blanchett’s dresses is designed cleverly for one scene which reveals something from Lilith’s past. It’s rare for a film to offer two such contrasting and brilliant looks as what we see here with the carnival in the first half, and the Art Deco of the second. Nathan Johnson’s music is a good fit, especially for the first half.

Surprisingly, it seems as filmmaker del Toro has softened the edges of the characters and story for a more accessible film, though it still features less-than-admirable human beings. It lacks the final packaging regarding the reason the pieces are all related, and we never experience the nerve-jarring intensity of a true noir, though that final scene with Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson is stellar. The director seems to love the shadowy look and feel of the carnival and characters, and not so much the glossy bits of the second half. Still, how good is a filmmaker when one that is not his best work, is still at a level many filmmakers can only dream of? The letdown is like the “geek” job … it’s only temporary.

Opening in theaters on December 17, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DON’T LOOK UP (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What happens if Chicken Little was right, and the sky really is falling? Writer-director, and Oscar winner, Adam McKay proved with THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018) what occurs when he turns his unique commentary towards a target. Two questions remain. Is political or social satire just too easy these days? Has insanity permeated our globe to the degree that pointing out the lunacy has become ho-hum? McKay wrote the script from journalist David Sirota’s story, and it’s even more extreme than his previous work, and likely meant as a wake-up call to all of us.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence stars as Kate Dibiasky, a student (with a Carl Sagan figurine on her desk) who discovers a large comet speeding towards earth. Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, and we can see on his face what his calculations mean. The two head to Washington DC to inform the President of their findings. President Orlean (a nod for movie buffs) is played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and her Chief of Staff is Jonah Hill, who also happens to be her son. President Orlean is too concerned about her slipping rating in popularity polls to pay much heed to the scientists, opening the way for Jonah Hill to be the most Jonah Hill he’s ever been. It’s an outrageous scene … yet … it feels all too possible.

Dibiasky and Mindy are so shocked and frustrated at the blow-off, they decide to take the story to the media. Appearing on the vacuous and highly-rated morning talk show, “The Rip”, they are guided to “Keep it light. Keep it fun” while on the air with the entirely too-upbeat co-hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. At this point, Dibiasky is unable to control her frustration. This results in her becoming a social media meme, while Dr. Mindy becomes the “hot” astronomer – labeled an AILF. This is an obvious take on Dr. Fauci’s popularity during the pandemic. Other opportunities for Mindy includes getting closer with Blanchett’s talk show host, despite his wife (Melanie Lynskey) taking care of the home front.

Obviously most of these characters are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the point. Once the media pressures the President into taking action, an ARMAGEDDON type mission is planned, only to be scratched at the last moment and replaced by a more profitable option. Peter Isherwell (Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) is a tech billionaire and President Orlean supporter, and his plan involves mining the meteor for precious metals while also saving the planet.

Although Dibiasky has dropped out of the ‘spread the word’ campaign, she’s still tracking the approaching asteroid via her diet app as she hangs with a philosophical stoner played by Timothy Chalamet. It started as 6 months and 14 days, and we only get periodic updates on how much time remains. Instead, the focus is on the bumbling antics of those involved and the zany reactions of the general public. We even get President Orlean with a speech from the deck of a battleship in yet another dig at past politicians. Pop star Arianna Grande shifts her celebrity support from manatees to a hit duet with Kid Cudi entitled “Just Look Up”, while Himesh Patel plays an opportunistic reporter-boyfriend. Also, Rob Morgan is excellent in his role as supportive scientist Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perelman goes a bit off the rails as the pilot on the first mission.

It’s an incredible cast and what a joy to see DiCaprio in a role so far removed from his usual characters. He even gets a NETWORK scene here, and overall he makes us understand how serious the science is, and how easily someone can go off track. Jennifer Lawrence gets the film’s best recurring gag, while Jonah Hill fits right in as the impetuous benefactor of nepotism. With the abundance of tooth veneers flashed by a multitude of characters, we can assume the film’s dental budget was sky high.

McKay uses the oncoming meteor as a stand-in for the global warming issue, and his tendency to lean heavily left does shine through. However, it’s crucial to note that no one, no thing, no organization, and no affiliation is safe during this one. Whereas ARMAGEDDON took pride and patriotism of blue collar folks and turned them into heroes, McKay examines the other side which is all about feelings, discussions, social media, and popularity. He blends Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE with Judge’s IDIOCRACY (which has proven much too accurate), and delivers a disaster movie that uses an asteroid to point out the real danger … which is ourselves. Is it too much? Too silly? Too angry? Too long? Simply playing to the home crowd? It’s likely to be criticized for not being smart enough or clever enough, but seriously, have you looked around at society lately? McKay delivers loads of comedy here, and maybe by laughing at ourselves, we can find a way to improve things. His final scene is more grounded than the rest of the film, and quite touching on its own. Stay tuned for the credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Netflix beginning December 24, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (2019)

August 15, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Has she lost her way or lost her mind? The Bernadette Fox we meet is a misanthrope. She doesn’t much like her life. It’s a life with a loving husband, a workaholic tech genius. It’s a life with a crumbling, once majestic mansion that she is remodeling one spot at a time. It’s a life with a smart daughter who admires her mother. It’s a life that expects participation at a level Bernadette is unwilling to commit. And it’s a life that is not the one she envisioned for herself.

Two time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, and as with most of her roles, she embodies the character. It’s a role that more resembles that of her character in BLUE JASMINE than in CAROL. Bernadette is not really a likeable person and she clearly feels out of place in suburbia … yet we find her interesting – in a train wreck kind of way. She’s a bit reclusive and seems to best communicate with Manjula, her virtual assistant in India. The daily dictations come across as therapy as much as directives for such vitals as fishing vests.

Bernadette describes herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste” and as the self-proclaimed “Bitch Goddess of Architecture”. A mid-life crisis is pretty easy to recognize (unless it’s your own). It’s rarely about the person you sleep next to, and often about “finding one’s true self”. This syndrome is especially irksome for a parent, and is actually better described as selfish behavior. Bernadette was a rising star in the Los Angeles world of architecture, and when Microsoft bought her husband Elgie’s (Billy Crudup) software, the couple relocated to Seattle where he could continue his high-tech pursuits. Bernadette stopped designing and focused on being a mother to daughter (and the film’s narrator) Bee (Emma Nelson). In fact, it’s Bee’s request for a family trip to Antarctica that pushes Bernadette to the brink.

The supporting cast is brimming with talent. Kristen Wiig is Audrey, the neighbor and private school mom who manages to push every wrong button for Bernadette. Audrey is a victim of Bernadette’s mean streak in one of the more outrageous scenes in the film. Zoe Chao is Audrey’s friend and Elgie’s new Administrative Assistant. Laurence Fishburne appears as Bernadette’s mentor, and Judy Greer is underutilized in the role of psychologist. Others you’ll recognize include James Urbaniak, Claudia Doumit, and Megan Mullaly. But despite all of that talent, this is Cate Blanchett’s (and Bernadette’s) movie. Is it a powerful performance or an overpowering one?  I’m still not sure.

What is certain is that the Production Design of Bruce Curtis is exceptional. The old mansion is worthy of its own story, and provides a distinct contrast to Audrey’s spit-shined coziness next door. The scenes on the ships at sea are also well done, and Bernadette in the kayak makes for an absolute stunning visual.

Of course the film is based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple, and director Richard Linklater co-wrote the script with his ME AND ORSON WELLES collaborators of Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo. We typically discuss how an actor might be miscast, but this time the debate could be in regards to the director. Mr. Linklater is a wonderful director with such diverse films as BOYHOOD (2014), BERNIE (2011), BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and DAZED AND CONFUSED (1994). He’s a naturalistic story-teller with personalities we recognize. Bernadette looms so larger-than-life, with her grandiose gestures and over-dramatizing every moment that she’s almost cartoonish at times. At times, Linklater seems like everyone else … not sure what to make of Bernadette.

