IT’S NOT YET DARK (2017, doc)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have two kinds of friends: those who sulk for days when the candy machine eats their quarter, and those with such zest for life that no personal or professional tragedy dampens their “can do” spirit. Director Frankie Fenton presents the remarkable story of Simon Fitzmaurice, an Irish writer and filmmaker who is robbed of his body by MND (Motor Neuron Disease).

Fellow Irishman Colin Farrell narrates the film, giving poignancy to Simon’s own words … words he can no longer speak himself. As a writer and filmmaker, Simon’s “before” life is documented through pictures, videos and many of his thoughts on the page. He was a youngster full of ideas and energy. We learn this from his father Damien, his mother Florence, his younger sister Kate and childhood friend Phil. More than any other, we learn it from his wife Ruth. In fact, this is as much Ruth’s story as it is Simon’s. She is a special lady in love with a special man. Their story will likely resonate with you.

In 2008, Simon’s short film THE SOUND OF PEOPLE was selected to screen at Sundance. Not long after, he was diagnosed and given 3-4 years to live. Less than 10 years later, he became the subject of this documentary which was also a Sundance selection. It’s not the path he envisioned, but as he says, “For me it’s not about how long you live, it’s how you live.”

This cruel disease allows him to feel everything, yet he can’t walk, speak, breathe or eat without artificial help. The film shows us how Simon documented the many phases of the disease, right down to his last dance. One form of “artificial help” allowed him to return to filmmaking. He utilized eye gaze technology to finish writing and then direct his first feature film, MY NAME IS EMILY. With all of his physical challenges and the support of his wife and kids, it’s wrapping the movie that proved to him that he “made it back to work”. It provides the answer to his earlier question, “What is a man?”

It’s touching to hear Ruth describe how the hiring of a nurse allowed her to go back to being a wife and mother, rather than a care-giver. She and Simon even later had twins (kids #4 and 5), and he wrote a best-selling book/memoir on which this film is based. Last year the documentary GLEASON provided a similarly inspirational story about Steve Gleason, an NFL player stricken with ALS. These two films and these two men (and their wives) provide a sentimental, sincere and life-affirming message that life is worth fighting for and living to the fullest.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

watch the trailer:

 


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

December 22, 2013

banks1 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely it’s a coincidence that Disney Studios has released this movie just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins film. Regardless of the promotional angle, the story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) going all out to woo stuffy Brit writer PL Travers (Emma Thompson)actually turns out to be a well made and pretty interesting story of two stubborn people butting creative heads. Even better is a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative and collaborative process of bringing the Travers book(s) to the big screen.

Director John Lee Hancock is the perfect fit with his track record of glossy, feel-good, inspired by true life stories with The Blind Side and The Rookie. We never lose sight that this is a Disney production of a Disney story. The only Disney blemish shown is a quick shot of him stubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Mr. Disney was an expert at hiding his smoking habit from the public … well at least until he died from lung cancer in 1966, a mere two years after the premiere of Mary Poppins. Mostly Walt is depicted as working diligently to provide the trust and security that Travers sought in protecting her most precious flying nanny.

banks2 The real star here is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers. Her desperate need for money is mentioned once, but the story is more concerned with her innate need to protect the legacy of her story … no animation, no mean Mr Banks, no Dick Van Dyke, and no silly songs. Watching her interact with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) and the Disney screenwriter played by Bradley Whitford is the most fun this movie has to offer. Her “no, no, no” mindset is quite frustrating for the quite successful Disney creative team. The armchair psychology is really where the movie falters a bit. Watching Walt struggle to mesmerize Travers with his Disney magic feels a bit forced, and when combined with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, leave the audience way ahead in figuring out the key to her heart and mind.

Once the daddy issues come to light, we get Hanks’ best scene in the film. As he finally connects with Travers by laying bare his childhood (and fatherly) challenges, he eloquently explains the importance of imagination and storytelling for both children and adults. A desire to re-write or re-imagine our childhood seems to be at the core of many adults. It seems many dwell on the negative aspects of childhood, and even here, Travers’ dad (Colin Farrell) may be the nicest alcoholic who ever inspired their kid to be a writer.

PL Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) wrote 8 Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988, but was so unhappy with the film version that she never agreed to a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when she agreed to a stage version (no Americans allowed!). She passed away in 1996 at the age of 96, and the actual recordings played over the closing credits show just how well Ms. Thompson captured the strong will of the author.

**NOTE: Tom Hanks has an impressive family tree.  He is a distant cousin of Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln.

**NOTE: On his deathbed, the last words Walt Disney wrote were “Kurt Russell”.  The reason for this was never discovered, although Mr. Russell was under a 10 year contract with Disney at the time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the creative collaboration process between two very talented sides with extremely different motivations

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a kids’ or family movie about the classic Mary Poppins movie.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

 


DEAD MAN DOWN (2013)

March 10, 2013

dead ma Greetings again from the darkness. On the surface, this looks like just another early season crime thriller. From that perspective, it works well enough. However, there are some elements that add complexity and interest, and set this one above the usual. It’s directed by Niels Arden Oplev who was responsible for the original (and very cool) Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). This looks to be his first English language feature and he re-teams with the exciting and talented Noomi Rapace.

The film begins with a body in the freezer, and crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard) and his crew attempting to solve the mystery of who killed his friend and associate. Someone has been tormenting Alphonse with little clues and he falls right into the trap of jumping to conclusions. One member of his crew is Victor (Colin Farrell). We slowly learn more about Victor thanks to an awkward and slow connection between he and his neighbor Beatrice (Ms. Rapace). Their initial acknowledgment of each other is an exchange of waves between balconies. It’s an effective visual.

dead man2 The movie bounces between crime thriller and romantic/love story, and offers a couple of big ol’ shoot-em-ups. The added fun of secret missions from both Victor and Beatrice provide the twist this one needs. Actually there are 4-5 exceptional scenes in the movie which make up for the often plodding pace … not typically a good thing for a thriller. The pieces are greater than the whole, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting watch.  Noomi Rapace has quickly made the transition to English language films and she has the ability to play gritty or glamourous – something not all actresses can pull off. Colin Farrell is one of those actors who seems to consistently choose scripts that don’t showcase his skills. He was excellent in In Bruges, but often takes roles that require little more than flexing his world class eyebrows. The quiet scenes with Rapace and Farrell give this movie a higher quality feel than it otherwise would have had.

dead man3 In addition to Farrell, Rapace and Howard, we get some really enjoyable support work from Dominic Cooper, Isabelle Huppert and F Murray Abraham. Ms. Huppert in particular adds a touch of class and humor, and her character could have easily been expanded … same for Mr. Abraham. Cooper plays an idealistic, but not so observant buddy to Victor and loyal crew member of Howard.

This one reminds at times of a couple of Mel Gibson revenge flicks: Payback and Edge of Darkness, though what really helps here is the strength of the cast and unusual scars of Victor and Beatrice. A slightly tighter script and improved pacing would have jumped this one a level or two, but it’s entertaining in spite of the flaws.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: seeing Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace flash their acting talent intrigues you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a taut thriller with many surprises and twists

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq3rls47cNE


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA

 

 


FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

August 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We can’t really discuss this movie without referencing the 1985 original. Writer Tom Holland was involved with both (including directing the original) and gets credit for updating the story while maintaining the look and feel. It seems as if vampires are everywhere these days, but the Fright Night recipe expertly mixes suspense, danger and campy humor.

Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his single Mom (Toni Collette) live in a quiet Las Vegas suburb. Charley’s nerdy friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) notices the place is getting quieter everyday … people are disappearing! These disappearances correspond with the arrival of Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell). Yep … Jerry the Vampire.

 Charley at first ignores Ed’s investigative skills and concentrates on Amy (Imogen Poots), the out-of-his-league girlfriend whom he desperately wants to get to know better. And then … Ed disappears. Charley tries to push Amy aside and solve this mystery. It doesn’t take long since he breaks into Jerry’s house and discovers where he stores the bodies of his victims. As you might expect, Jerry doesn’t take well to the invasion.

Charley goes to Vegas showman Peter Vincent (David Tenant) to seek help in destroying Jerry. See, Peter Vincent’s crazy Vegas show is all about fighting the evil dead among us. Of course, Vincent isn’t quite as tough off stage.

 There are plenty of moments of campy fun as Charley pursues Jerry. Not the least of which is a fender bender which includes Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original. While it’s a nice homage, it just made me miss Roddy McDowall, who originated the role of Peter Vincent. Still, watching McLovin as a tough-talking vampire is quite a bit of fun as are the few moments of doubt from Collette and Poots.

Craig Gillespie directs the film, and his success a few years ago with the indie hit Lars and the Real Girl brings an added touch of class to the film. He really does a nice job of balancing the terror of the story with the humor necessary to make this one enjoyable and a bit different.

 A tip of the cap to the casting of the movie. Yelchin (Star Trek, The Beaver) is a real up and comer. Ms. Poots was very effective in Jane Eyre and it will be interesting to follow the direction of her career. Collette is a real pro. Colin Farrell seems to really enjoy his turn as a vampire and adds some subtleties and quirks that make it fun. David Tenant (“Dr. Who”) really captures the Vegas Peter Vincent. Mintz-Plasse is one of the few who can effectively bounce from high school nerd to powerful vampire. Must also mention some hidden gems: singer Lisa Loeb makes a quick appearance as Ed’s mother, Charley’s friend Mark is played by Dave Franco – brother of James (you will spot the resemblance), and Peter Vincent’s girlfriend Ginger is played by Sandra Vergara, sister of Sofia from “Modern Family” (again, you can’t miss the resemblance).

In this day and age, it isn’t easy to assemble such a strong cast, script and director for a movie that isn’t centered around alien action, terminal disease or toilet humor. If you enjoy campy horror films done with an acknowledged tongue planted in cheek, then I recommend this one. It delivers exactly what you hope and expect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1985 original OR you get a kick out of campy vampire flicks

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your vampire movies to be dark and mysterious OR you are convinced no one can ever be a better vamp than Robert Pattinson

watch the trailer: