AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

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LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016)

April 29, 2016

louder than bombs Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just can’t “get over it”. Three years after a war photographer dies in a suspicious car accident, her husband and two sons find themselves in various states of emotional distress. Everyone deals with guilt in their own way, but these three seem to be doing anything and everything to avoid actually dealing with the emotional fallout.

Writer/director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31) delivers his first English-speaking film with an assist from co-writer Eskil Vogt and a terrific cast. As we would expect from Mr. Trier, it’s a visually stylish film with some stunning images … and the timeline is anything but simple as we bounce from past to present, and from the perspective of different characters (sometimes with the same scene).

The creativity involved with the story telling and technical aspects have no impact whatsoever on the pacing. To say that the film is meticulously paced would be a kind way of saying many viewers may actually get restless/bored with how slowly things move at times. Trier uses this pacing to help us experience some of the frustration and discomfort that each of the characters feel.

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother/wife in some wonderful flashback and dream-like sequences, while Gabriel Byrne plays her surviving husband. Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, and Devin Druid as Conrad are the sons, and as brothers they struggle to connect with each other … just as the father struggles to connect with each of them. In fact, it’s a film filled with characters who lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to others. It’s no mystery why they are each miserable in their own way. The suppressed emotions are at times overwhelming, and it’s especially difficult to see the youngest son struggle with social aspects of high school … it’s a spellbinding performance from Devin Druid (“Olive Kitteridge”).

Jesse Eisenberg manages to tone down his usual hyper-obnoxious mannerisms, yet still create the most unlikable character in the film … and that’s saying a lot. Mr. Byrne delivers a solid performance as the Dad who is quite flawed, and other supporting work is provided by David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The shadow cast by this woman is enormous and deep … and for nearly two hours we watch the family she left behind come to grips with her death and each other. It’s a film done well, but only you can decide if it sounds like a good way to spend two hours.

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THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2015)

March 5, 2015

second best exotic Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been about 4 years since the delightful first film, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, was a box office hit. My review of that film was the first time I used the phrase “gray cinema” – describing a growing genre specifically targeting the aging population. Neither director John Madden nor writer Ol Parker have had much going on since, and they re-team for this sequel that should satisfy most of the sure-to-return core audience.

Spirited and energetic hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) is back and has his sights set on expansion to a nearby second property. Most of the original residents are also back: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Lilette Dubey returns as Sonny’s mother, Tina Desai is now his fiancé, and Penelope Wilton resurfaces after dumping Bill Nighy in the first movie. New faces to the scene include Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn, along with a few other lesser, but effective supporting roles.

A similar extended pre-opening credit sequence is again utilized to catch us up on the status of the regulars. Maggie Smith is now co-managing the hotel. Judi Dench is a buyer of local fabrics. Bill Nighy is a willing, but inept tour guide. Celie Imrie is juggling two wealthy suitors. Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are working – at jobs and at a relationship. Mr Patel and Ms Smith take a business meeting to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Strathairn with a design on financing the second property. Mostly the trip is an excuse for Dame Maggie to crack wise about us uncultured Americans, and few can deliver a one-liner like this lady.

It’s also on this trip, where Patel’s character begins a change in tone. In the first movie, his character was eager, naïve, pleasant and charming. This time, his ambitious nature is over-the-top and actually quite annoying (by design yes, but still annoying). This single feature affects the pleasant nature and unnecessarily puts us on edge and prevents us from connecting with a key character.

What’s very clear is that this film misses the structure of Ms. Moggach’s novel, and the numerous sub-stories come at us so quickly that every character is mostly surface level with no real depth allowed. The best exchanges are between Ms Dench and Ms Smith (one being 19 days older than the other), while poor Mr Nighy is treated like a wounded puppy for much of the story. Also lacking is the cultural clash so prevalent in the first, and instead we witness a group that has acclimated to the surroundings preventing any real interesting conflict – though the colorful sights of town are still amazing to see. The “high-speed” tuk-tuk chase adds an element of humor, and of course we get the Bollywood-style dance number at the end of Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Despite the flaws, there are still plenty of laughs and loads of charm, and it’s certainly a pleasure to see a welcome response to the question “Is age a barrier to happiness?”. The actors and the setting make this an enjoyable two hours, though some may question the attempt at a deeper philosophical approach at the end.

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GODZILLA (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzilla Greetings again from the darkness. Sixty years after Godzilla made his initial screen appearance, we get a full blown Hollywood special effects blockbuster version that will eclipse the $100 million mark in its first weekend. This is director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film (Monsters, 2010) and he juggles the modern day re-imagining with the Japanese roots and a hand full of other tributes throughout.

The cast seems impressive: Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn. Unfortunately, most of these fine actors have little to do, and instead the dominant human presence (most every scene) is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who somehow keeps getting gigs despite lacking even a dollop of screen presence or acting ability. Of course, this movie is supposed to belong to Godzilla, and even he is usurped on screen time by two nuclear-feasting praying mantis creatures that share some attributes with the classic “Alien”. These screen hogs are called MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and are quite substantial … crushing skyscrapers by landing.

The 1954 original film was an anti-nuclear statement, though the re-edited U.S. version replaced the political statement with Raymond Burr. Mr. Burr also appeared in the 1984 sequel which included a storyline of feeding off a nuclear plant (borrowed in this year’s version). This film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston working at a 1999 nuclear plant is an unmistakable nod to the recent Fukushima disaster, and sets the stage for the collision of science (Watanabe) and military (Strathairn). Director Edwards clearly enjoys his Jaws-like teasing of Godzilla, who finally shows up after almost an hour. And despite the Jurassic Park roar by our titular monster, this doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s 1993 classic. We do get the quite familiar shots of bystanders running down the street, glancing back in fear – a must for any monster movie, and it should be noted that Godzilla films have a legacy of multiple creatures, as well as the man versus nature theme.

Having seen this one in 3D, I’ll mention again that the enhanced effects offered by this technology do not offset the darkened, dulled look. Add that to the almost total lack of color – it’s borderline Black and White – and there are simply too few breathtaking visual moments to consider this a monster classic.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a monster movie fan or a follower of the Godzilla legacy OR you need proof that a lead actor can be less engaging than Matthew Broderick was in the 1998 Godzilla film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe technological advances should produce a more visually stunning film than Jurassic Park from 21 years ago OR you happen to be a huge Juliette Binoche fan and expect to see her in a lead role.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ


THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

August 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Bourne series has often been viewed as the American version of James Bond … only more serious and with more action. Doug Liman directed the first, which was taken directly from the Robert Ludlum novel. Paul Greengrass then assumed control over the next two and added hyper-kinetic speed to the action sequences and focused on conspiracy theories, with a fascinating hero looking to take down a corrupt system. Involved in all three as a writer, Tony Gilroy (dir. Michael Clayton) takes over as director in this fourth entry. Unfortunately, the Bourne series is not similar to Bond, in that the directors and lead actors are not so easily replaced.

 With Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) present only on computer screens, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead as the next super-spy-weapon. When Pam Landy (Joan Allen) blows the lid off Treadstone in a Congressional hearing, the shady back office meetings lead to the decision to shut down the program. We all understand what that means … destroy the assets and lose the records. This decision is made by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, both new to the series.

The decision leads to a vicious scene featuring the always dependable character actor Zeljko Ivanek who almost completes his assignment, but misses out on Rachel Weisz (playing Dr Marta Shearing). Dr. Shearing is involved in the manufacturing of the “meds” that keep our super-spies and super strength and super intellect. Yes folks, our superheroes are roided-up! You have to hand it to Dr. Shearing – for a lab rat, she has a remarkable ability to stay alive despite being the target of many highly trained assassins. Of course, she does have a bit of help from Aaron Cross (Renner).

 Here is the real issue with the film. Instead of Bourne trying to bring down the corrupt system, this is really two hours of survival mode for Aaron Cross. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit as they face opposition on their castle storm “Run Away!, Run Away!”. Most of the first half of the film is spent with him in search of meds, like a common drug addict, and the second half is spent on a motorcycle chase that, while quite exciting, seems to go on forever.

As an action film, this one works just fine. The limited fighting and expanded chase scenes are well filmed and intense, it’s just that as a viewer, it really isn’t as much fun to cheer for someone who is running away as it is for someone (Bourne) looking to bring down a corrupt system. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we get brief appearances from series’ regulars Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine.

The hope is that this is just a placeholder in the series. It’s been five years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and hopefully, if the series continues, we will get Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat and Matt Damon teaming up with Jeremy Renner to wreak havoc on the true enemies of state. Otherwise, the American Bond ends up as nothing more than an action film with no real purpose.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Bourne series and are curious to see it without Matt Damon OR you simply enjoy a well made action film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the intricate conspiracy story line that put the Bourne series on the map

watch the trailer:


THE WHISTLEBLOWER

September 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Emotional exhaustion swept over me as this film came to an end. Based on the true experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, we see what a true hero is. She absolutely refused to turn away from the despicable actions of her co-workers and government officials.

Rachel Weisz delivers what is far and away her best performance yet. She captures the emotional complexity and strength that Ms. Bolkovac displayed. Some have stated she was conflicted, but I never saw that. I saw the character of a woman who had a clear understanding of right and wrong … and would settle for nothing less than “right”.

 Kathryn, a Nebraska cop, accepts a UN peacekeeping job in post-war Bosnia. Her spirit and strength is recognized, and rewarded with promotion, by Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave) who is director of the Human Rights Commission. It is in this job where she slowly uncovers the corruption and cover-up of sex trafficking of underage girls. Even more sickening is that this most profitable business is being run by the peacekeepers and law officers being paid to protect these citizens.

 It turns out that though Ms. Bolkovac was fighting for these human rights of these girls, she was also working diligently to expose the corruption of the private contractors hired to supply personnel in all aspects of recovery in countries such as Bosnia and Serbia. In her situation, the private contractor was DynCorp and she had no problem pulling back the curtain on the lack of training and control exhibited by this and other contractors.

Combine that with the frustrations in dealing with bureaucrats such as Monica Bellucci‘s character, it often feels as if Ms. Bolkovac is fighting a one woman crusade (with a little help from David Strathairn‘s character). When red tape (such as no passport for the abused girls) and diplomatic immunity become major players in fending off her efforts, we get the wonderful line “immunity not impunity”. That explains a great deal.

The film is directed by first timer Larysa Kondracki. Setting and tone are well captured, but the editing of many scenes left me somewhat distracted, but not to the point of annoyance. There is so much tension and exposure to despicable actions in this film that I found it difficult to relax afterward. The strength and courage of this woman will restore your faith in humanity and remind us we should never turn away from doing the right thing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you agree the “true story” element elevates the tension in a thriller OR you prefer your heroes to be real people rather than the comic book type

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have a weak constitution for the horrific actions of a few OR you are looking for light-hearted fare

watch the trailer: