LEAVE NO TRACE (2018)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like many more than 8 years have passed since filmmaker Debra Granik’s outstanding film WINTER’S BONE exploded onto the indie scene and introduced most of us to Jennifer Lawrence (although she had been acting for 5 years prior). The talented Ms. Granik has chosen to adapt another book as her feature film follow-up, and once again nature and an independent spirit play a key role. Based on the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, it’s the story of a father and daughter who live off the grid … until society catches up to them.

Ben Foster (always exceptional) plays Will, a war veteran and father to Tom, his teenage daughter played brilliantly by Thomasin McKenzie. The two live off the grid in the forests outside of Portland. An extended opening sequence with very little dialogue shows us their daily life: capturing rain water, cutting trees for firewood, hiding their camp site, and drilling on making themselves ‘disappear’ in the foliage. It’s in these scenes where cinematographer Michael McDonough shines. His camera work allows us to feel as if we are in the damp forest as the sun rays peek through the trees. It’s a beautiful sight despite our uneasiness towards the father-daughter situation.

When Park Rangers discover them, the two enter the Social Services system, but rather than treat us to yet another uncaring and incompetent bureaucracy, director Granik allows human kindness and reasonableness to play its part. Will and Tom are moved onto a farm where she will enroll in school and he will work on a Christmas tree farm. Of course, we know that Will is not cut out for this life, though we begin to see Tom show signs of true independence and her own dreams.

They make their way back into the woods and an injury – and more human kindness – has them end up in a camp with other outliers. The story really captures the conflict between a society that is obligated to educate and protect children, and the same society that has little clue how to assist veterans of war. We see folks who just want to be left alone, and others who maybe can’t fit in to society – or have no interest in trying.

Supporting work is provided by Dana Millican, the great Dale Dickey, and Isiah Stone (one of the kids from WINTER’S BONE). There is a believability here rarely seen on the big screen, and the love between father and daughter is something to behold. Ms. Granik says so much by saying very little, but what could be such a bleak story actually revels in the kindness to fellow man – the type of kindness which seems all too rare these days.

watch the trailer:

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HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

watch the trailer

 

 

 


IRON MAN 3 (2013)

May 5, 2013

iron man1 Greetings again from the darkness. My initial reaction upon seeing this opening day was that some fanboys are not going to be happy. Of course, this happens every time Hollywood makes changes to the original comic book material in hopes of attracting massive box office numbers. While I recognize many of the “flaws”, I found this to be an interesting and entertaining turn on the Tony Stark/Iron Man series.

Shane Black was brought in to direct and help write the script. Mr. Black is best known for his crackling buddy dialogue in movies like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Robert Downey Jr), but doesn’t have significant directorial experience (his most recent effort was KKBB 5 years ago). My belief has always been that what sets this franchise apart is Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. A wiseiron man4-cracking billionaire playboy technology and mechanical genius searching for his true identity. Mr. Black re-focuses the story on Stark. In fact, he basically takes everything away and has him start over.

Regardless of the story, many line up for these movies to see the special effects and the bad guys. The special effects are everywhere … and loud … and massive. The trailer shows a clip of Stark’s Malibu mansion being destroyed, but the entire segment is quite impressive. The number of Iron Man suits seems unlimited at times and the big finale gave me the same feeling of a 4th of July fireworks display when it ends with so many clumps of fireworks being fired at once, that the impact is dulled. As for the bad guys, The Mandarin is one of the most fierce opponents faced by Iron Man in the comics. His portrayal here by Ben Kingsley is a blast to iron man2watch, but will undoubtedly upset the true fanboys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a demented mastermind, once snubbed by Stark – in a scene we witness in flashback.

My preference here is to focus on the fun elements since that’s clearly what Marvel and Black are shooting for. Jon Favreau directed the first two entries in the franchise and here takes on a slightly bigger acting role as head of security for the Stark corporation … and he provides some comic relief. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally gets to do more than roll her eyes, but she still has her damsel in distress moments. Don Cheadle returns as Col. Rhodes … or War Machine … now re-branded as Iron Patriot, but mostly he is just waiting for his own movie. Rebecca Hall has some screen time as a smart woman who is not so wise in her choosing of partners. No comment. Ty Simpkins plays Harley, a country boy who helps Stark in his time of need. James Badge Dale, Miguel Ferrer, William Sadler, and Dale Dickey all have strong moments, but therein lies what may be the film’s biggest weakness.

iron man3 It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch … giant visuals, really good actors and quick, witty dialogue. But there seems to be an overload of each of these things. Guy Pearce’s character is woefully underdeveloped. I so wanted more of his backstory and motivation. Same with Harley, the boy. Much could have been done with that. Miguel Ferrer, always a worthy opponent, must have had his best scenes left in editing. The scene with Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr, may have been the best in the movie simply because we got a real peak at each of these character’s personality. That’s way more fun that another explosion!

The film pummels us with action, probably has too much Tony Stark and too little Iron Man for the fanboys, throws in a hard-to-swallow sub-plot regarding Anxiety issues for Stark (thanks to his Avengers escapades), and underutilizes Guy Pearce in what could have been a world class evil doer. Still, despite all of that, it’s fun to watch and Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man!

*NOTE: the expected Stan Lee cameo occurs during the Beauty Contest scene (he plays a judge)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the Iron Man franchise … it delivers what we want and what we expect

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something wildly different from the first two Iron Man movies – the tweaks are minor and mostly effective

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV8H7kszXqo


BEING FLYNN (2012)

March 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having done no research to determine how closely Nick Flynn’s autobiography/memoirs entitled “Another Bull**** Night in Suck City” follows his real life, it is safe for me to say that there is some pleasure to be had from a movie that lacks the traditional Hollywood ending of redemption for rotten souls. We do know that in real life, as in the movie, Nick met his long-lost father while working at a homeless shelter. This happened after Nick’s mother committed suicide.  Not exactly the most cheerful start, eh?

This story will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has experienced abandonment by a parent (or two). Hopefully, your personal story doesn’t also include the alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the guilt of believing you were responsible for the loving parent’s suicide. Nick’s story does.  He makes no apologies for the behavior of himself or either of his parents.  He just lays it out for us to see.

Nick is played well with an almost detached passive aggressiveness by Paul Dano. He seems constantly numbed by the situation life places him in. Astonishment kicks in when he comes face to face with his father Jonathan, a self-proclaimed brilliant writer, but also con artist and racist. Jonathan, played by Robert DeNiro, is first seen as a taxi driver. Yes, Robert DeNiro as a taxi driver, almost 40 years after his iconic turn in Taxi Driver! It’s a startling image for a movie lover, but one that doesn’t last long. Jonathan loses that job as he has lost everything else.

 Nick’s internal battle is obvious. He doesn’t want to be his father, but constantly sees glimpses that they are more similar than he would prefer. Nick manages to mess up a good thing with his co-worker played by the terrific Olivia Thirlby. She experiences the frustration of trying to save someone who doesn’t really want to be saved.

Strong support work comes from Wes Studi, Dale Dickey, William Stadler, Lili Taylor (Nick Flynn‘s real life wife) and Julianne Moore. Ms. Moore plays Nick’s mother, but really has little to do. Though she provided a strong foundation for Nick, this is really the story of Nick and Jonathan. It’s DeNiro’s best dramatic work in years and is a reminder that he is capable of more than the “Focker” movies (Paul Weitz actually directed Being Flynn AND Little Fockers, as well as About a Boy and American Pie.  This one can’t be termed enjoyable, but it is an interesting look at “real” life without a Hollywood twist.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have forgotten (or never knew) that Robert DeNiro is an accomplished dramatic actor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: bleak, dysfunctional family dramas are not your preference for springtime fare

watch the trailer: