THE MUSTANG (2019)

March 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A herd of wild horses frolic and gallop and relax in the prairies that separate majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Suddenly the peace being enjoyed by the horses is interrupted by the deafening noise of a helicopter above. The purpose of the helicopter is to push the herd towards the corral and trucks that are part of the round-up. An opening title card informs us that more than 100,000 wild horses roam the U.S. countryside and the government is only able to manage a small percentage. Part of that process involves therapy for prisoners … an obvious analogy being the two wild beings try to tame each other. When the prisoners have trained the horses, an auction is held, and many of the animals will be used in law enforcement – an irony not dwelled upon here.

Roman Coleman is a guilt-riddled man. A man of short fuse and violent ways. He readily admits to the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that “I’m not good with people.” After 12 years in isolation, he’s been transferred to general population and he seems pretty indifferent about it. His guilt is the type that only a split-second violent outburst can saddle one with – though we don’t hear the specifics until late in the film. The psychologist assigns him to “outdoor maintenance” which is a fancy institutional term for, well, shoveling horse manure.

As he observes the rehabilitation program, where the convicts train the wild mustangs under the tutelage of crusty old horse trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), Roman is drawn to the wildest of the wild … a mustang kept in a dark stall and labeled untrainable. The parallels to Roman himself are obvious, and soon head trainer Myles and fellow convict Henry (Jason Mitchell, MUDBOUND) have invited Roman into the program. It’s here where man and horse prove how similar their temperaments are – they both react with anger to most any situation. After a particularly cruel and unfortunate outburst, Roman is back to solitary confinement and studying up on horses.

Writer-director Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre co-wrote the story with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock (BRONSON). It’s the director’s first feature film and she shows a real knack for pacing … letting the uncomfortable scenes between man and horse breathe and play out. Speaking of uncomfortable, when Roman’s pregnant daughter Martha (rising star Gideon Adlon, BLOCKERS) shows up to get his signature on a form so that she can run off with her boyfriend, the history and lack of commonality between the two is palpable. Their scenes together are excruciating. Sure this is a cliché-filled concept, but the director and especially the cast keep us glued to the screen and caring about what happens.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, and it’s yet another stellar performance from the actor who exploded onto the movie screen with BULLHEAD (2011) and RUST AND BONE (2012). Since then, it’s been one terrific turn after another. His physical presence and soulful eyes convey so much. He has mastered the strong silent type, but here he expertly uses body language to communicate with both the horse and the audience. The drug-dealing sub-plot appears to have been included to remind us just how dangerous a prison yard can be, but we never lose sight of the pain involved with second chances and learning to be a better person. There are some similarities to two excellent 2018 movies, LEAN ON PETE and THE RIDER, but this first time filmmaker wisely lets her talented cast do their thing, as she complements their work through cinematographer Ruben Impens’ (BEAUTIFUL BOY) fabulous work up close and with expansive vistas. Robert Redford was an Executive Producer on the film, so the beauty of the area is not surprising. The film allows emotions to play out right through the final shot.

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie industry frequently sources societal worries, concerns, issues and hot topics. It’s been less than 6 months, but here come the anti-Trump movies. Of course some will have clever disguises for their message, while others will slap us across the face. This re-teaming of The Good Girl director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White actually uses both approaches.

Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a masseuse and holistic healer, who comes awfully close to being an angel on earth … unless she’s guzzled a bit too much white wine at your dinner party. Beatriz fights southern California traffic in her clunky VW as she rushes from her gig at the cancer center to Cathy’s (Connie Britton) Orange County cliffside mansion. See, Cathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s (David Warshofsky) business associates and she simply must have her massage prior to such a stressful event – after all, she did plan the menu. When Beatriz’s car stalls in Cathy’s driveway, she is invited to stay for the dinner party.

Things get awkward once the actual guests arrive. Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) are the young, entitled types so enticed by the fancy house and global traveling lifestyles on which they are on the brink. It should be noted that Mr. Duplass cleans up nicely and Ms. Sevigny spends much of the movie smiling – a look for which she’s not normally associated. The real squirming occurs once Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his shallow third wife Jenna (Amy Landecker, “Transparent”) arrive.

Beatriz and Strutt are polar opposites with contrasting lifestyles and character. She is a mystical presence with a deep connection to Mother Earth and all living beings. He is the Trump-like figure – charismatic, manipulating and laser-focused on the brass ring. She coddles her pet goat in her bedroom to protect it from a crazy neighbor, while he ignores the rare birds nesting on the valuable land he wants scraped for his newest development.

It’s by no means a superhero movie, but Beatriz is presented as a Mexican-born working class (minimal make-up, functional clothing and shoes) Wonder Woman, while Strutt is the ultra villain out to destroy the planet, one rhinoceros at a time. She views him as “The Source” of Earth’s pain, while he tries to laugh her off as a novelty act. It’s Cathy and her husband who are most taken aback by the direct words of Beatriz, as they have considered her a “family friend” since she helped their daughter through a health scare. How dare she spoil their dinner party!

There is a beautiful aerial shot of the Orange County mega-mansions, but most of the uncomfortable moments are derived through the ongoing duel of angelic Beatriz vs. the poisonous topics of politics and profit. There is no subtlety in the message, but having two talented actors go head to head, does make it more palatable.

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THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

September 21, 2014

this is where Greetings again from the darkness. After watching this movie, I thought about researching whether the boobs of a 76 year old actress had ever been as front and center as they are in this dramedy from director Shawn Levy – not counting Calendar Girls which was for a worthy cause. Luckily I came to my senses, and realized that’s not a topic anyone should google … except maybe a 76 year old man.

Jane Fonda is the actress whose enhanced assets are so prominently featured, and she plays the mother of four adult children brought together to mourn the death of the family patriarch. This is based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and though it’s watchable enough, it could have benefited from a better script adaptation and a less mainstream comedy director. Mr. Levy provided the popular and entertaining A Night at the Museum, as well as a long list of simple minded movies that didn’t prepare him for the depth of Tropper’s story.

The four “kids” are played by Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver. Also joining them under a single roof are Stoll’s desperate-for-a-baby wife Kathryn Hahn, Fey’s two kids and self-professed a-hole husband (Aaron Lazar), and Driver’s engaged-to-be-engaged much older woman played by Connie Britton. If you think that’s an outstanding cast, note that also appearing are Timothy Olyphant (Fey’s brain-damaged former lover), Rose Byrne (she always lusted after Bateman), Dax Shepard (sleeps with Bateman’s wife played by Abigail Spencer), Ben Schwartz as an oddball Jewish rabbi, and Debra Monk (the helpful neighbor and more).

Obviously the issue with so many characters and talented actors is that screen time is limited. Somehow each of these have one key moment in the film, and that may be the biggest issue. Some of these we want to know more about (Olyphant, Byrne, Brittain), while others could have been written out of the script altogether (Lazar, Schwartz, Shepard) and the movie wouldn’t have suffered, and might have improved.

Most of the story revolves around Bateman and his situation – crumbled marriage, lost job, dead father, plus even more. Going through that and facing his sit-com worthy dysfunctional family provides an unending stream of none-too-subtle moments: a basement sleeper/sofa that won’t fold out, roof top talks with his bossypants sister, and even fisticuffs inside the family and out.

This is another in the Suburban-angst sub-genre, and the numerous contrived scenes and formulaic sequences are salvaged only by the talented casts ability to squeeze the moment from the next one-liner. There is so much rage and resentment in this family that we viewers are willing to find humor in the toddler toting his portable potty with him everywhere, or even Bateman taking the expected prat fall in an ice rink. There is little edge to this material, but it’s not difficult to glimpse how the right director could have approached the genius of The Royal Tenenbaums or the original Death at a Funeral, rather than a generic blend of Garden State and August:Osage County.

Britton, Byrne and Batemen all have their moments, and the movie is certainly watchable … though it could have been exceptional as either a straight out comedy or an indie-type drama. No need to email me if you come up with additional films featuring 76 year old boobs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for the challenge of keeping track of the seemingly endless number of characters who have “a moment” during this one

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you share the sentiment with me and Jason Bateman’s character that there is no need to focus on Jane Fonda’s “bionic breasts”

watch the trailer:

 


SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

July 2, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. First time director Lorene Scafaria is best known for her wonderful script for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Directing her own script here, we are left wondering if the gaps are in the writing or directing, but it’s clear Ms. Scafaria loves long titles. Matilda, a giant asteroid, is headed towards Earth and life will cease to exist in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s wife Linda (played by Steve Carell‘s real-life wife) takes off running away from him and supposedly into the arms of her secret love affair partner.

Dodge (Carell) has little reaction to the bailing of his wife or even to the impending Armageddon. In fact, he strikes us as the guy who has had little reaction to much in life and has no idea who he really is. While he does have some acquaintances and a predictably boring job at an insurance company, Dodge shows no inclination to join in the festivities of excess (drugs, sex, religion, riots) enjoyed by others, and instead offers up a lame, sure-to-fail suicide attempt to go with his droopy demeanor and overall lethargy.

It takes little time for Dodge to be saddled with an abandoned dog named Sorry and a crying neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley). This part of the film is actually its best feature. We get the forced partnership of this odd couple and a road trip that allows for some interaction with others. The others include standout scenes with William Peterson, Bob Stephenson and TJ Miller (below, left, the host at Friendsy’s, a TGIF themed diner that devolves into a lovefest that neither Dodge nor Penny care to partake.

 The road trip does have the outline of a purpose. Dodge wants to re-connect with his high school sweetheart and Penny wants to get home to England in time to say goodbye to her parents. However, it’s pretty clear that the main reason for the road trip is to allow Dodge and Penny to fall in love. Just another apocalyptic rom-com.

I totally get the “opposites attract” approach, but I found Knightley to be far beyond quirky (John Cale and Leonard Cohen vinyl) and closer to her mentally unstable character in the first hour of A Dangerous Method. As for Dodge, he may be the nice guy that Penny sees, but mostly his life force hovers just above zero, while wearing sweaters that would fit right into Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It’s not until he visits his estranged dad (Martin Sheen) that he shows signs of a pulse.  It’s kind of interesting to pay attention to the names in the film.  Dodge is ironic given what’s headed toward Earth.  Penny may or may not be lucky depending on your interpretation.  A survivalist named Speck, who doesn’t get that his preparations make no difference.  And, of course, a dog named Sorry.

2011 brought us two fascinating end-of-the world films in Melancholia and Another Earth.  This one avoids the manic depression of one or the science fiction of the other. While I never really bought into the heightened attraction of these two who miraculously become kindred spirits thanks to the time constraints, their relationship does provide fodder for thought. What would you do if you knew things were ending in 3 weeks? Would your true self finally make an appearance? If so, what are you waiting for? The message really is … our time is limited so don’t waste it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wouldn’t mind a little Herb Alpert with your apocalypse OR you need a primer in the greatness of vinyl records, even if the knowledge won’t help once the asteroid hits

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a hyper, twisted-faced Keira Knightley is not your ideal partner at the end regardless of the pristine condition of her John Cale and Leonard Cohen albums

watch the trailer: