KNIVES OUT (2019)

November 27, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I suspect ‘fow-uhl’ play.” So states the renowned and poetically named private detective, Benoit Blanc. Of course when mega-wealthy, best-selling author Harlan Thrombey supposedly commits suicide after his 85th birthday party by slashing his own throat with a knife, something more sinister (you know, like … murder) must be considered. The violin playing over the opening shots of the palatial Thrombey manor teases us with thoughts of most any year from the past 75. These nostalgic thoughts fade quickly as we begin to meet the players.

Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (a quite funny Noah Segan) seem merely to be crossing their T’s in the suicide investigation as they dutifully meet with each family member for a statement. It’s this progression of questioning that introduces us to the year’s most colorful ensemble cast. Patriarch Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) scheming heirs-in-waiting include: his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), happy to remind you of her success as a self-made businessperson; Linda’s smarmy husband Richard (Don Johnson); their renegade son Ransom (Chris Evans) who arrives a bit later; Harlan’s son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who ‘runs’ the family publishing business; Harlan’s ex-daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a self-help guru who has a secret side gig; grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford), preppy social media troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Donna (Riki Lindhome of “Garfunkel and Oates”); and Harlan’s mother Greatnana (Dallas’ own K Callan). Two key non-family members are the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who finds Harlan’s body, and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s friend and only real confidante.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has put together a diverse career with such films as indie breakout BRICK (2005), science fiction hit LOOPER (2012) and of course, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (2018). With this latest, he shows a real flair with a rare comedic whodunit, and manages to perfectly execute his twisted script of twisted personalities. Think of this as Agatha Christie meets CLUE via THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The overall mangled morality of this entitled family becomes crystal clear as we get to know each. Johnson presents many familiar elements for fans of the mystery genre (the dark mansion, the creepy line-up of hangers-on, the red-herring clues and missteps), and most impressively, he blends those with many creative and surprising moments … some that will have you believing you have it figured out. But even if you do, the long and winding road is an utter blast.

Even with that deep and talented cast, it’s Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta who stand out. They have the most screen time and neither waste a moment. Mr. Craig’s purposefully comedic southern drawl completes the film’s most memorable character, in fact, one of the year’s most memorable characters. Ms. de Armas finally finds a role to take advantage of her skill. Nurse Marta has a lie-detecting reflux gag that is not just valuable to the case, but also vital to the loudest audience reaction during the film. Mr. Craig and Ms. de Armas will also appear together in the upcoming Bond film NO TIME TO DIE.

During the reading of the will, director Johnson brings in STAR WARS stalwart Frank Oz (best known as Yoda) to play the family attorney, while another scene features one of the all-time great character actors (and Roger Ebert favorite) M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE). Mr. Johnson also offers a unique spin on classism and the 1%, including a running gag about Marta’s nation of origin.

Johnson’s regular team is in top form here: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Film Editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin). Another deserving of mention is Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who matches threads with personality about as effectively as we’ve seen, and Production Designer David Crank who creates the ideal mansion of secrets. This film is wickedly clever and barrels of fun. There may not have been a more purely entertaining movie this year … and it’s been a terrific year for movies. Just remember: ‘My house. My rules. My coffee.”

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BOUNDARIES (2018)

July 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the more recent cinematic trends has been stories involving an adult child facing the plight of caring for an elderly parent. Some have chosen the comedic route, while others lean towards the all-too-real burden carried by care-givers. Writer-director Shana Feste (COUNTRY STRONG, 2010) continues her streak of tolerable fluff in this tale of a stressed single mother raising a challenging teenager while also dealing with daddy issues, and the octogenarian daddy at the source.

The film opens with said stressed mother Laura Jaconi (played by Vera Farmiga) in the midst of a therapy session as she talks through those long-simmering daddy issues … and we get the feeling these same discussions have occurred numerous times over the years. As an actress, Ms. Farmiga is at her best in frazzled mode, and here she’s a perfect fit. Her son Hoyt/Henry (Lewis McDougall, who was so good in A MONSTER CALLS) is a social misfit at his school, thanks in part to his mostly unwelcome and quite vivid artwork depicting faculty (and others) in various unclothed states. When he is expelled, private school becomes the best alternative, and Laura’s need for cash coincides with her estranged father’s (Christopher Plummer) simultaneous expulsion from his retirement center … for morality reasons.

Daughter Laura has her dad listed as “Don’t Pick Up” on her cell phone, and we understand before her that he is a rascal with a criminal streak. He even serves up an extremely rare pedophile joke – at the expense of his grandson. Laura’s ongoing challenges are intensified when circumstances require her to drive her and her son cross country in a classic Rolls Royce that never comes close to blending in with the surroundings. The purpose of the road trip is so the father/grandfather can make secretive pot-selling trips along the way. This allows for cameos from such recognizable folks as Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which is Laura’s ex-husband and biological father of her son.

Adding to the frenzy is Laura’s commitment to her real lot in life – that of serial animal rescuer. Dogs are EVERYWHERE throughout the film – to the point that her father labels her the Pied Piper of mange. These type of interactions, along with the ruse of adult diapers and a bow and arrow sequence keep the film on the verge of slapstick; however, we can never accept that we are supposed to get a comedic kick out of Laura’s too-much-to-handle lot, since it’s mostly depressing.

Kristen Schaal as Laura’s sister and insecure California goofball is always a welcome addition to any film, and Yahva Abdul-Mateen II brings a nice touch to one of the few characters we’d like to get to know better. Lousy childhood memories connected to present-day adult troubles just don’t combine for effective humor in the light that the filmmaker seems to be aiming for. Though well-acted, a grown woman still in need of daddy’s approval is just a bit too predictable and too much of a downer to work.

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THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

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REMEMBER (2016)

March 31, 2016

remember Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, 81 year old Maggie Smith impressed with her lead role in The Lady in the Van. And now, just a few weeks later, comes 86 year old Christopher Plummer in a gut-wrenching performance as Zev Guttman, a 90 year old German grieving widower suffering from dementia. Don’t let that description fool you … Zev goes on a cross-continent road trip with a mission of seeking justice against the Auschwitz guard who killed his family more than 70 years ago.

Zev lives in a nursing home and often can’t remember to wear shoes, much less that his beloved wife Ruth has passed away. It turns out another resident/patient at the home shares a history at Auschwitz with him. Wheelchair-bound Max (Martin Landau) says the two men are the last surviving members of their cell block, and must work together to find the guard – now living under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander – and find justice for their families. So we find ourselves with a coalition of sympathetic senior citizen Nazi hunters.

Given the war atrocities, it makes sense that over the years, many movies have placed Nazi hunting as a core theme. Among the most well known are: The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Inglourious Bastards (2009), and The Debt (2010). But leave it to director Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Where the Truth Lies) to find a different spin and a twist on a familiar theme. At times, Zev’s dementia distracts us from his vengeful mission, while at various other times, the innocence of children acts as a dual reminder – the fragility of old age vs. the eye-for-eye brutality.

It’s Landau’s Max who acts as a type of narrative structure for the story. His sharp and focused plan is written out in letter form so that Zev can constantly refer and be reminded of his purpose. The letter also provides us viewers with the necessary back-story to fully comprehend the what’s and why’s. Each time Zev re-reads the letter, he re-experiences the loss of his wife – yet another of the film’s reminders of the effects of dementia.

Zev’s search takes him from Ohio to Canada to Idaho to Lake Tahoe. He goes through four Rudy Kurlanders – with Bruno Ganz (Downfall, 2004) and Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot (1981) representing two. There is also a very uncomfortable sequence involving Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) which reminds that hatred is often passed down through generations.

The nursing home “getaway” and the purchase of a gun have us thinking Zev is some type of senior citizen Jason Bourne – sharing the lack of memory, but none of the skills. The title of “Remember” has many meanings and interpretations here, not the least of which is as a display of loss, guilt, revenge, family and old age. Even the most poignant moment of the film occurs when Zev says “I remember”.

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DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

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HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014)

October 8, 2014

hector Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients?  What about when he loudly humiliates one of those patients for expressing her feelings? We are supposed to want Hector to be happy. But do we? Personally, I didn’t give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can’t help his patients because he isn’t even trying … he is a narcissist and a jerk who can’t appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn’t know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (so he can use it).

Along the way, Hector’s OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to “Africa” – quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector’s approach even blatantly borrows from the “Tintin” stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is. In all fairness, the movie is directed by Peter Chelsom, who also directed Hannah Montana: The Movie, so perhaps any expectations were too high.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness … maybe sweet potato stew.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always root for the spoiled, rich guy to win in his battle against a mid-life crisis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your local cinema has a rule against throwing items at the screen during especially annoying parts

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THE SOUND OF MUSIC cast 1965 and 2013

April 30, 2013

The cast in 1965 and 2013

(left to right):

Kym Karath (Gretl), Debbie Turner (Marta), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Duane Chase (Kurt), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Charmian Carr (Leisl), Julie Andrews (Maria), Christopher Plummer (Captain Von Trapp)

Sound of Music - then and now