SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

watch the trailer:

 

 


BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

January 2, 2013

django Greetings again from the darkness. Well, after two viewings and endless analyzing, it’s time to commit thoughts to the page. Over the years, it has become very clear that a Tarantino movie generates a first reaction, and then proceeds to slither through your mind and morph into something else entirely. It would be very easy to accept this latest as an outrageous peek at slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. For most filmmakers, that would be plenty. The “whole” here is exceedingly impressive, but the real joy for cinephiles is in the bits and pieces.

One need not be a Quentin Tarantino expert to enjoy his movies, but there are a couple of things that help. First, he is at heart, a true lover of cinema and quite the film historian, showing sincere respect to the pioneers of this art form. Second, he loves to bring visibility to issues (large and small) by poking a bit of fun at the evil doers who wield unnecessary influence and control over weaker parties. Morality, vengeance, revenge and come-uppance invariably play a role in django4his story-telling … a bonus this time is the inclusion of the Brunhilde/Siegfried legend from Norse mythology and the Wagner operas.

In his two most recent films, QT has been on a kick for creative revisionist history. Inglourious Basterds made a strong statement against the Nazi’s, while this latest goes hard after slave owners. As you might expect, historical accuracy is less important to him than are the characters involved and the tales they weave. And to that point, it seems quite obvious that where in the past, Tarantino would center his attention on crackling dialogue and searing one-liners, he now offers up much more complete characterizations … these are people we understand, even if we don’t much like them.

The obvious love he has for Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the driving forces behind spaghetti westerns, is plastered on the screen. We even get the beautiful camera work through the snow as a tribute to Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). While this is not a remake or sequel or prequel, Franco Nero’s “I know” response to “The D is silent” generates a laugh and memories django2of a 25 year old Nero in the titular role of Django (1966). The Blaxploitation genre plays a significant role here as well since Jamie Foxx plays Django, a freed slave who buddies up with a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, so that Django can get revenge on those responsible for the torture and mistreatment of his wife.

The details of the stories will not be exposed here, however, I would encourage you to pay close attention to the moments of film brilliance. There is a running gag with townspeople and slaves alike struggling to accept the sight of Django on a horse. You’ll laugh again when Django is offered the opportunity to pick out his own clothes and we next see Foxx in a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit straight out of The Blue Boy painting from Gainsborough. There is hilarious banter django5between Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Betina as he tries to give guidance on how to give Django a tour of the plantation.  The phrenology sequence is not just unusual, but an incredibly tense scene and fun to watch.  Watching the final shootout reminds me of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch … only ten times as violent!

Some of the best moments occur when we recognize the actors in the vital foundation scenes. Don’t miss: bad guy Bruce Dern, Don Stroud (the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story) as the ill fated sheriff, Tom Wopat as a patient Marshal (“Dukes of Hazzard”), father and daughter Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Jonah Hill who struggles with the eye holes in his “bag”, the eyes of Zoe Bell, Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), “Dexter” dad James Remar in two roles, Walton Goggins as a gunslinger, Michael Parks (multiple roles in Kill Bill and Grindhouse), and of course, Mr Tarantino himself (as an explosive cowpoke from down under).

django3 While each of these provide wonderful moments, the real bingo occurs courtesy of the main performances of Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr King Schultz, bounty hunter), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie, plantation owner), and Samuel L Jackson (Stephen, Candyland house slave). Any combination of these characters in any scene could be considered a highlight. It’s especially enjoyable to see DiCaprio cut loose after so many uptight characters recently. Samuel L Jackson has long been a Tarantino favorite, and his delivery as the diabolical Uncle Tom house slave who has some secrets of his own, will bring the house down when he first sees Django and, in a much darker way, when his suspicions are confirmed. Power is a big player in the story, and even as a slave, Stephen knows what to do with power when he has it. Mr. Waltz won an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds performance, and his dialogue here is every bit as rich. It’s obvious how much Tarantino enjoys hearing his words spoken by Waltz. Foxx’ performance could be easily overlooked, but it’s actually the guts of the film. He is quiet when necessary and bold when required.

django - dj We must also discuss the soundtrack. Franco Migiacci‘s original “Django” theme is featured, as are classics and a new song from the great Ennio Morricone. If you doubt the originality of the soundtrack, try naming another western that utilizes a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. How about a spot-on use of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”? The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, and Fred Riskin takes over for Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010.

It should also be noted that the script puts hip-hop to shame by using the “N-word” more than 100 times. It is a bit disconcerting, and you can google Spike Lee’s comments if you care to read more on the topic. Otherwise, dig in to the latest gem from Tarantino and appreciate his approach and genius … either that, or stay away!

**NOTE: I have purposefully avoided the scandal associated with the film.  If you are interested in reactions from the African-American community, there is no shortage of published reports on those who support the film and those who are outraged.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC8VJ9aeB_g


CARNAGE

January 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four strong actors in one upper crust Manhattan condo for 79 minutes is a good first step. A script adapted by the director Roman Polanski and the original playwright Yasmina Reza makes for a strong second step. So why isn’t this film more effective? The belief here is that this one simply works better as a play. That’s not to say the dialogue and flow aren’t impressive, it’s just that as a viewer, we are distracted by the look and feel of a play being presented on screen rather than live on stage.

The story opens with four well-groomed adults huddled around a computer putting the finishing touches on a joint statement regarding a playground incident between their two 11 year old sons. The Longstreet’s (Jodie Foster, John C Reilly) son ended up getting whacked in the face with a stick by the Cowan’s (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) son. We witness the incident from a distance over the opening credits, totally oblivious to the spoken words from the boys involved.

 After one minor compromise on wording, the statement is complete and the Cowan’s move to make a graceful exit from the Longstreet’s home. Instead, we get the first of four or five “almost” escapes as one after another particularly irksome claim or accusation is made by one of the participants, and the war of words moves back inside. The genius of the story comes from watching the gradual dismantling of social graces as these four people work through the full spectrum of human emotions related to, not just their son’s actions, but also the words and actions of each other. Think of it as an updated yuppie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

We see homemade cobbler transition to coffee and finally to whiskey. Each change coincides with personality changes and a constant shifting of alliances within the group. These are four normally civilized people play-acting like this emotional topic can be handled without emotion. One particular occurrence is quite off-putting for both the viewer and our on screen party of four. It creates quite a mess on the coffee table, and immediately intensifies the level of apologizing and philosophizing.

 There are at least three interesting social commentaries being made here. First, parents tend to defend their own children no matter the situation. Second, today’s parents mistakenly believe that 11 year olds should behave like mature adults. They have forgotten that social and coping skills are learned through playground disputes. Third, no matter how educated or well-mannered we show on the outside, we all have the need and desire to be respected and deemed correct in our judgments.

You may not learn a great deal from this one, but I bet you find yourself paying particular attention to your own debate strategy the next time you are in a social environment. It is certainly a treat to watch four standout actors having such a good time with words.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see adults arguing like teenagers while pretending to be acting like adults.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a harsh dose of human nature is not why you head to the movies.

watch the trailer:


THE THREE MUSKATEERS (2011)

October 25, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The trailer told me all I need to know, but my life-long interest in all things related to the Alexandre Dumas novel had me ignoring my movie gut instincts and heading out to catch this latest version of the Muskateer saga. Since then, I have been telling myself “I told you so“.

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) plays the young, brash D’Artagnian, son of a former Muskateer. Lerman may develop into a fine actor someday, but right now he is as bland on screen as Orlando Bloom, who happens to play rival Duke of Buckingham. Athos, Aramis and Porthos are played, respectively, by Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice), Luke Evans (Tamara Drewe) and Ray Stevenson (Volstagg in Thor). No need for me to go into character detail as none make any real impression thanks to a lackluster script.

 The boys are a bit out of sorts after being tricked by double-agent Milady, played by Milla Jovovich, who apparently is really working for the conniving Cardinal played by Christoph Waltz. Mads Mikkelsen plays Rochefort, the evil army leader and master swordsman, but somehow even with Waltz and Mikkelsen, this film is just lacking in bad guy substance.  How does that possibly happen?

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is known best for his Resident Evil film series and his love of special effects is on full display here. There were scenes that reminded me of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, and others that looked like Robert Downey, Jr’s Sherlock Holmes. If you love the Dumas novel, you just cringed after reading that sentence. The key to the Muskateers is swashbuckling and sharp, sarcastic wit surrounding wild and athletic sword play, all performed for an honorable mission.  There is just not much wit to enjoy and that’s compounded by a dearth of swords clinking.

 In addition to a more colorful script, some suggestions for improvement include casting Charlie Sheen (he is a Muskateer alum) as the Duke of Buckingham, easing up on the buffoonery associated with King Louis XIII, and more evil-doing from Waltz and Mikkelson.  It’s not the first movie in which I have disappointed, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s just frustrating because … I told me so!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Muskateers and, like me, have a genetic need to see every film version of the Dumas story.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the idea of a lead actor matching the Bloom blandness is just more than you can possibly take.

watch the trailer:

 


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

April 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Everyone loves the circus (except those who are scared of clowns). Everyone loves trains (except those who are scared of wrecks). Everyone loves performing animals (as long as they are a safe distance). Combine those elements with a best-selling novel, three popular actors and a twist on Titanic and you end up with a very watchable, though slightly mundane dramatic love story.

You are probably wondering where I came up with the Titanic reference. Allow me to explain. The story begins with an old man caught in a rain storm. We quickly find out Hal Holbrook is playing the Robert Pattinson character as an old man. Mr. Holbrook’s character corresponds to Gloria Stuart‘s character in Titanic. Both provide flashback detail to a love story engulfed in tragedy. On top of that, both have twinkly blue eyes! Paul Schneider is in the Bill Paxton role … trying his best to get the secrets of what really happened so many years ago.