The film differs in many details from the novel, but the spirit remains. This plays like ‘Diary of a Mad-Disgruntled-Unfulfilled Housewife’, and it’s obvious to viewers that Bernadette’s near seclusion is actually her hiding from herself. Ms. Blanchett is a marvelous actress, one of the best of all-time. She is set to play the legendary Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s planned LUCY & DESI film. Ms. Blanchett commands our attention for Bernadette, whether it’s in the comedy segments or the more philosophical moments. Rarely will you see a film whose Act I and Act III are so tonally opposite. The first part plays like an old-fashioned Howard Hawks comedy, while the last part is Bernadette’s more somber search for artistic expression once she is freed from the constraints of family life. It’s the saddest comedy I can recall.

watch the trailer:


MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

watch the trailer:


THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

watch the trailer:


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUTH (2015)

October 29, 2015

truth Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the book written by Mary Mapes, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”, and plays like a desperate attempt at rationalizing the actions of a TV producer, a TV news icon, their team of reporters and researchers, and the endless drive for ratings by a network news organization. Telling only your side of the story when a significant conflict is involved, does not encourage thinking people to take up your cause.

In 2004, Mary Mapes brought in her team to dig into the rumors that President George W Bush had received preferential treatment in military assignments and that his military service records were either incomplete, had been altered, or proved that he did not fulfill his service requirements. Ms. Mapes professional relationship with Dan Rather allowed her to bring him into the fold, and resulted in significant air time on CBS and “60 Minutes”. Most of us know how this saga ended … Mapes and her team were let go, and Mr. Rather’s time as the network news anchor was unceremoniously ended. While there may very well be substance to the story they were chasing, both the book and the movie act as Ms. Mapes defensive pleas of innocence.

In the film, Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, and Robert Redford plays Dan Rather. Ms. Blanchett, as usual, is exceptional; and Redford is solid in capturing the essence of Rather (though the hair color variances are distracting). The other key players are: Topher Grace as reporter Mike Smith, Dennis Quaid as researcher and former Marine Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott, Bruce Greenwood as Andrew Heyward (President of CBS News), Stacy Keach as Mapes source Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, and Dermot Mulroney as CBS attorney Lawrence Lampher. The film is well cast, but it’s not enough to make up for the weak script and the less-than-stellar direction from first timer James Vanderbilt (who did write the screenplay for Zodiac, and is the great-grandson of Albert G Vanderbilt).

Rather than provide any proof that the story was properly documented and confirmed, Mapes and Rather decry the loss of reporters who ask the “tough” questions. Their defense seems to be that they were brave enough to chase the story and ask questions. A sequence is included that positions these two as the last bastions for true news reporting, and that these days news organizations are more concerned with profits and ratings, than breaking a story. This argument conveniently omits the fact that information flows much more freely today than in “the good old days”. The actions of politicians and industry leaders are constantly being questioned and scrutinized by the endless stream of bloggers and reporters – both amateurs and professionals. There is no shortage of questions being asked, and the ease with which accusations are leveled actually fits right in with the Mapes approach.

The frustrating part of the movie is that it’s a missed opportunity to detail how “legitimate” news organizations go to extremes to document and verify their information and sources, and this is where Ms. Mapes’ team fell short. Without intending to, the film plays more similar to Shattered Glass (2003) than All the President’s Men (1976) … getting a story being more important than proving a story. We are left with the feeling that Ms. Mapes believes asking a question is more important than proving the facts. The cringe-inducing shot of Dan Rather’s final broadcast leaves the viewers with the impression that the objective of the film was to place Mapes and Rather on a pedestal of righteousness. The only thing actually confirmed here is that heads rolling at CBS was the right (and only reasonable) call.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

February 11, 2014

monuments Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on real life are often some of my favorites, but that doesn’t let them off the hook in needing to be well made. The real life story of the Monuments Men provides both pride and heartbreak. The Allied group tracked down and rescued so much Nazi-stolen artwork, while at the same time being so short-staffed that they resorted to picking and choosing what parts of history and culture to save.

For much of 2013, this movie was mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. When the release date was delayed and director George Clooney admitted he was struggling with the film’s “tone” – a balance of comedic and dramatic and historic elements – all the warning flags shot up. This final version would certainly have benefited from script improvement, though the cast is so strong and the mission so true, that the film is still enjoyable enough. Director  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have adapted the source material from Robert M Edsel, but Clooney can’t resist stamping the movie with his smirk appeal, despite capturing the look of the era.

The actual Monument Men spend very little time together, so it’s tough to call this an ensemble piece. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have their own subtle comedy routine going, while John Goodman and Jean Dujardin enjoy a jeep ride. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett add a dose of gratuitous love interest where it’s not needed, and Hugh Bonneville strikes the heroic pose of redemption. Director Clooney ensures that actor Clooney and his buddy Damon get the most screen time and close-ups, detracting from what the real story should be … the men who saved art and culture.

Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece are supposedly the centerpieces of this group’s mission, but the film really is just an amalgam of individual scenes that leave the viewer working frantically to tie all the pieces together. Shouldn’t that be the filmmaker’s job? The question gets asked a couple of times, “Is art worth a human life?”. That critical theme could have been the core of a far superior movie … one not in such desperate need of suspense rather than more punchlines.

Very few war projects have successfully blended comedy and drama. A few that come to mind are Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes“. It’s a tricky line to walk, even with a great cast. So while this one has sufficient entertainment value for a February release, I would rather recommend two others that deal with this same subject matter: The Rape of Europa (2007, documentary) and The Train (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster).

**NOTE: the phrase “women love a man in uniform” was well established prior to anyone seeing John Goodman don the Army green.

**NOTE: the actor playing an elderly Frank Stokes (Clooney’s character) viewing the Madonna near the end of the movie is actually George Clooney’s real life father.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s February and you just need a pleasant movie break

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking for an in-depth look at the fascinating folks behind this fascinating story

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs


BLUE JASMINE (2013)

August 15, 2013

blue j1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Woody Allen returns to the United States for his latest and examines a topic he knows much about … how to handle a public life that gets blown apart. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Hal (Alec Baldwin) are living the extreme life of NYC power and luxury. It all crashes down around them when Hal is exposed and arrested as a Bernie Madoff type Ponzi-scheme white collar criminal, and Jasmine is tossed to the curb with no money or prospects.

Disoriented from this whirlwind personal tragedy, Jasmine heads west to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a blue collar single mom. The sisters haven’t been close for a couple of reasons. First, Hal scammed Ginger and her husband at the time (Andrew Dice Clay) out of their lottery winnings. Second, they are both adopted and Ginger constantly claims Jasmine got the “good genes” so it’s expected that she gets the breaks blue j2in life.

We quickly realize that Jasmine is bouncing between her fantasy of re-capturing her life of luxury and the harsh reality of her situation. She is not handling it well and falls back on things like going “back to school” to become an interior decorator. Additionally, she vocally disapproves of Ginger’s choices in men and poisons her thoughts that she (Ginger) can do much better than Dice or her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). That leads to an expected turn of events featuring Louis C.K.

While Jasmine is absolutely unpleasant as a person or character, Ms. Blanchett does a fine job of keeping us tuned in to this slow-burning breakdown. Her scenes with Michael Stuhlbarg are awkward and excellent. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and even Gena Rowlands’ remarkable performance in A Woman Under blue j3the Influence (1974). Is Jasmine a monster who refuses to face reality or a severely damaged soul incapable of thinking clearly? Our opinion varies from scene to scene.

The best and most insightful line of the movie comes courtesy of Ginger when she says “Jasmine has always had a way of looking in the other direction.” Her way of handling reality is to look away and pretend it doesn’t exist. The disgust at her sister’s working class environment and lack of empathy has us as viewers wishing someone would just slap her. Ms. Hawkins somehow manages to shine here despite the massive presence of Blanchett’s Jasmine. Woody Allen leaves us wishing we were all as strong as Hawkins’ character and thankful that we have no connection to a Jasmine.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the richest people deserve any and all possible comeuppance OR you never thought Andrew Dice Clay could recover from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in seeing a spoiled princess make no effort to live like the rest of us

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FER3C394aI8