THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch and Fred Armisen collaborated on a contemporary reimagining of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)? Well, me neither, and that has not happened. But it’s the closest I can come to giving you some idea of this meta-comedy concept film from director Bill Benz and co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and St Vincent.

We are told that initially singer-songwriter-musician St Vincent has asked her friend Carrie Brownstein to direct a documentary on the singer and her tour. Brownstein envisions a blend of concert and offstage footage so that fans get to know the “real” St Vincent. It turns out the real St Vincent is Annie Clark, a woman who plays Scrabble and video games, and loves to shop for radishes at local Farmers Markets. The contrast between St Vincent’s onstage red guitar riffs, giant video screen, leather outfits and her offstage calm personality is not just stark, but actually a bit boring.

Boring is not what Brownstein has in mind and it creates a rift between the two women, and flips a switch for St Vincent. The musician goes overboard in trying to manufacture the typical rock star image of cool and aloof. Brownstein is frustrated not just with the artificiality of the new approach, but also in the expanding distance between the two friends. Some of the vignettes are quite humorous – in a surreal way. St Vincent stages an intimate scene in her bedroom with a scantily clad Dakota Johnson, and then another sequence features St Vincent’s “family” in a scene right out of “Hee-Haw”.

The satire on public vs private life is a topic worthy of discussion. Often it’s the fans who feel entitled to know more about their icons, while other times it’s the celebrities who are trying to cultivate a public image and garner some extra publicity. In this era of social media, the bigger the personality – the more outlandish – the more publicity and the more followers.

Director Benz’s film drags a bit in the middle, and the final act turns somewhat surreal as Brownstein and St Vincent both have their lapses from reality. Both seem to be confused about their public persona vs real life, so it begins to mimic what’s happened with the original documentary concept. There is a terrific scene involving St Vincent singing on stage and working her way through red velvet stage curtains, but for the most part this isn’t a biting satire – it’s more like a soft-touch. The “Portlandia” connection is clear throughout (Benz, Brownstein, St Vincent) but I’m not sure the film is cohesive enough (mockumentary? wry comedy? satire?) for a mass audience … it might work best as midnight madness.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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THE HIGH NOTE (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to play an aging diva at the crossroads of a hugely successful singing career than the daughter of Diana Ross? Of course, nothing is ever that easy and if Tracee Ellis Ross wasn’t ultra-talented herself, the film wouldn’t work at all. Now, please understand, director Nisha Ganatra’s follow up to last year’s LATE NIGHT is excessively formulaic and predictable, but it’s a pleasure to watch Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) as singer Grace Davis and to hear her sing for (I believe) the first time on screen.

The film is from the first (and previous Black List) screenplay by Flora Greeson, a former personal assistant in the music industry, and it follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades” franchise) as Grace Davis’ hard-working assistant. While spending most of her time running errands in her Chevy Nova for her celebrity boss, Maggie dreams of becoming a music producer. See, she studied music composition in college and listened to the radio growing up … and she bobs her head when listening to music she likes. So obviously she’s “qualified.” Maggie is as ambitious as she is lacking in self-confidence and experience.

The aforementioned crossroads Grace is facing has to do with choosing whether to record her first new album in a decade, or taking the safe and financially secure route of accepting a long-term Las Vegas residency. Her agent, Jack Robertson, is played by Ice Cube in full tough-guy mode, as he pushes Grace to bank the cash. Although her career is stuck in recycle gear with live albums and greatest hits, Grace longs to record new music, though she also understands the realities of the music business (and explicitly states the history for anyone not following along – including Maggie).

Maggie oversteps her position with Grace by urging her to write and record new songs. Maggie re-mixes some of Grace’s music and butts heads with the hotshot producer (played by Diplo) Jack brings in to turn Grace’s hits into thumping dance beats. “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question, it’s dope!” (Diplo nailing the punchline). June Diane Raphael adds her comic flair as Gail, the career moocher who lives in Grace’s pool house, and offers up advice to Maggie on how to milk the situation.

All it takes is a chance encounter at the local market for Maggie to have a career opportunity fall in her lap. She meets charming and smooth David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr, WAVES), and after some classic music banter, she hears him sing and is convinced she can produce his music. The only problem … she lies to him about her profession and experience. Lying and misrepresentation may have played a key role in the music profession over the years, but it creates a real mess for Maggie and David.

When things go sideways for Maggie in every aspect of her life, she retreats to the security of her dad’s (Bill Pullman) humble home/studio on Catalina Island. He’s a DJ and the one who taught Maggie her love for music. His home also leads to the reconciliation that allows the film to move towards the ending it was meant to have. It should also be noted that Zoe Chao and Eddie Izzard have brief roles as Maggie’s roommate and a veteran pop singer, respectively … both talented performers underutilized here.

The film has a similar structure to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA minus the biting dialogue and insightful commentary on a high profile industry. It briefly touches on ageism, sexism, and nepotism, as well as the ‘money vs art’ question, but the purpose here is entertainment, not enlightenment. True artists have an incessant need to create, often risking a comfortable position to stretch themselves … showing the iconic Capitol Records building a few times, and contrasting Maggie’s Nova with Grace’s Bugatti, doesn’t quite make the philosophical statement that we’d expect for a deeper message. Instead, it’s a feel good movie. It’s comfort food, and it’s delivered with a crisp bow on top. Expect a romantic fantasy, where the love partner is music, and enjoy the talents of Tracee Ellis Ross. And let’s hope they got clearance from Michael B Jordan for his mention.

Available VOD on May 29, 2020 at https://www.focusfeatures.com/the-high-note/on-demand/

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SUSPIRIA (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. After three artsy prestige projects (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE), Oscar nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decides to let his freak flag fly. And what better way than to pay homage to his fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 surreal cult classic that featured a blinding color palette, obtuse camera angles, and enough schlock-horror (in a good way) to remain a midnight movie favorite for more than 40 years? While both movies are B**S**T crazy, we can’t help but think a filmmaker of Mr. Guadagnino’s caliber should have done better.

Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) stars as Susie, a Bambi-eyed self-trained dancer raised in Ohio by her Mennonite parents. Following her dream, she shows up for an audition at the world renowned Markos Dance Company in Berlin. The film is set in 1977 (the same year as the original was released) and Susie sufficiently impresses the company director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) to be invited to join.

A title card informs us that we are about to undertake “Six Acts and an Epilogue set in divided Berlin”. It should have added the run time of two-and-a-half hours (it seemed longer). For those of us who would pay to watch Tilda Swinton in any role, this one does deliver bonus value. The enormously talented actress who has disappeared into numerous characters over the years, plays two other roles here – disguised by heavy make-up in both. The trade-off is that Ms. Johnson is the lead, so not only are we subjected to the limitations of her acting, but also camera-trickery when it comes to her dance scenes. A bushy bushy red hairdo conceals her face during the most physically demanding dance sequences … think Cousin It from “The Addams Family”.

An almost entirely female cast features some interesting choices from across generational and geographical boundaries. Angela Winkler and Ingrid Caven have long been familiar faces on the big screen, and Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine choices for the younger company members. As an added bonus, Jessica Harper appears in one segment towards the end. Ms. Harper played the lead role of Suzy in the original. Other fun comparisons between the two films are the original score by Goblin compared to the updated (and more serene) score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and the muted color palette chosen by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this updated version.

The reason there is an open spot in the company for Susie is that Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has disappeared after unloading her ‘coven of witches’ theory on an aged psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. Dr. Klemperer initially thinks the hysterical Patricia is delusional, and would prefer to wallow in his grief over his beloved wife Anke – missing since WWII. When Susie gets her shot at the lead in what is to be the company’s final performance of its most famous dance piece Volk, we get the film’s best sequence and one of a few WTF moments. A mirrored dance studio is the site of unexplained violence, and some terrific editing shoots us back and forth between art and mayhem. It’s difficult to watch but exceedingly well done.