 The story is based on Sara Gruen‘s best selling novel and is set in depression-soaked 1931. Jacob (Pattinson) is sitting for his Cornell veterinarian finals when he is notified of a family tragedy. He promptly sets out on the road and jumps a train. Not just any train … the Benzini Brothers Circus train! He is taken under the wing of Camel, the old timer played well by silky-voiced Jim Norton. Soon enough he is summoned to meet the circus owner. A brief meeting leads first to the order to toss Jacob off the train, but he is saved by his knowledge of animal medicine – a valuable commodity in the circus world.

Now is as good of time as any to let you know that the great Christoph Waltz plays August, the circus owner. As in his Oscar winning role for Inglourious Basterds, Waltz’ August is alternatingly charming and chilling. He is a ruthless circus owner who values no man or animal. He values only making money and his star attraction and wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Oh, and just because he values her, doesn’t mean he treats her well. He is near-psychotic when he goes off on her or anyone or anything else. Pause … then a few minutes later, he is back to his charming self. Very frightening stuff.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Jacob is enchanted with Marlena (a bareback rider) or that she returns the affection. What is surprising is that they continue to push the boundaries of good sense while within the confines of the circus group – and August. You can imagine the confrontations and situations that arise, but Marlena’s insistence that no life exists for her outside the circus is a head-scratcher.

 The story really picks up when the struggling circus purchases a performing elephant named Rosie. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rosie may be the smartest character in the film. She is certainly the most crucial for Marlena and Jacob.

The screenplay is from Richard Gravenese who has a track record with this type of story. He was also responsible for The Horse Whisperer and Bridges of Madison County. What’s surprising is the director is Francis Lawrence, previously known for I Am Legend and Constantine. This movie has (thankfully)no resemblance to those films and his cast and crew obviously help him adjust to a more melodramatic storyline.

What I like about the film are the realistic characters and the setting. The trains, big top, circus performers and workers all seem real, as do the few circus scenes presented. Without the Christoph Waltz character and performance, this film would be truly just a run-of-the-mill dramatic love story. His element and the realistic circus life make this one worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are fan of the circus or the book or the three lead actors OR you thought Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes was the creepiest Ringleader ever

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you can’t handle a bit of melodrama with your trip to the circus OR a performing elephant who understands Polish is just a bit too far outside the comfort zone


THE GREEN HORNET

January 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. There was much uproar when Tim Burton rolled out his 1989 feature length BATMAN film. He took the campy TV series, turned it inside-out, and created a dark brooding Batman … more in-line with the tone of the comics. In a near polar opposite move, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg took the dead-pan humor and straight-laced characters of the Green Hornet TV series and have delivered a slacker version for their Gen Y fans.

Being a fan of the mid-60’s TV series, but too young to have experienced The Green Hornet radio series which ran from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, I will readily admit that I am not a fan of Mr. Rogen’s re imagined Hornet. However, I will also admit that Kato-vision and the new Black Beauty are very cool. And Jay Chou as Kato works very well. He exudes cool and brilliance and an understanding of his role.

 Where this film fails miserably is every time Seth Rogen utters a line of dialogue. Yes, EVERY SINGLE TIME. The film has no chance to build momentum through action or bad guy story line despite the presence of Christoph Waltz. Rogin slobbers through another line of dialogue and it’s like the air brakes on a semi locking up on icy roads. It’s just brings the flow to a standstill.

Besides Chou and Waltz, who are both very good, other supporting work is provided by Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos and Edward Furlong. Diaz, Olmos and Furlong have little to do and Mr. Wilkinson was the perfect choice as Britt Reid’s dad … if only Britt Reid weren’t Seth Rogen! While adaptation can be a good thing, I doubt creator George Trendle had this in mind when he wrote the original Green Hornet character as the great nephew to the Lone Ranger. Rogen seems to think the Green Hornet is a spin-off of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.

I am going very easy on director Michel Gondry because it appears he did all he could visually, while making do with a weak script and a lame lead actor.  Mr. Gondry has directed such feasts as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and BE KIND REWIND, so he gets credit for the good parts of this one. 

If you see this film in 3-D, you can play with the glasses and easily identify which scenes were filmed that way and which weren’t. I would encourage you to only use the glasses when necessary, because the colors are definitely muted through the lenses.

My final complaint is the minimal use of the iconic Green Hornet theme song (Flight of the Bumble Bee) made famous by the great Al Hirt (link below). We get only a taste of it in the final scene. So, realizing I sound like an old geezer, I will say that I enjoyed Kato, Black Beauty and the action scenes, but desperately miss Bruce Lee, Van Williams and the uber-coolness of the original.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have little or no experience with the TV series or the comic book line OR you believe Seth Rogen is a comedy genius.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are dedicated Green Hornet purist OR you suspect that Seth Rogen and Pauly Shore are related.