ALL ABOUT NINA (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

watch the trailer:

 


THE INTERVENTION (2016)

August 25, 2016

intervention Greetings again from the darkness. Clea DuVall: Actress/Writer/Director/Producer. No one who has followed her outstanding career (especially as a standout in many independent films) can be surprised that she is spreading her creative wings into all aspects of filmmaking. Her directorial debut can best be described as a contemporary version of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) for today’s thirty-somethings.

Casting is key for an ensemble project, and it’s especially difficult for a serio-comedy exploring the insecurities and inherent unhappiness that corresponds to the closest relationships. The premise here is that four couples meet at a beautiful and isolated lake house just outside of Savannah. The motivation for this meet up of old friends is a “marriage intervention” for one of the couples … something that must have seemed better in theory than it plays out in reality.

The couple whose marriage is in the target zone is played by Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, “How I Met Your Mother”) as exhausted mother of three Ruby, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the long-ago-gave-up-trying Peter. The others are played by Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) as Annie, who has continually postponed her wedding to super nice guy fiancé Matt played by Jason Ritter; Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as Sarah, long-time partner to Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall); and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as Jack, who brings his free-spirited, much younger girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat, State of Grace).

We quickly witness the bitterness and lack of caring that has poisoned the marriage of Ruby and Peter, and of course, it doesn’t take long to spot all the cracks in the relationships and personalities of the others. Annie is a control-freak who appears to be a full blown alcoholic, while Matt is such a nice guy, that he refuses to stand up for himself and have some pride. Sarah and Jessie avoid any serious discussion regarding why they aren’t living together yet, while Jessie’s weakness for younger girls plays a role – as does Sarah’s secret. Jack is obviously avoiding dealing with some personal issue (which we later learn) as he plays kissie-face with the no-strings-attached Lola (not Lolita).

The script tries to tackle an enormous number of issues, sub-plots and characters, and while we pretty easily get a feel for each, we never understand how these people ever agreed that a group attack was the best strategy. No amount of charades, barbeque or kickball can hide the messes that define each of these folks … whether married or not.

The actors have tremendous comedy timing and handle these moments much better than the ultra-dramatic moments. Cobie Smulders and Ben Schwartz are real standouts here, which is quite a compliment given the tremendous on screen talents on display. It’s a group that can gracefully pull off a Subaru joke while also playing cut-throat charades and dodging thrown peaches.

Ms. DuVall will undoubtedly go on to make better films than this one, but as a first project it offers some terrific moments. Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) scores the film, and though some excellent tunes are included, the music was at times disruptive to the flow of the story. The film will probably hit home with a great many who fall into the thirty-something age group, though older viewers will likely prefer to re-visit The Big Chill from more than 30 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JACKIE & RYAN (2015)

July 4, 2015

jackie & ryan Greetings again from the darkness. Complexity of characters, action sequences and plot twists are so common in movies these days that a simple story told in a straight-forward manner can catch us a bit off-guard. Such is the case with this latest from writer/director Ami Canaan Mann (Michael Mann’s daughter, and known for Texas Killing Fields).

A romantic drama usually leans heavily on the strength of its leads, and the teaming of Katherine Heigl and Ben Barnes normally wouldn’t instill much hope. Don’t expect this one to linger in your thoughts much after you have left the theatre, but most will find it pleasant enough to watch … if for no other reason than the interesting songs written by Nick Hans and sung by Barnes. And yes, Heigl sings a bit too … but not much considering her character supposedly had a successful singing career in years gone by.

There is an air of familiarity to the story as Barnes plays a free-willed musician who travels by train and performs in the streets of the towns he visits. Circumstances occur that bring Barnes and Heigl together, and soon enough romance is in the air. Heigl and her daughter (Emily Alyn Lind) live with her mom (Sheryl Lee), and Barnes hangs around for awhile to fix the roof … and other things. Indie favorite Clea DuVall has a small role that adds a bit of interest, but mostly this one hinges on Barnes and Heigl.

If you are one of the many who have grown tired of Heigl’s big screen career, you might be a bit surprised here as she struggles to raise her daughter while going through a nasty divorce. Barnes has also done little (since his posturing in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) to lead up to his more gritty and somewhat likeable role. Again, not much here will stick, but it’s pleasant enough to watch.

watch the trailer:

 


ARGO (2012)

October 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.

The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.

 This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Wars rip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.

 This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condor or Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.

The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.

There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy.  However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.

 Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly.  Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.

Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0

 


CONVICTION (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on a compelling true story and spurred by a “60 Minutes” segment, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank) who dedicated 18 years of her life to proving the innocence of her incarcerated brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The natural assumption would be that Betty Anne wrote letters and hounded police and attorneys so that no one would forget Kenny. The truth is far more fascinating. From an abusive and underprivileged childhood, Betty Anne rose above all and reinvented herself once her brother was found guilty of murder. She got her GED, graduated from college, then law school, and became his attorney. With assistance from Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, old evidence was re-analyzed and witness testimony was contested. The outcome is public record and more proof that fact can be stranger than fiction.

Pamelay Gray’s script is handled by director Tony Goldwyn, who is known mostly for TV projects. He is talented enough to let the story and his excellent cast do the work. Swank, of course, is the perfect choice for this role and seems quite at ease. Rockwell, one of the more under-appreciated actors around, is very strong in capturing the lovable Kenny, as well as the red-hot tempered alcoholic who was always in trouble with the law. The relationship between this brother and sister is established via childhood flashbacks and prison visits. We never once doubt that Betty Anne would commit to this challenge, even if we do question the wisdom of doing so.

Have to mention some of the rest of the cast. Minnie Driver is Abra, Betty Anne’s law school classmate who joins her in Kenny’s cause. The movie never really explains why she does this, but she adds a nice element. Melissa Leo is the cop with a chip who railroads Kenny. We see later how her life turned out and can only think she deserves every bad thing that can happen. Ari Graynor plays Mandy, Kenny’s teenage daughter and an almost unrecognizable Clea DuVall is excellent as her mother Mandy. The performance that really jumps off the screen is that of Juliette Lewis. We first see her testifying in court and then again almost two decades later as a burned out shell of a person. Her few minutes here are staggering to watch.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another melodrama, but it is really fascinating to see what the love of a sister can accomplish. I was shocked that the end trailer didn’t mention that Kenny died in a freak accident just 6 months after his release. Betty Anne is on record as saying that while tragic, at least he died a free man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the words “based on a true story” make your heart race OR you have always wondered what a drugged-out Juliette Lewis would look like (yikes!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: movies about dirty cops annoy you OR you wouldn’t lift a finger, much less dedicate your life, to help your brother or sister