Unfortunately, the truly bizarre and horrific moments are much too rare. In fact, some of the segments come off as unintentionally funny, which is not a good thing for a horror flick. The primal dancing never seems sensual, the bloodbath finale is too far over the top, and the political subtext with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group just never seems to fit. While watching this, a few films came to mind: BLACK SWAN, THE WICKER MAN, MOTHER!, and ROSEMARY’S BABY, though this one doesn’t reach the level of any of those. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t lend itself to analysis or review, and it comes down to whether this is your cup of tea.

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A BIGGER SPLASH (2016)

June 5, 2016

a bigger splash Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said before that she is such a fascinating actress that I would probably buy a ticket to watch Tilda Swinton just stand on stage. In her latest collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009), Ms. Swinton’s character remains mostly silent, save a few well placed whispers and one uncontrollable outburst, and she is certainly worth the price of that ticket.

Adding to the movie fun here is a script by David Kajganich adapted from Alain Paige’s story that was the basis for the 1969 film La Piscine. Ms. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a glam rock singer (think 60’s-70’s David Bowie) who has gone on holiday to recover from throat surgery. She is accompanied by her photographer/filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the couple has sought seclusion and serenity on the picturesque Italian island of Pantalleria in the Strait of Siciliy. They spend their time sunbathing (European style) and enjoying intimacy in the swimming pool at the stunning compound they have rented.

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if things went according to plan. Blowing into town like the upcoming sirocco winds is Marianne’s former lover and former music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), along with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Showing up uninvited adds to the palpable underlying tension – which only gets thicker as the layers are peeled back. In addition to the former relationship of Marianne and Harry, it turns out Harry and Paul were once close friends, and it’s only been in the last year that Harry found out Penelope is his daughter (and there’s even some doubt on this).

Fiennes’ Harry is the kind of annoying blow-hard we want to punch after about 5 minutes. He is unrelenting with his energy and motor-mouth approach to most every moment in life. In that same 5 minute span, we also figure out his not-so-subtle desire to win back Marianne. His Lolita-type daughter may or may not be part of his plan, but she surely has her own sights set on Paul. Over food, wine and swimming, we learn more and more backstory on each character, and it’s pretty obvious the beautiful bodies and faces are masking mountains of vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Ms. Swinton, despite her minimal dialogue, makes Marianne a captivating character – balancing the entitlement of a rock star with a desperate attempt to be normal. Mr. Schoenaerts brings his usual physicality and simmering emotional quiet to the role of Paul – a guy much less “together” than he would have us believe. Penelope is a good fit for Ms. Johnson, as she mostly lounges around the pool leering lustfully at Paul. But it’s Mr. Fiennes who rules the roost here with his appendage-flapping portrayal of the vulgar and vulnerable Harry – complete with Monty Python references, Mick Jagger dancing and au natural pool diving. It’s a different kind of role for Fiennes and one he clearly relishes.

It’s a film filled with lush visuals and fans (like me) of Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool will recognize the stylings of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Beauty abounds: the setting, the water, the clothes, and the house. Things do get a bit clunky in the third act with a minor sub-plot involving Tunisian refugees. Fortunately that doesn’t negate the many good things here … including a terrific and creative soundtrack featuring a couple of deep cuts from the Rolling Stones, Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire”, St. Vincent’s cover of “Emotional Rescue”, and even Robert Mitchum’s “Beauty is only Skin Deep”. It’s a stylish, ultra slow-burn emotional thriller that has a swimming pool shot somewhat reminiscent of the iconic one from Sunset Boulevard. If all of that is still not enough reason to buy that ticket … don’t forget about Ms. Swinton!

watch the trailer:

 

 


BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer: