LAND (2021)

February 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. In her 35 year career, Robin Wright has created many memorable big screen roles, including: Princess Buttercup in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), Jenny in FORREST GUMP (1994), and Antiope in the WONDER WOMAN franchise. She entertained many of us as the complex Claire Underwood in “House of Cards”, a series for which she also directed 10 episodes. However, this is Ms. Wright’s feature directorial debut, and she also stars in this introspective story from co-writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam.

City slicker Edee (Ms. Wright) decides to go “off the grid”. Through flashbacks we are able to intuit that she is grieving deeply, and both her therapist and sister (Kim Dickens) are concerned about her suicidal tendencies. Edee loads up a U-Haul trailer and in the ultimate sign of ‘dropping out of society’, she ceremoniously dumps her cell phone in a trash can. The road takes her to the Rocky Mountains region of Wyoming, where she plops down the money for a remote … extremely remote … rundown cabin with a breathtaking view. At this point, we question both her sanity and reasoning.

Through Edee’s visions we catch glimpses of a man and young child, whom we can assume are her husband and son. An unknown devastating family tragedy, and realization that therapy is not the answer, have driven her to the point of needing to be alone with her pain – to get away from people. Of course, the harsh reality is that she doesn’t know how to live off the land, and no “how to” book is going to teach her to chop wood, or hunt, trap and fish, much less survive the forces of nature. A visit from a bear ensures a shortage of supplies, and the brutal wintry cold combines to leave Edee wondering whether she will freeze to death before she starves to death.

Did she expect to die on this mountain or did she honestly think this life could rehabilitate her spirit to live? Would changing the view from skyscrapers to a majestic mountain range be enough to help her escape the darkness?  Well, we never really get the answers, thanks to the just-in-time arrival of a hunter named Miquel (Oscar nominated Demian Bichir, A BETTER LIFE, 2011), who, along with local nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) help Edee regain her health after near death.

Miguel and Edee forge a bond as he teaches her the realities of living off the land. They exchange very little dialogue, but it’s clear Miguel is dealing with his own form of suffering. He’s a very practical and patient man, and when teaching her how to trap, he states, “Eating squirrels is motivation to get a deer.” Can one person help another person re-discover the will to live? That’s really the message of the film. We may prefer to be alone with our grief, but it’s connecting with others that gives life meaning. As with Miguel and Edee, that connection may simply be someone “in my path”.

As you might imagine, the film looks beautiful as it bounces between the immediacy of Edee in a cabin, and the vastness of the mountain vistas. Long-time cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (ARLINGTON ROAD, 1999) makes sure we experience the overwhelming beauty of nature (Alberta as a stand in for Wyoming), as well as its overwhelming danger. With minimal dialogue, much of the story is told through the nuanced physical acting from two pros, Ms. Wright and Mr. Bichir. Humor is injected through the use of Tears for Fears song, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and though it’s kind of a running gag, the song’s lyrics are spot on. There is no magic cure for disabling grief, but the dream of self-discovery by getting “one with nature” can be idealistic without proper guidance. As the film relays, the best path is more likely to be a fellow human being simply doing the right thing.

Opens in theatres on February 12, 2021

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THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)

December 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Screenwriter Mark L Smith has described his adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, “Good Morning, Midnight”, as a cross between the Oscar-winning GRAVITY (2013) his own THE REVENANT (2015, nominated for 12 Oscars). It’s a lofty comparison, and unfortunately, one that doesn’t prove out. Two-time Oscar winner George Clooney takes on the dual role of director and lead actor, and it’s his first movie role since 2016’s MONEY MONSTER.

Clooney plays Dr Augustine Lofthouse, a renowned scientist, and the only one staying behind as everyone else evacuates the Arctic Observatory after some unspecified “event” as left the earth uninhabitable. Augustine has a terminal disease (also unspecified) and evidently decides to stay behind because he likes drinking alone and self-administering blood transfusions. The drinking alone fun ends when he “finds” a stowaway young girl named Iris (Caiolinn Springall in her first film) and must assume the role of father-figure. To complicate matters, Iris doesn’t speak.

It’s 2049, and the film cuts between 3 storylines. While Augustine and Iris and working on a survival plan, we get flashbacks to a time when he was a younger scientist (played by Gregory Peck grandson Ethan Peck) and sacrificing a relationship with Jean (Sophie Rundle, “Peaky Blinders”) to focus on his career. The third story occurs simultaneously with Augustine and Iris, and involves Aether, a manned spacecraft on a years long mission to determine if Planet K23 can be inhabited by humans. The crew is commanded by Adewole (David Oyelowo, SELMA), and includes his partner, a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”), navigator Sanchez (Demian Bichir, THE HATEFUL EIGHT), and rookie astronaut Maya (Tiffany Boone, “Hunters”).

When Augustine learns of Aether and its route back to Earth, he takes it as his responsibility to inform them that they need a new plan. In order to do this, he and Iris must trek across the frozen Arctic tundra through a blinding snowstorm to reach the satellite equipment that will allow communication with Aether. This road trip through a whiteout allows for the best effects during the Augustine/Iris section. Aboard Aether, the crew is relatively non-descript, but there is a spacewalk segment that is quite something to watch thanks to the cinematography of Martin Ruhe. There is also a visually interesting segment featuring blood in zero gravity.

So what we have is a three-piece post-apocalyptic science-fiction space survival tale with a surprise twist that won’t surprise anyone. It’s likely meant as a warning about how we are destroying our planet, and global catastrophe may not easily be solved through space exploration. The film presents an interesting symmetry between the vast wasteland of Arctic winter vs the vastness of space … neither seem to have borders or boundaries, yet are fraught with dangers. If you pay much attention to the story, you’ll likely be disappointed; however, if you watch for the visuals, you should be fine.

Premieres on Netflix December 23, 2020

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

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DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

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A BETTER LIFE

July 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Surprisingly, this movie doesn’t choose sides in the political hot potato that is immigration reform. Instead, it plays as an intimate story of hope and desperation centered around the daily life of a father and son.

The father is Carlos (played by veteran actor Demian Bichir), an undocumented worker in Los Angeles who scrapes by working as a gardener and landscaper for another illegal immigrant. Carlos is raising a 15 year old son who was born in the U.S. They are alone because the mother bolted after discovering the high life available in this great country. Carlos, on the other hand, believes in work ethic and the bond of a handshake. His son Luis (Jose Julian) is fighting the daily battle of the streets – whether to join a gang for respect. Luis shows little outward respect for his hard-working father, who comes home sweaty and exhausted every day of the week.

 When Carlos’ boss approaches him about buying his truck and tools, Carlos first balks because he simply has no money, and he is intent on remaining “invisible”. In his case, a simple traffic stop would mean deportation and the loss of his son. After a night of pondering, he borrows the money from his sister and buys the truck. Carlos tells his son that things will soon be better – better house, better school, etc. Luis is dubious and offers little support.

The story takes a turn when the truck is stolen by a day worker whom Carlos was trying to help. If you have ever seen Vittorio de Sica‘s The Bicycle Thief, you will recognize some similarities. Father and son grow closer as they hunt for the thief. Luis sees his father’s thoughtful actions and has trouble processing his calculated methods. The youngster is more about lashing out to show power. It’s the only method he has seen at his school. Father knows best comes into play here.

 The film is interesting enough and the scenes with both father and son are exceptional. As a whole, the film seems a bit lacking as we really only get glimpses of the desperation and confusion that these two face every day – in completely different ways. It’s directed by Chris Weitz, who has an unusual resume which includes both Twilight: New Moon and About a Boy. His newest film really just reiterates what we already know about illegal immigrants. Some are here to milk the system, while others are here for ‘a better life’.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for a nice little story about a single dad and his struggle to provide a future for his son

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a fight on the topic of immigration reform.