GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.

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A UNITED KINGDOM (2017)

February 23, 2017

a-united-kingdom Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes I just know immediately that I’m going to be out of touch with popular opinion on a movie, and this historical-romantic-biopic from director Amma Asante (Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is one of those times.

It’s a crowd-pleaser featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in a real life story with some similarities to last year’s Loving (the chronicle of Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial marriage). Mr. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a 1947 university student in London when we first meet him. Ms. Pike is Ruth Williams, a local Londoner working clerical at an insurance company when the two meet at a local dance. The attraction is immediate.

Not long after, Seretse discloses to Ruth that not only is he in love with her, but he’s also the King-in-waiting for Bechuanaland in Africa. The marriage is met with dissent from all fronts: family (racism), Seretse’s people (cultural and societal reasons), and Great Britain (mostly concerned with appeasing its ally South Africa and the growing notion of Apartheid). Seretse and Ruth believe their true love is strong enough to win over those dissenters. The backlash is much worse than anticipated.

A very cool element with the film is the use of the actual house Ruth and Seretse lived in, and the locals were more than willing to contribute. While the strength of these two individuals remains inspirational to this day, the film falters in a few ways. Both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are stuck playing British foils in the overwritten manner in which we would expect from a 1940’s movie on TCM. Again acknowledging my out of step opinion, Ms. Pike simply lacks the range for such a role. Her deer-in-the-headlights go-to facial expression is a slap to the courageous woman she is portraying. However, the biggest issue with the film is its lack of continuity … its choppiness, if you will. So many scenes abruptly end right as the substance is beginning. Multiple times we are left hanging, wondering why we don’t get to finish a conversation or finalize a conflict. There are some terrific moments that are torn apart by the numerous butchered scenes, though the strong performances of Oyelowo and Terry Pheto (Tsotsi) as his sister shine through.

This is a terrific and interesting piece of history that deserved a better film. In 1966, Bechuanaland gained its independence and became what’s known today as Botswana, and the story of Seretse and Ruth is one that needs to be told. Most viewers likely won’t be bothered by the things that irritated me, and that’s probably a good thing.

watch the trailer:

 


FIVE NIGHTS IN MAINE (2016)

May 1, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

5 nights Greetings again from the darkness. Every young filmmaker should be so fortunate to have Dianne Wiest and David Oyelowo accept roles in their first feature film. With what appears to be little more than an outline for a script, these two top notch actors bring the weight necessary to make us care about their characters … neither being especially likable.

Written and directed by Maris Curran, it’s a story of two people working through their grief and guilt, unable to share the burden due to their inability to get past their own feelings. When a woman dies in a car crash, her husband Sherwin (David Oyelowo) and mother Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) are both devastated. Sherwin tries to drown his depression with non-stop boozing, and ultimately accepts Lucinda’s invitation to visit her in rural Maine (a long way from his home in Atlanta).

The two have never gotten along with each other, and it turns out they each had a strained relationship with the now deceased wife/daughter. What follows are some uncomfortable dinners and conversations punctuated with much awkward silence … or cruelly pointed comments from cancer-stricken Lucinda. An unusually reserved and charming Rosie Perez is at her least obnoxious in the limited role of Lucinda’s nurse (and Sherwin’s confidante).

There are few things that waste more energy than a competition over who deserves to grieve more. In fact, Lucinda has a line where she states that being a parent brings out the worst in people … in this movie, that holds true for grieving as well. These two characters are not their best selves as they struggle to come to grips with the gaping hole that now exists in their lives.

“It should have been me” is not an uncommon thought for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one … especially if they are haunted by the past. The sub-plot of the marital battle over whether to have kids becomes much easier to understand as we get to know Lucinda. As talented as Ms. Wiest and Mr. Oyelowo are, it still would have been nice to have a tighter script, and director Curran could have backed off the relentless hand-held close-ups without sacrificing the solitude and intimacy. Beyond that, she does have some good insight into the process of mourning, and how so many people hold those emotions down deep.

film website:

http://www.fivenightsinmaine.com/

 


A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

January 14, 2015

 

a most violent Greetings again from the darkness. The tar pits of La Brea. Michael Corleone. These are the two things that come to mind as I grasp for descriptive terms to use for writer/director JC Chandor’s latest film. Picture a slow simmer never quite reaching the boiling point … that’s the designed tone here. It’s certainly not the period piece crime thriller that the trailer might have you poised for. In fact, there is more focus on marital communication than the criminal element so prevalent for the times.

In 1981, New York City was in the midst of an era filled with crime, corruption, violence and filth. Enter Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as a tough-minded, but idealistic owner of a heating oil business. Abel’s vision is to become the top oil distributor, and remain a really good guy in the process. When he tells his less-idealistic competitors to “have some pride in their work”, it’s good advice to an audience incapable of comprehending.  Despite regular violence and criminal activity against his drivers and trucks, Abel continues to deny he is at war … he truly believes if he can stay above the fracas, he can overcome the blight of his industry.

We never really see Abel have a good day. Even the high points are paired with hard knocks. A signed contract is followed by bank woes. A kid’s birthday party at the new house is interrupted by a search warrant. New market share is offset by a driver illegally defending himself. Each step Abel takes to realize his business vision is a potential land mine set by either his competitors or an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo). And those aren’t even his most animated battles. See, Abel has willed himself to extraordinary self-control. He never blows a gasket, even if the moment calls for it. The only exception to this is with his vicious business partner and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).

Anna grew up the daughter of a gangster … her dad once ran the business that she and Abel now run. Given the times, Anna takes a back seat to Abel and she handles the books, while he is the face of the business with banks, competitors and Teamsters. It’s not difficult to imagine a movie focusing on Anna rather than Abel, and a couple of times, she makes it quite clear that she views herself as the real backbone of the business – a much tougher leader than her doe-eyed husband.

Isaac and Chastain are exceptional here, and they both pull off very tough roles. Abel is a philosopher is a world of barbarians. He is the most polite angry person you have likely ever seen. Anna, on the other hand, is the pretty face masking a ruthless gangster. They each believe their own way is the best way. When Abel explains that ‘The result is known’, and that there is only ‘one path that is most right’, we immediately know he believes this and lives his life accordingly.

In addition to Isaac, Chastain and Oyelow, other actors deserve recognition for their work here: Albert Brooks is Abel’s consigliore, in a style reminiscent of his Drive character; Alessandro Nivola is the most frightening type of gangster – the quiet, powerful kind; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is outstanding in her only scene; Elyes Gabel captures the frustrated driver looking for hope; Peter Gerety is spot on as the Teamsters lead; and Jerry Adler is a most unusual Jewish business man.

The camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) helps make the style and story work. He films two of the most unusual chase scenes – one on foot across the highway, and another with a car and truck on railroad tracks and through a dark tunnel. Both are critical to story and character, and provide a stylistic flourish that pumps things up in a movie otherwise devoid of traditional action.

The story is captivating because of things that are intimated, rather than things that are said. A couple of other films set in this era are Prince of the City and Serpico, and though the tone and look may be familiar, Chandor’s approach is unique. It’s not difficult to imagine Oscar Isaac took his acting cues from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, and oddly enough, it’s possible to imagine him as Tony Montana in a Scarface remake! At the core of all of these characters … the American Dream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are wondering if something is “disrespectful” … Jessica Chastain will let you know!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting The Godfather or “The Sopranos” … this is the most gangster non-gangster movie I’ve seen

watch the trailer:

 


SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

watch the trailer:

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc