BOMBSHELL (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on true stories are increasingly popular these days. OK, not as popular as comic book films, but the appeal of tapping into ‘truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” is a natural, as viewers bring a sense of familiarity to the characters and/or events. On the flipside, this familiarity can create challenges for the filmmakers and actors as they must meet viewer expectations or risk being waved off as a flop. When tackling the story of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the sexual harassment scandal of 2016, the folks associated with this project faced the added burden of an internationally reported story with faces and personalities recognized around the globe.

For the most part, director Jay Roach (TRUMBO, MEET THE PARENTS, AUSTIN POWERS), screenwriter Charles Randolph (Oscar winner THE BIG SHORT), and a very talented cast succeed in taking us behind the scenes of this unsettling story, so that we might better understand how 20 years of despicable behavior continued unabated. The film picks up in 2015 as the Presidential campaigns are underway. Megyn Kelly (a spot-on performance from Oscar winner Charlize Theron) breaks the 4th wall and takes us on a tour of the Fox offices – even pointing out Roger Ailes’ private and secure sanctuary. We then see the memorable moment where Ms. Kelly publicly questioned candidate Donald Trump about his history with women. It was a moment that shook the network, and elevated Megyn Kelly to worldwide notoriety.

Early emphasis is on Gretchen Carlson (played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman), and her declining role at the network as she is removed from the highly rated “Fox and Friends”, and placed on her own show in an unappealing time slot. Although her professional skills are presented in a way that has her appearing a bit amateurish, Ms. Carlson makes the case that she was unceremoniously removed due to her not going along with Ailes’ wishes behind closed doors. It’s Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes that kicks off the downfall of the network’s leader. She was the one courageous enough to be first.

Margot Robbie plays Kayla Pospisill, an ambitious producer who initially works for Carlson, and then moves on to “The O’Reilly Factor”. Kayla is a composite character written to represent many of the women who worked at the network. She is smart and working towards a shot at becoming an on-air personality. It’s that ambition that results in her sitting in Ailes’ office when he says “Stand up and give me a twirl.” His request (evidently not an uncommon one) is followed by his reasoning – “Television is a visual medium.” It’s Kayla’s interaction that allows us a glimpse at the systemic sexual harassment that became commonplace in the office. The toxic environment was not isolated to Ailes … as shown here, and proven later.

John Lithgow perfectly captures the elderly Ailes, who suffers from multiple physical ailments – none of which affect his ego or demented nature. He never sees the evil of his ways, as he’s been taking advantage of his power position for so long, the right comebacks and lead-ons have become second nature to him. What makes this even more frightening is that Ailes apparently used this harassment and manipulation as the first step in a form of mind control … to ensure the content of his network fit his ultra-conservative and closed-minded ideals. The message was clear: remain loyal to him or lose your career.

The ensemble cast is excellent, even if the leads dominate the story. Oscar winner Allison Janney portrays Ailes’ attorney Susan Esrcih, Connie Brittain plays his supportive wife Beth Ailes, Malcolm McDowell is Rupert Murdoch, and Kate McKinnon plays Kayla’s co-worker (and more) Jess Carr, who is forced to keep her private life in her desk drawer. Other supporting roles are filled by Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Anne Ramsay, and Richard Kind. Some of the real life names and faces include: Bill O’Reilly, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren, Neil Cavuto, Geraldo Rivera, and Jeanine Pirro.

This place is crazy.” I don’t remember which character said it, but it could have been any of them. The politics of the network (and Ailes himself) are always hovering over every scene. What caused Fox News to become such a toxic work environment?  Having a despicable leader doesn’t seem like enough. Why were so many men treating it as a frat house, and so few women willing to speak up? The answer seems to be that these were talented and ambitious women who were determined not to lose what they had worked for. When one character states that women owe it to each other to speak up, it really brings into focus how much courage is required to do just that.

Showtime’s multiple-episode “The Loudest Voice” with Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson was able to go into greater depth with the longer run time, but director Roach tells this from the women’s viewpoint. Ms. Theron truly disappears into the role of Megyn Kelly, while Lithgow, Kidman and Robbie deliver in a way that we forget we are watching actors. Some of the best segments feature these women reacting in the moment … moments we hope are becoming extinct. By the way, I wonder how much a “Team Roger” t-shirt is going for these days – or if they can even give them away?

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LONG SHOT (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN (1990).

We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.

When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.

Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.

Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.

Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.

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TULLY (2018)

May 3, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.

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GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.


ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

May 17, 2015

 

mad max Greetings again from the darkness. Thirty years have passed since we last saw Mel Gibson donning the leather in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which was of course, the third in the franchise after Mad Max (1979), and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Over the years, rumors have persisted that writer/director George Miller was going to add to the franchise and take full advantage of today’s high-tech movie making techniques by securing the budget necessary for a true blockbuster. It may have taken 3 decades, but Mr. Miller’s dream is realized with his $100 million version (compared to $300,000 budget on the first one) that will undoubtedly satisfy the Mad Max fans, while also reminding the industry what an action movie can be (Michael Bay’s corneas may burst into flames watching this).

Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, a loner haunted by a tragic past seen only through millisecond flashbacks that occur at both inopportune and opportune moments. Hardy has the physicality to pull off the role, but despite the title and the history, this film belongs at least as much to Charlize Theron who literally drives the story as Imperator Furiosa. Tired of living under tyrannical rule, Furiosa frees a group of “breeders” played by Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. Their plan is to escape across the desert (well, everything is desert these days) and return to Furiosa’s childhood home known as “the green place”.

This is pretty much a two hour chase sequence featuring monster vehicles, soaring motorcycles, massive gunfire, screen-filling explosions, and enough stunt work to amaze even the casual movie-goer. All of this is accompanied by ear-bursting high-octane music courtesy JunkieXL (the first Max films were scored by Brian May of Queen). Some of this “music” is raw heavy-metal shredding occurring live on one of the chase vehicles – quite a sight and sound gag. It should be noted that stunt work is the surprise here. These days, most movies rely on CGI effects, while Mr. Miller mixes an extraordinary number of old school stunts with the compliment of CGI for such things as an overwhelming sandstorm and Ms. Theron’s mechanical arm. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new.

John Seale certainly deserves mention. He is an Academy Award winning cinematographer for The English Patient, and has also been DP on films such as Rain Man, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society and The Firm. He has four Oscar nominations and is not the first cinematographer one would think of when putting together a huge action film; however, the choice pays off in what is a beautifully shot film – both in space and close up scenes. It brings an element of propriety to what on the surface appears to be out-of-control, non-stop chaos.

The post-apocalyptic look and feel is accented by periodic splashes of color that prevent the usual bleakness from others in this genre. Many will be surprised at the minimal dialogue, but the straightforward plot removes any need for extended conversations from folks simply trying to survive.

Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) may be the most interesting of all characters, and probably has the most lines of dialogue (while still not saying much). He is a slave caught up in the dream of serving his master, while then re-discovering a modicum of humanity buried somewhere deep inside. Fans of the series will also cheer the presence of Hugh Keays-Byrne who plays the very striking Immortan Joe, and also played Toe Cutter in the original film 37 years ago.

Filled with nostalgia and respect for the original series, this fourth entry also provides a new palette for a new generation of fans. The biggest change comes from the focus on strong women who are out to change, or at least escape, a world rotted by the male lust for power. It’s difficult to say insanity rules this world, because so little sanity exists that rational beings are non-existent.

George Miller will always be known as the creator of the Mad Max series, but we shouldn’t forget that he also directed the Happy Feet movies, as well as Babe: Pig in the City. Perhaps those two personalities allow him to create a world as crazed and chaotic as we see in his latest Max film. Mostly we can feel happy for him that he was afforded the opportunity realize his filmmaker dream … a nice reward for 30 years of patience.

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PROMETHEUS (2012)

June 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ridley Scott bounds back into the sci-fi genre 30 plus years after his two classics: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Since then, he has avoided sci-fi and had some ups (Gladiator, American Gangster) and some downs (too many to list). Of course, in the film world, one need only create a single masterpiece to be forever worshiped … and the Alien lovers have always held out hope their master would return. Despite the sly marketing approach, Mr. Scott has delivered a prequel that should keep the geeks happy, while also having the “wow” factor to generate multiple viewings.

In the year 2089 we witness an archaeologist played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) discover an ancient cave gallactic map. With remarkable efficiency found only in the private sector, four years later, the Prometheus space ship is landing on the moon depicted in the drawings. It’s lofty mission is to discover the origin of life. The crew make-up is almost identical to the crew in Alien, only this time we get an ice queen corporate director, played by Charlize Theron, to emphasize corporate greed and lust for power, and the lack of love for science.

Once the ship lands, we pretty much know what the search crew will find. That doesn’t ruin the impact of the images. The strength of the movie comes from the visuals and effects. We never doubt that we are in a far away galaxy or that the aliens are real. This is one of the RARE times that the 3D version is recommended. Despite the dulled images caused by the glasses, this one was actually filmed in 3D and some of the effects really pop.

There will be much debate over this film because it looks effectively creepy and fascinating … downright phenomenal. However, it has too many of what I call “stupid movie character moments”. You know, those times when a character does or says something that just makes no sense – other than to create an opportunity for the filmmaker? There are plenty of those present here. The script is co-written by Jon Spaihts and “Lost” guru Damon Lindelof. The overall idea is brilliant and worth pursuing, however, the details and gaps are quite disappointing. We know there will be minor characters sacrificed in the name of creating fear in the survivors, but couldn’t we have more than one strong character? The Noomi Rapace character has much in common with Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley, but the others here are pretty generic.

 Idris Elba plays the ship’s captain, Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland, the old man funding the mission and seeking immortality, and Logan Marshall-Green plays Rapace’s partner and lover. The only other character of interest is Michael Fassbender‘s android David. He models himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, right down to the golden locks. Android technology has come a long way since Alien and David can be quite a wry smart-ass.

In the end, the sci-fi geeks will decide if this one deserves to live on, but for me, despite the breath-taking technological effects, it’s not worthy of the “classic” label. It was kind of humorous to hear a score that bears an uncanny resemblance at times to the iconic score of Inception. It seems that film’s impact is nothing short of never-ending.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Alien OR you are fan of sci-fi and special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a coherent story line and strong characters

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