mother! (2017)

September 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Him. Mother. Man. Woman. When those are the identifiers of the four main characters (none have a real name), one might assume that the filmmaker is lazy. However, after watching the latest from the psycho-creative force known as Darren Aronofsky, we understand that names weren’t necessary, and even if they had been, he was probably too mentally exhausted from finding ways to torture those characters and confound the viewers.

The first half of the film is discomforting and creepy while the second half is downright crazed and deranged. You won’t find many story details in this review, as the fun is in the shock. Most of the film is through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence, and we share her confusion and disoriented state. She is married to a famous poet played by Javier Bardem (yes, the age difference is acknowledged). While she spends her days refurbishing their stunning country home, he battles severe writer’s block. Needless to say, their domestic bliss goes wrong … but it’s not the kind of wrong we’ve ever seen before.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (both Oscar nominees) confine us in excruciatingly tight shots resulting in further disorientation and claustrophobia through most of the film. By the time we get a single wide shot of the home’s exterior, we’ve just about given up hope. And once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, we kick into full ROSEMARY’S BABY mode … only more frenetic and hyper.

It should be noted that it’s not a traditional horror film – heck, it’s hardly a traditional film at all. It’s built on confusion, and metaphors abound. Aronofsky seems intent on causing endless post-viewing discussions and debate over what it “means”. A case can be made for commentary on ego, fame, Mother Nature, deity/religion, and a sign of the times – the entitled “takers” of the world. The most obvious explanation is that the price paid for creativity is quite dear, and often causes a release from reality. There is a vicious cycle occurring here and our realization happens after the crescendo of insanity that is the film’s peak.

WTF moments are too many to count, and Ms. Lawrence pulls off what has to be the roughest on screen pregnancy we’ve seen. It’s a real treat to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in form after being out of the spotlight for four years. The score from Johan Johannsson is remarkable and there are ground-breaking visual effects (easy to miss during the audacious, frenzied second half action). Aronofsky is clearly provoking us, though it’s abundantly unclear to what end. His previous twisted, mind-benders include REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and BLACK SWAN … both of which seem like mainstream family fare in comparison. This is a love it or hate it project, and most will likely fall into the latter. But for those who embrace the deranged and audacious, the love will be everlasting.

watch the trailer:

 

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RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

watch the trailer:

 


RUN ALL NIGHT (2015)

March 13, 2015

run all night Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine if Liam Neeson’s burned out Air Marshall from Non-Stop was instead a one-time mob hit man who had seen better days. That seems to be the inspiration for director Jaume Collet-Serra’s film (yes, he directed Non-Stop as well). When a guy is a drunken mess with no family who speak to him and only one friend – his old mob boss – a nickname like The Gravedigger tends to conjure better days of yore.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, the has-been hitman whose only remaining friend is boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). These days, Conlon expends more effort emptying a glass than fulfilling a contract.  Shawn respects their history and does all he can to protect his long-time friend who seems intent on boozing himself to death. As is customary in these “crime doesn’t pay” films, things get really messed up in the blink of an eye. Thanks to a wrong place at the wrong time moment, Conlon protects his own son (Joel Kinnaman) by shooting Maguire’s misguided son (Boyd Holbrook). Thus endeth the friendship.

The script is from Brad Ingelsby who wrote the original script for Out of the Furnace (2013), but most of it is pretty predictable. Still, with an excellent cast and some wildly creative camera work from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, The American), this one offers plenty on the entertainment scale. The restaurant scene where Harris and Neeson face off is alone worth the price of admission.

As you might expect, there is plenty of gun play and swagger, but as the title suggests, mostly it’s a game of running and being chased … featuring a crazy car chase. Neeson has an extended public bathroom fight scene with Holt McCallany, and the detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio continues his decades long pursuit of Neeson’s character. Bruce McGill plays Harris’ right-hand man and Common is a steely new age hit man. Kinnaman’s wife is played by Genesis Rodriguez, and the film’s most bizarre scene features a grizzled Nick Nolte – you will find yourself asking “is that him or not?”

Mr. Collet-Serra has directed Unknown and Non-Stop, so Neeson is quite comfortable working with him, and you should certainly know what to expect going in. The friendship between two mobsters ends the way most do, and it’s another take on the blood family vs mob family loyalties. The Gravedigger may have one foot in his own grave, but he also has enough left for one wild night.

watch the trailer:

 


CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 

 


GRAVITY (2013)

October 9, 2013

gravity1 Greetings again from the darkness. Gravity is a visually stunning film that creates a you-are-there-in-space feeling unlike any other.  That said, hopefully you aren’t expecting yet another in the seemingly endless stream of unadulterated praise fests for Alfonso Cuaron’s critically beloved and audience pleasing film. While the mass appeal is certainly understandable, I’ve never been one to sit back and accept the surface value.

There are two elements for discussion here: the visually stunning and technical marvel from a filmmaking perspective, and the emotionally-manipulating and somewhat emptiness of the narrative story-telling and characters. On the technical front, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive film. It is simply breath-taking, gravity2especially when seen in the format it should be seen … 3D IMAX. Rarely, if ever, has space seemed more real, more beautiful and more ominous. From the extended opening take (Cuaron is known for his long takes), to the numerous shots of Planet Earth (from dominating the screen, to reflections in helmet shields), we are drawn in to the space walking and perils of Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  Even Carl Sagan and his “pale blue dot” musings would admire these space-based visuals of our home planet.

From an entertainment viewpoint, the film works as a high-stress, thrilling space mission gone bad and ultimate survival story. What left me feeling a bit distracted and hence, quite annoyed, was the often eye-rolling dialogue seemingly designed to force our connection with the Clooney and, especially, Bullock characters. I prefer to experience my own emotions in both real life and in movies … obvious cues and manipulating tugs through weak character development drives me away from, rather than towards the desired connectivity. My issues with the film are not related to the numerous scientific issues identified by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. This is all explained away by Mr. Cuaron’s statement that the film is “not a documentary“. If we can be cool with Forrest Gump creating the smiley face, we can accept that Sandra Bullock can navigate her way between space stations with a fire extinguisher.  What I can’t be cool with are cheap writing ploys that tell me I must feel a specific emotion at a particular time for a certain character.

gravity3 Despite this, it’s tough to argue against the technical marvel and thrilling (computer generated) experience created here. The 3D adds depth of field and adds a touch of realism, rather than the gimmicky tricks we often see with the format. With only a couple of jarring exceptions, Steven Price’s score is minimal and complimentary to the quietness of space. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) re-teams with Cuaron for the extraordinary look (with probably numerous technical Oscars on the way). Some of the symbolism was a bit overdone – recurring umbilical imagery for the re-birth, but it’s done to ensure no viewer misses the point. Finally, I got a kick out of Ed Harris’ voice coming from Mission Control (think back to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13).

I would encourage you to seek out the largest screen with the best sound … 3D IMAX is greatly preferred.  Yes, it will cost you more than you should pay for a movie ticket, but the payoff is significant.  This one won’t be the same on your ipad or even your home theater system. It’s the first step forward in movie technology since Avatar.  If you can sit back and let the movie guide you, perhaps you will avoid the frustrations I experienced.

**NOTE: Although many critics have already proclaimed this the best picture of the year and are saying Sandra Bullock is a shoe-in for Best Actress, I will not be onboard with either.  I found it fascinating and would even label it a “must see”, but truly great movies have characters and stories that draw me to them.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have access to a theater with a huge screen and great sound system – preferably 3D IMAX

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you miss its theatrical run … watching it on your laptop or ipad 6 months from now will be time wasted

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgGPTa7-vlE

 


GAME CHANGE (2012)

March 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. One sided films can be made about race, gender, religion, occupations and hobbies. One sided films about politics, however, tend to wreak as much havoc as the actual politics. HBO’s latest from director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong (the team behind Recount) is based on the bestseller from political writers Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Just as the book did, the film will bring enjoyment and confirmation to the left wingers and much pain and anger to the staunch right wingers … at least those who are unable, even 4 years later, to view the story with a hint of objectivity.

I am not here to debate the political sides of the story, but rather to address how it is presented. The thing that really stands out are the Emmy-caliber performances of Ed Harris (as John McCain), Julianne Moore (as Sarah Palin) and Woody Harrelson (as Steve Schmidt). McCain comes across as a man with true ideals and integrity, who gets caught up in the ambitious push to become President. Palin is presented as the “high risk, high reward” gamble that initially pays dividends, but ultimately backfires. Schmidt is really the key to the story as the campaign strategist who accurately reads the climate, but then fails to do his homework before turning in his assignment.

 The story follows the evolution of the Palin story. McCain’s campaign needs a “WOW” factor and the Alaska Governor provides an energetic, charismatic woman who quickly captures the imagination of the public and media. She then fades under the pressure of being separated from her family, having family secrets publicized, and most crucially, her lack of depth on basic foreign and domestic issues. The note-card budget for this movie must have set a record.

We get a peek behind the curtain of a Presidential campaign, and see the shock on the faces of Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson) as they realize too late just what they are dealing with in Palin. It was painful enough to watch what was presented to the public during this actual campaign, but to see what was going on behind the scenes is pure agony.

 Where the movie does its best work is in capsulizing what really happened in this 2008 campaign. We hear Schmidt ask, do you think the people want a “Statesman” (McCain) or a “Celebrity” (Obama)? That really is the key observation on the race. One candidate lacked real a connective personality, but fought for his country and served more upon his return. The other had few accomplishments, but had a dynamic personality that drove him to quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. McCain mentions “the dark side of the American populism“.  Schmidt understood the need for celebrity and poof … Palin appeared!

The last segment of the film provides a glimpse into the power-hungry, or at least celebrity-enjoying phase of Sarah Palin, and it looks like that persona is still going strong four years later. Even at this stage of the primaries, she mentions that she is open to being President.  The film does provide some insight into the pressures of managing a campaign on the highest stage and I found it quite interesting … even though I had to relive the chagrin I felt as each layer was peeled back on Palin in 2008.

watch the trailer:


BASEBALL MOVIES: Readers Poll Results

October 26, 2011

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” —Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

Thanks to all of you who particpated in the Readers Poll for Favorite Baseball Movies. Although I sensed a minor conspiracy amongst women voters, the final results were pretty close to other published baseball movie lists.  I won’t name names, but the most creative write-in votes were for The Untouchables – noting the scene where Al Capone makes use of a Louisville Slugger, and Touching Home – a vote based, I believe, solely on the blue eyes of Ed Harris.

FINAL RESULTS

1. THE NATURAL

2. FIELD OF DREAMS

 

 

 

 

3. (tie) BULL DURHAM

 

 

 

 

  (tie) A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. MAJOR LEAGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t go wrong with any of the Top 5 as they are all quite entertaining. On the list are a few laugh out loud moments, some high baseball drama, a touch of historical significance, and a heavy shot (or two) of melodrama.

One of the frustrating things about baseball (and most sports) movies is that no matter how talented an actor might be, it’s very difficult to look like you can play the game if you really can’t.  Still, it’s the game, and the memories it creates that have such a grip on us.  Whether playing a pick-up game with our buddies (The Sandlot), watching our team play that magical season (Angels in the Outfield) or simply playing catch with dad (Field of Dreams), most of us carry a connection to the game of baseball and a corresponding special memory. That’s why there are more movies about baseball than football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis combined.  It truly is the great game.

If you are interested in going a little deeper into the baseball vault, allow me to recommend a few that often get overlooked.

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949) – comedy about a scientist who discovers a substance that makes baseballs repel wood. It stars Ray Milland and Jean Peters (who became Mrs. Howard Hughes)

THE WINNING TEAM (1952) – the comeback story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, starring Doris Day and Ronald Reagan.  Yes, the same Mr. Reagan who would go on to become Governor of California and President of the United States.

THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS and MOTOR KINGS (1976) – comedy about a barnstorming Negro League team from the 1930’s featuring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones and directed by John Badham

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) – the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox) scandal. It features a couple of then 22 year-olds named Charlie Sheen and John Cusack, and is directed by the great John Sayles.

THE SANDLOT (1993) – a story about kids being kids and the role baseball can play in family, friendship and growing up

KEN BURNS’ BASEBALL (1994) – if you have seen Mr. Burns’ documentary work on The Civil War or Jazz, then you have some sense of the detail and level of research that went into his multi-volume history of baseball

SUGAR (2008) – following the story of a talented Dominican minor league pitcher who dreams of the major leagues.

Thanks again to all who voted.  Pass this along to any baseball and/or movie lovers you know.  The final pitch is two more quotes:

It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”Ernie Banks

I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” — Annie (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham