HOSTILES (2017)

January 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE PROMISE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said this before, but mixing romance with historical war time dramas is fraught with peril – it’s a difficult line to navigate for a movie. Writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and co-writer Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have delivered a sweeping historical epic that is immensely watchable by not over-blowing the romantic triangle, the war atrocities or the courage and bravery of the main characters.

The one-too-many lovers are played by the talented Oscar Isaac as medical student wannabe Mikael; Christian Bale as Chris, an American war correspondent; and blossoming international star Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, an American tutor based in Constantinople. These are three varied and distinct characters we accept because they have admirable qualities, as well as human flaws.

Mikael marries a local girl (Angela Sarafyan who was the robot with hypnotizing eyes HBO’s “Westworld”) for the sole purpose of using the dowry to pay for medical school. His “promise” is that he will return and learn to love her (so romantic!). Chris is a hard-driving and hard drinking journalist who is not welcome most anyplace he goes and finds himself in quite a predicament with his job, girlfriend and life. It’s not until later in the story that he flashes a caring heart underneath his armor of brash. Ana is nearly angelic at times in her goodness and with a smile that lights up the screen. Her devotion to Chris is as odd as her attraction to Mikael, but seeking logic in matters of love is often a journey without merit.

The story is based around the time of WWI and specifically highlights the Armenian Genocide – something the Turkish government denies to this day, referring to it instead as a “relocation” of nearly 1.5 million Armenians. The film began as a passion project for Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman, philanthropist and the once owner of MGM Studios. He raised the money and helped assemble the team, but unfortunately passed away just before production began. He would undoubtedly be proud of the finished film, and find some solace (if not humor) in the fact that it hits theatres only a few weeks after The Ottoman Lieutenant, a Turkish government backed project that purposefully ignored the atrocities and leaned heavily to a singular view of history.

The cast is deep and includes (one of my favorites) Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael’s wise and courageous mother, Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager”) as a fellow prisoner of the Turks, James Cromwell as an American Ambassador, Rade Serbedzija as a leader of the Armenian resistance, and Jean Reno as a commander of the French Naval fleet that plays a vital role in 1915.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresorobe captures some breathtaking vistas and desert landscapes, while also delivering the intimacy and urgency of both the romantic and dangerous moments (including a spectacular rain-drenched train sequence). The acting is superb throughout, with Bale dialing back his sometimes over-exuberant traits, Isaac giving us someone to pin our hopes on, and Ms. Le Bon bringing the compassion to an area when it’s so desperately needed. Expect to see her explode in popularity and respect when the right leading role comes along. Lastly, it’s rare that I would think this, but the film’s 2 hour and 14 minute run time might have benefited from an additional 10-15 minutes of detail towards the Turkish military strategies, and both the Armenian resistance and slaughter. It’s a part of history that should be neither ignored nor glossed over.

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.

 


THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer:

 


EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

watch the trailer:

 

 


AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

December 15, 2013

furnace1 Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).

furnace3 The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).

Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting furnace2is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.

The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.

**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.

SEE THIS MOVIE: if you are looking for a movie that absolutely should not be viewed over the holidays, but you get a kick out of hillbilly evil

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the family is looking for a light-hearted, feel good flick for group viewing after a day of feasting on the Christmas beast and opening presents.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E