SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

watch the trailer:

 

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TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:

 


INSIDE OUT (2015)

June 18, 2015

inside out Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1995 to be exact … Pixar revitalized and revolutionized the world of animated movies with the release of the first Toy Story. In the process, they sent our expectations soaring for each of their subsequent movies. Despite the pressure of such high standards, the creative geniuses at the studio have regularly thrilled and delighted us over the years with classics such as Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and Brave (2012). And beyond these, there have been a few true cinematic masterpieces – transcendent  films: Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010).  This most recent release unquestionably belongs in the latter group … it’s one for the ages (and all ages).

Genius and brilliance could be used to describe all aspects of this movie. It’s a technical marvel, a visual kaleidoscope of bright colors across the full screen, and most amazingly, it packs an emotional wallop with real life moments for adolescents and parents alike.

My comments will be brief because this is one you should experience for yourself – and probably more than once. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl who lives in Minnesota and loves her parents, her friends, and hockey. She is happy and well-adjusted. When the family relocates to San Francisco, broccoli on the pizza is only one of the challenges Riley must face. This change affects everything for her – no more friends, no more hockey, and a strained relationship with her parents.  At this point, you are probably saying “So what?  That’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”  And you are correct, except we have never seen it explained the way Pixar does.

We literally go behind-the-scenes of Riley’s brain and see the control panel of her emotions. There is a constant battle between Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and the ring-leader Joy (Amy Poehler). This is an exploration of emotions and memories, and the explanation has some scientific merit. Memories are depicted as marbles, and Riley’s favorite things are shown as islands (Sports Island, Friendship Island, etc). How emotions affect memories is the key point here, and especially how sadness is necessary and vital to our joy. Have you wondered why we forget our imaginary childhood friends (Riley’s is Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind)? Have you wondered why our memories change over time, and are impacted by our emotional state in any given moment? This animated gem will help you understand.

Director Pete Docter (the genius behind Up) has a daughter of his own, and he clearly “gets” the emotional changes brought on during the pre-teen years. His research, and that of co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, takes us on an adventure that should inspire much conversation between parents and kids. And even if it somehow doesn’t break the ice in every family, it will at a minimum help youngsters and parents better understand the link between emotions and memories … plus, they will probably share a good cry and a bunch of laughs along the way. Hats off (again) to the Pixar geniuses. I dare you to top this one!

***NOTE: you should also look forward to another Pixar tradition – the pre-movie short film. This one is a very unique short entitled Lava.

watch the trailer:

 


MAN OF STEEL (2013)

June 19, 2013

MOS1 Greetings again from the darkness. 75 years ago, the first Superman comic book was published. It would be quite challenging to find very many kids who have not imagined themselves as Superman at some point during that time. Numerous Superman re-boots have occurred in various media: comics, TV, movies, video games, toys, etc.; and the bigger the fan, the more etched in mind what the Man of Steel should look and act like. Woe to the filmmaker who doesn’t share that fan’s vision.

Enter director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer, and writer/producer Christopher Nolan. This cinematic triumvirate has been responsible for such comic based movie material as The Dark Knight franchise, 300, Watchmen, and Blade. Some of the criticisms of this most recent Superman presentation include a lack of fun, the absence of humor, no love story, too much backstory, an overabundance of action and CGI, and a hero that is much too MOS2serious … and that’s a list ignoring the outcry over the redesigned suit sans red briefs! As with anything, the closer to the heart, the less amenable to change folks become. At least no one is complaining about the lack of phone booths!

This movie has quite the balance of visual effects and backstory. It’s clearly designed to be the first in a series, and because of that, we get the foundation of Superman: the rare natural born baby on the planet Krypton – a planet speeding towards destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) executes his plan to save his newborn son Kal-El by rocketing him off to Earth. While that’s happening, General Zod (a raging, wide-eyed Michael Shannon) stages one of the most ill-timed coups ever … he tries to seize control of the dying planet. This opening sequence is filled with some of the biggest, loudest effects MOS3of the whole movie. It’s a jolting start that I wasn’t particularly fond of, but it’s obviously well done and with purpose.

Kal-El lands on earth and becomes known as Clark Kent, adopted son of Kansas farmers played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Most of Clark’s childhood is glimpsed through flashbacks of specific events, and serves the purpose of giving us a taste, while not delaying the appearance of Superman … though that name is only heard once (maybe twice). In an attempt to hide his powers, Clark becomes a drifter. However, it’s impossible to keep your superhero powers secret when you rescue a group of oil rig workers by walking through fire and using your super strength.

