THE PROFESSOR (2019)

May 16, 2019

(aka RICHARD SAYS GOODBYE)

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cancer comedies are few and far between, and that’s understandable since the often deadly disease brings with it so much suffering and sadness. Writer-Director Wayne Roberts pulls no punches. The opening scene finds a doctor breaking the dreaded diagnosis to a patient … lung cancer. The patient, a college professor named Richard, is told he has 6 months to live.

The cold opening has us questioning if this is truly a comedy – even though the opening scene professor-patient is played by Johnny Depp. The news hits him hard of course, and we can see his mind spinning as he works out his approach and acceptance. What follows are some quite awkward and uncomfortable scenes with both his class and his family – a wife Veronica (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). Both of the women in his life usurp is announcement with those of their own: Veronica is having an affair with the Chancellor of the college where Richard works, and Olivia discloses that she is a lesbian. The two dinner time announcements and Richard’s still held secret are integral to every scene that follows.

Six title chapters clue us in on each subsequent phase in Richard’s life, and the key is that he tosses conventions aside and tries to find meaning in life … all while facing his own mortality. On one hand, Richard does what a professor does – he teaches. His small group of students are privy to such insight into life as “it ends in death for everyone”. On the other hand, he experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experiences, including a couple of episodes with students – something that should never happen.

Ron Livingston is perfectly cast as the somewhat slimy Chancellor who is sleeping with Richard’s wife, but it’s Zoey Deutch and Danny Huston whose characters generate a bit more substance in Richard’s life. Ms. Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson and a star in the making) plays Claire, a student who seems to quickly “get” what her professor is going through. And Mr. Huston gives one of his best performances in years as Richard’s long-time friend Peter who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.

With all of the fantastical characters he has played (often masked in make-up and costumes), we sometimes forget what terrific dramatic acting ability Johnny Depp possesses when he’s engaged. For those who only know him as Captain Jack Sparrow (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies), or as Grindewald (the “Fantastic Beasts” films), or as the Mad Hatter, Tonto, or Willy Wonka, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with his turn here (or in BLACK MASS, FINDING NEVERLAND, or BLOW).  Filmmaker Wayne Roberts offered up an excellent debut in 2017 with KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, and he follows that with this unusual look at mortality – including a “celebrate life” soliloquy.

watch the trailer:

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STAN & OLLIE (2019)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.

The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.

It’s this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.

As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.

The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced – alongside Ollie’s physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie’s heart condition finds the two mimicking their “hospital” skit in real life … it’s a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.

John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it’s difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.

Director Baird’s film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it’s a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks “easy”. This is what’s meant by honing the craft … even if it’s “another fine mess” accompanied by the trademark “Dance of the Cuckoos” music. Let’s hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol’ days of Classical Hollywood.

watch the trailer:


ALL I SEE IS YOU (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Marc Forster has crafted a career of making movies that are readily watchable, though for the most part, not especially memorable. These include: FINDING NEVERLAND, STRANGER THAN FICTION, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, WORLD WAR Z, and his best film, MONSTER’S BALL (2001). His latest falls short of those, but thanks to Blake Lively and some creative visuals, we remain interested enough.

This is Ms. Lively’s follow up to last year’s surprise summer hit THE SHALLOWS, her nearly one-woman sea-based spectacle. This time out she does an admirable job of carrying the film in spite of script flaws. It’s co-written by Sean Conway and director Forster, and despite teasing some fascinating psychological aspects, we find ourselves constantly waiting for the movie to show us what we already know is about to happen. Predictability is rarely an asset for a film, and here it acts as a ball and chain to the pacing.

The first third of the film works to establish two things: what Gina’s (Lively) daily life is like as a blind person, and the type of relationship she and her husband (Jason Clarke) have. We get an abundance of distorted light flashes to simulate what she has lived with since the car accident that took away her parents and her vision during childhood. Her marriage finds her very dependent on her husband and Clarke’s character thrives on this … even giving brief glimpses of his demented personality that will eventually take over the film in the final act.

Gina’s doctor (Danny Huston) performs a transplant which successfully restores her vision. The bulk of the story revolves around the changes that vision brings to her life and how the marriage begins disintegrating. The best message here is what happens to a relationship as the individuals change and evolve. Specifically in this case, the wife gains an entirely new perspective, while the husband longs for the days where she was dependent on him.

At times it feels as if director Forster is working hard to create the look and feel of an experimental movie, rather than focusing on the story. There are some interesting visuals provided by locations and camera angles, although the moody atmosphere never really clicks. Ms. Lively singing “Double Dutch” provides an ending that is both odd and mesmerizing in a strange way. We are reminded that evil and self-centeredness can take on many forms, though this film never quite packs the dramatic punch it might have.

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BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE CONGRESS (Le Congres, France, 2014)

April 13, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

congress Greetings again from the darkness. As a fan of director Ari Folman’s Oscar nominated Waiting for Bashir (2008), I was excited to see this one on the line-up at Dallas International Film Festival. While some will find The Congress a bit messy and difficult to follow, it certainly reinforces Folman’s innovative and creative approach to story telling and filmmaking.

The first half of the movie is live action and the second half is animated. The best description I can offer is as a social commentary, not just on Hollywood, but society as a whole. While Her makes the case for virtual relationships, this movie makes the case for virtual everything else! Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an aging movie star who is offered a chance to stay young and be popular forever. Just sign this contract, and Miramount Studios owns your complete public image. No more acting, just kick back and enjoy your money … and watch what we do with your image and career.

The cast is very strong, but the movie has a feeling of having been rushed through production … at least from the live action side. In addition to Ms. Wright, Danny Huston chews some scenery as a cut throat studio head. His blunt description of Ms. Wright’s “bad choices” since The Princess Bride speak to not only many actors, but for many in the audience as well. Harvey Keitel plays the agent, Jon Hamm appears through voice only in the animated sequence, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) plays Wright’s son and central plot figure, and Sami Gayle plays his sister. Paul Giamatti appears in both live action and animated form as the family doctor.

Some will be reminded of A Scanner Darkly, and others of Cool World. The best this movie has to offer is not in its (creative) presentation, but rather in its ability to provoke thought about the look of future society and the impact of technology … as well as the whole issue of identity and what makes us who we are. It’s a brain-scrambler if you stick with it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


HITCHCOCK (2012)

December 5, 2012

hitch Greetings again from the darkness. Here goes: John J McLaughlin wrote this Hitchcock screenplay based on Stephen Rebello‘s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”, which was based on the filming of the Psycho screenplay from Joseph Stefano, which was loosely based on Robert Bloch’s book, which was based on the grizzly real life crimes of Ed Gein. Whew!

It’s kind of interesting that Alfred Hitchcock is hot again some 36 years after his final movie.  His Vertigo recently displaced Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest film. HBO is still running their recent production of The Girl, which is based on Hitchcock’s making of The Birds and his unhealthy connection to Tippi Hedren. And now, we get this Hollywood production, supposedly based on the master of suspense. I say supposedly, because this film plays like it was written by the heirs of Alma Reville, Hitch’s long time wife and collaborator. We all knew she worked on his films and hitch2contributed ideas, but the film wants us to believe she was the real genius behind the public genius.

The movie is entitled “Hitchcock” and is based on the making of Psycho, but in fact, it’s more the story of Alma and her husband. While there is nothing wrong with that story … in fact, it is quite interesting and entertaining … it’s also a bit of false advertising.

Helen Mirren portrays Alma, and instead of the mousy woman who usually faded into the background, we see a fairly strong and talented woman who goes toe-to-toe with Hitch in her best scene. Sir Anthony Hopkins dons some facial appliances and a fat hitch3suit and does a solid job of capturing the odd, creepy, leering, disturbed, insecure genius we recognize as Alfred Hitchcock. He comes across as louder and more in-motion than what we have previously seen. And while director Sacha Gervasi makes it clear that Hitch is not a “normal” guy, he doesn’t dwell too much on the blond fixations.

The emphasis on the skills and importance of Alma would be fine were it not so exaggerated. Surely every great director and writer and artist has a muse and/or support system; and, there is no question Alma was a very talented lady, but her strength here bordered on distracting to the overall picture. Especially needless was the storyline of Alma being attracted to screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote Strangers on a Train for Hitchcock.

hitch4 The Hitchcock humor is allowed to shine through (“call me Hitch, hold the cock”) and his battles with Paramount Studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) and the censorship board (Kurtwood Smith) are excellent. Hopkins finds the humanity under the fat suit and is especially good in his work with Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh) and Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles). I also got a kick out of James D’Arcy as the affected Anthony Perkins and all his quirky mannerisms.

Though this barely qualifies as a story on the making of Psycho, it was chilling to watch the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score added to the shower scene. In fact, Danny Elfman does a nice job of subtly adding a Herrmann-type score to this film. I’m not sure if the film will play well with all Hitchcock aficionados, but if you can forgive the Alma slant, it’s actually quite interesting and entertaining and kind of a sweet film at its core.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock took personal advice from serial killer Ed Gein OR you want to see two great actors (Mirren, Hopkins) having a really good time OR you want to see Scarlett Johansson play Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect to learn much about the making of Psycho

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rQuRLERl6A


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system