MOS5 Enter “Daily Planet” super-reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She’s good at her job and easily figures out the big secret. But rather than contact TMZ for a giant pay day, Lois understands that this may be something the world just isn’t ready to learn. Wise lady. The relationship between Lois and Clark is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of General Zod and his right hand lady-warrior (Antje Traue). See, Zod thinks he can takeover Earth and re-establish his Krypton roots … and Superman holds the key to his plan.

If you are a Superman fan, all of this makes perfect sense. If not, I suspect this movie will not hold much interest for you. If you are a fan of the 1978 version with the late, great Christopher Reeve, I would encourage you to keep an open mind. While that version flashed frivolous whimsy, this one is darker and more philosophical … more in line with what you might expect from an alien with super powers. Still, the subtle humor abounds here if you keep your eyes open. LexCorp references appear along with little touches that can bring a smile (12th ranked Kansas Jayhawks football??).

MOS4 The acting is superb throughout. Henry Cavill was the runner-up to Daniel Craig for the James Bond role, but he immediately stakes his claim to the Man of Steel. His overall look and amazing physique leave little doubt that he is Superman, and as a bonus, he is plenty of reason for the ladies to purchase a ticket. Hans Zimmer makes no attempt to one-up John Williams’ iconic score from the 1978 film, yet he makes his mark, especially during the action sequences. Be prepared as this one is heavy on the Sci-Fi angle, and there is also an interesting Jesus comparison that can be made (he is 33 years on Earth).

Doing the right thing has always been the recurring theme for Superman and this movie version helps us understand where the moral fiber was born … the hint is in the Royals shirt Clark wears. In addition to a terrific Smallville set, we get Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, a role which will surely be expanded in the sequel. It’s very interesting to see the Snyder, Goyer, Nolan vision, and if you are still clinging to 1978, you might find yourself asking … Why so serious?

**EDITORIAL NOTE: There has been much movie talk recently about the superhero overload and the over-the-top CGI onslaught.  “Too many explosions“.  “Too many special effects“. “No focus on the story“.  “Enough with the superheroes“.   While I certainly can understand that movie preferences may run 180 degrees from The Avengers, Iron Man, and Man of Steel, my response to these voices is two-fold.  First, movies are considered an art form, but never forget that it’s also a business.  The goal of a business is to turn a profit. When you look at the financial returns of the above mentioned movies, as well as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, one might allow a bit of leeway to Hollywood studios and producers. There are only so many legal ways to earn a half billion dollars, and superhero movies are on the short list.  My second response is to encourage the haters to accept the role of these blockbuster films, while continuing to seek out the more personal and intimate independent films that gain distribution. My personal taste in movies runs the gamut from Iron Man to Mud to Toy Story to the most recent documentaries. I am in awe of the wide variances and multi-talented people involved in movie making.  So while I may avoid the latest Kate Hudson rom-com, I do understand there exists a group of people who are giddy in anticipation.  Rather than expend negative engergy towards the blockbuster explosions, know that the billion dollar box office hit keeps a multitude of artists working.  And that’s a good thing.


SECRETARIAT (2010)

September 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Secretariat is legendary in the world of thoroughbred racing. Being a sports fan, it is always fascinating to witness domination by a singular athlete – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer. Secretariat was the Michael Jordan of racing. In 1973, Big Red dominated racing like no other.

What makes this even more amazing is that Secretariat is actually the second most interesting story … his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (played here by Diane Lane), was his match in competitive spirit. This Disney movie actually spends as much time on Ms. Tweedy as it does the fabulous horse.

Disney does what Disney does best. This is an all out feel-good, rah-rah movie in the vein of Seabiscuit, The Rookie, Rudy and even Hoosiers. Don’t expect in-depth analysis of the racing world, horse training or even horse farm operations. This movie is made to deliver a warm fuzzy via the perseverance of a strong-willed lady and an incredibly majestic animal.

Expect some over-the-top touches such as John Malkovich‘s portrayal of trainer Lucen Laurin, horse-whispering by Ms. Lane, and plenty of heart-string tugging as is customary from the fine folks at Disney. Expect historical facts to be treated a bit lax in some scenes (no mention of 1972 Derby winner Riva Ridge, also from the Chenery stables). Expect none of that to matter as this is a crowd-pleaser, not a documentary.

In addition to Mr. Malkovich and Ms. Lane, there is some fine support work from (former Senator) Fred Thompson, James Cromwell and Nelsan Ellis (so great as Lafayette in True Blood). Directed by Randall Wallace, whose most recent directorial effort was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, this is entertainment for all ages and an easy introduction to the champion that was Secretariat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy strong, smart female characters (Diane Lane, not Secretariat) OR you thought Seabiscuit should have won an Oscar

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to John Malkovich for fashion tips OR you think pari-mutuel betting is allowed at the cineplex