WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When “based on a true story” appears, we can usually bank on either a hero or criminal as the subject. A good person, or a bad one. With this story, we get a teenager who is basically a good kid, but one who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. It’s likely to test your empathy and judgment. Director Yann Demange (’71) brings us the story of young Richard (Rick) Wershe, Jr through a script from writers Andy Weiss and brothers Noah and Logan Miller.

We begin in 1984, the height of the “Just Say No” era, when Rick (a terrific debut by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a 14 year old living near poverty with his dad and older sister. Mom walked out years ago. Rick helps his dad in the firearm resale business (some legal, some not). Richard Wershe, Sr is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is outstanding as the dreamer who desperately wants a better life for himself and his kids. Unfortunately, the man simply lacks the capacity to do better. Sister Dawn is played by Del Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), and Dawn is an addict who leaves/escapes home with her boyfriend. This is most definitely not “The Brady Bunch”.

Detroit was in the midst of a rapid and tragic decline, and the east side where Rick lived had already hit bottom with crime, violence, drugs and poverty. Rick’s teenage resume would read firearms dealer, known gang associate, FBI informant, gunshot victim, cash-flowing drug dealer, baby daddy, rescuer of sister, and server of life sentence. It was quite a run for someone who hadn’t yet celebrated birthday number 20.

Director Demange shows us how two sides were played against the middle, with Rick being stuck in the middle with no hope for escape. We even see a TV clip of SERPICO for a bit of foreshadowing into life as an informant. What makes the film work, beyond the remarkable true story, is how each of the main characters is humanized to the point that we understand what makes them tick. Dad (McConaughey) is a dreamer who thinks he can sell enough guns to finance a chain of video stores that will be successful enough to keep his family together. Daughter Dawn tries to escape her “loser” dad by numbing herself with drugs and running off with the first guy that will take her. Son Rick takes advantage of his ability to create trust by trying to serve his father, a drug kingpin, the FBI, and himself. These three all seem to have good hearts and best intentions, but nothing every really works out for them – despite dad being a glass-half-full kind of guy

This is also a story of contrasts … especially between black and white in many situations. We learn the difference between ‘black jail time’ and ‘white jail time’, and the FBI obviously chose Rick because he was a white kid who infiltrated a black crime ring – he even gets invited to the local skating rink to hangout, and to Las Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight. There is also the way Richard Sr sees himself as “above” the criminals as he protests the proliferation and danger of drugs, while then turning around and selling guns to those who peddle drugs. Selective morality.

The FBI recruits Rick to feed them information by threatening to arrest his dad. He is coerced into the world of selling drugs and then later railroaded by the Feds so that they could wash their hands and walk away “clean”. Because of their influence, Rick is later sentenced to life in prison for non-violent offenses. Of course, he was surrounded by violence, and even the victim of it, but it begs the question of whether the punishment fit the crime. We are never sure if we should feel empathy for Rick, disgust at the system, or frustrated and fed up with a society that set this into motion.

The supporting cast runs deep. Bruce Dern and the rarely seen Piper Laurie are Rick’s grandparents, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane play the influential FBI agents. This marks a 25 year reunion for McConaughey and Cochrane from their appearance in DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Also appearing are RJ Cyler (“I’m Dying Up Here”) as Rick’s friend Boo, Brian Tyree Henry as a detective, and Eddie Marsan and Jonathan Majors as drug dealers.

A surprising amount of humor is mixed in with the gritty crime stuff and family struggles. There is even a comical FOOTLOOSE moment at the drive-in – providing yet another contrast between blacks and whites. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (“71) works wonders in some of the least appealing settings you’ll likely find in a movie, and his approach perfectly complements our personal conflicts on who to pull for throughout this quagmire.

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7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Freedom fighters or terrorists? Which label gets applied is often dependent upon one’s point of view. In 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens was hijacked. Director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”, ROBOCOP, 2014) brings us the big screen version of Gregory Burke’s (’71) screenplay.

The 7 day ordeal bounces between the captors and hostages at the abandoned terminal in Uganda and the political maneuverings of the Israeli government officials as they deliberate whether to break with policy and negotiate with terrorists. There are also flashbacks to the planning stages with the hijackers, in an attempt to help us understand their perspective.

Daniel Bruhl plays Wilifried Bose and Rosamund Pike plays Brigitte Kuhlmann. These are the two main hijackers who get most of our attention. Mr. Bruhl seems destined to always play the ultra-serious character, and Ms. Pike is once again miscast … something that happens whenever she is cast. Although she seems to throw down her best Patty Hearst look, we never really buy these two as committed to the cause, which prevents the necessary build-up of suspense.

The film’s biggest flaw is not capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by Nonso Anozie’s Idi Amin Dada, and even more disappointing is the abbreviated scenes between Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Yizhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, FOXTROT). The two actors excel in their head-to-head confrontations, but we feel cheated every time it cuts away.

Once a strategy is formed, we are introduced to the Special Ops team (IDF). They only have a day or two to train and rehearse, and one of the key players is Ben Schnetzer (THE BOOK THIEF, 2013). He and his girlfriend quarrel over his duty, which keeps him away from her dancing performance with Batsheva Dance Company.  As Operation Thunderbolt proceeds, the crosscuts between Special Ops training and the dance rehearsals are setting the stage for the film’s climax.

So the hijackers never really generate the feeling of danger, the government deliberations are cut short, and the filmmaker takes a huge creative risk by synchronizing the final rescue mission with the opening night dance performance. The film is negatively impacted by poor pacing, an overall lack of tension for such a terrifying historical event, and questionable, albeit creative, story-telling structure. It does serve the purpose of educating those unfamiliar with the story, and it’s a reminder that even 4 decades later, the Israeli – Palestinian hostilities continue. As a special note of interest, the only Special Ops member killed in the raid was Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister of Israel.

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ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

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A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (2015)

September 9, 2015

a brilliant young mind Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhat surprisingly, mathematics has been the basis for some pretty interesting movies, including Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind.  Equally surprising are the quality movies with lead characters struggling with Asperger Syndrome or Autism – Adam and Rain Man, to name a couple.  Also fascinating, albeit in a different way, are movies that have depicted child prodigies or geniuses. Examples of these are Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Akeelah and the Bee. However, it’s this film from director Morgan Matthews that is the first I can recall to combine all three elements.

Mr. Matthews’ directorial resume is filled with documentaries and he brings that no-nonsense approach to this story based on the life of David Lightwing, a young math genius with Asbergers. Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, a boy whose only love is mathematics. He lost his beloved father at an early age, and has since not connected with anyone … even his most devoted and long-suffering mother, played by Sally Hawkins.

Nathan begins studying under Rafe Spall’s Martin, himself a former child math prodigy, whose struggles with Multiple Sclerosis act as a defense mechanism that prevents him from having any semblance of a well-rounded life. The two are a perfect match, and within a few years, Nathan is competing to join the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad held at Cambridge. Martin has his own personal history with both the event and the team’s coach, played by Eddie Marsan.

The film does a really nice job of illuminating the pressures on both loved ones (parents, teachers, etc) and the prodigies themselves. It explores the question of whether being “gifted” is really a gift or a burden. This is brought to life through the performances of Butterfield (and his many pained faces), Spall (as a man searching for meaning), and Hawkins (as a mother who yearns for nothing but a flash of reciprocity from her son). Also effective is Marsan as the coach, and Jo Yang as Nathan’s Chinese study buddy.

It’s a very touching story, and easily accessible for those of us who fall a bit short of the genius level. It also takes a shot at explaining love in math terms – not something previously featured on screen. And finally, it has one of the most heart-warming and sincere movie hugs one could ask for. In simple terms, it all adds up to a fine movie.

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THE WORLD’S END (2013)

September 7, 2013

worlds end Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in the unofficial Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and my guess is if you know that, you have already seen this one. Director Edgar Wright has previously delivered is parody of Zombies (Shaun of the Dead), his parody of buddy-cop-action films (Hot Fuzz), and now takes on Sci-Fi in this latest … a worthy conclusion with the trademark quick cuts and rapid fire witty/silly dialogue.

I love the premise of this one. 5 buddies reluctantly reunite after 20 years to try and finish what they failed to in their youth: 12 pubs/12 pints … an epic pub crawl. It touches on the male transition to middle-age and also reinforces the old saying ‘you can’t go home again’. Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) stars as Gary King, a recovering addict who is quite simply struggling with adulthood. His manic energy reunites the boys and carries the early movie. Nick Frost really shines here and takes on a different persona from the previous two movies.

worlds end2 As I have stated many times, comedies are the most difficult genre to review as everyone’s sense of humor varies. What I can report is that I laughed quite a bit at the dialogue, but didn’t have much love for the sci-fi portions, despite some similarities to Westworld and The Stepford Wives. Oh, and Rosamund Pike reminded me again why I am no fan of hers (yes, I realize I’m in the minority).

Hardcore Wright fans will enjoy the steady stream of regular faces, and yes, we do get the expected failed fence jump. This one won’t stick with me for long, but I appreciated the laughs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Simon Pegg – Nick Frost – Edgar Wright offbeat British parody films. It’s one of their best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your comedy tastes lean toward the conventional … a territory Edgar Wright avoids at all costs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk

 


JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2012)

March 2, 2013

jack Greetings again from the darkness. As a kid, I always enjoyed “Jack and Beanstalk” as a bedtime story. However, I never quite understood why Jack was a hero for stealing from the giant. Was I the only kid who felt a bit sorry for the giant? Along comes director Bryan Singer and frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and the backstory clarifies things for me. The humans and giants had a long ago battle that ended when King Eric banished the giants to a land between heaven and earth. King Eric is either referred to as “The Great” or “The Evil” depending on whether you are a human or a giant.

The prologue offers up simultaneous bedtime beanstalk stories for young Jack, living with his widowed dad, and the young Princess Isabelle, who lives in the castle. Flash forward 10 years and Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is living with his grumpy uncle (his dad died), and Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is a young lady being forced to marry the King’s (Ian McShane) trusted adviser Roderick, played as a scoundrel by Stanley Tucci. Isabelle is a bit too adventurous for the King and jack3the next thing we know, she has escaped from the castle and stumbled into Jack’s humble abode. Of course, this happens on the same day that Jack traded the horse for the magic beans. The beanstalk appears and the real fun begins.

Ewen McGregor leads the King’s army and is in charge of the rescue party that must climb the beanstalk. Of course, Jack gets to go because of his inside information, and Roderick goes because he is in the midst of an ill-fated power play … a requirement in Fairy Tales! The best CGI in the film occurs in the land of the giants. Their first appearance is very impressive and we get to sit back and enjoy the special effects wizardry. This is action-adventure at a very satisfactory level and the creepy giants add a new level to what we have seen on screen. The battle scenes are a great deal of fun and provide some visuals that are quite intense.

jack2 Which leads to the main point here … who is the movie made for? It’s entirely too frightening for young kids who might enjoy the bedtime story, but I’m sure most teens are way too cool to see a movie about a kids’ book. This is terrific entertainment that many ages would enjoy, but my guess is very few will venture to the theatre for it. Support work is also provided by Ewen Bremner, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy (who voices the two-headed giant). There will be comparisons to The Princess Bride, but that’s a bit unfair. While they both have princesses and farm boys, Rob Reiner’s film is a classic.

This is a wonderful story with terrific visuals, interesting characters, unique humor (pig in a blanket), and wild battle scenes … there is even a quite clever ending that made me laugh. Director Bryan Singer has received a lifetime pass from me thanks to his classic The Usual Suspects, but he definitely injected some spice into a traditional tale, and it deserves a look.

What’s that smell?  Ahhh … it’s the blood of an Englishman

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the bedtime story as a kid OR you want to see the best movie giants yet

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are scared of giants OR you have a magic bean phobia

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng9rjC8MOgU

 


SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)

June 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. After suffering through the miserable Mirror Mirror earlier this year, my fairy tale palate needed cleansing. The original Brothers Grimm tale was actually pretty dark and first time director Rupert Sanders has some success going heavy into ominous with his version. The movie has some flaws, but is actually quite fun to look at.

Early on, we get a taste of Charlize Theron as the wicked stepmother/evil queen. Her calm voice and unforgiving stare prove quite chilling and one of the best parts of the movie. The magic mirror (on the wall) shows signs of life and we understand quickly that this Queen’s power will not be used for the greater good. The palace itself is quite a site and Snow White’s escape provide us a behind-the-walls pass, including the medieval sewer system.

My favorite parts of the movie are the foreboding Black Forest and its polar opposite fairyland. The art decoration for both is excellent and fairyland even offers a nod to the Disney cartoon version. Both sets offer some stunning visuals … the forest ogre, the dwarfs and the white buck with a matrix rack. Ahh, the dwarfs. Can’t have Snow White without them. This group (originally eight) have the superimposed heads of actors we all recognize: Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson. This camera trick allows us to connect pretty quickly with the group.

 Kristen Stewart brings her successful Twilight run to fairy tale land. She isn’t given much to do other than fight and gaze. Her Joan of Arc look serves the film’s purpose, but does any guy really think she is “fairer” than Charlize? Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays the titular Huntsman and serves the cause admirably, as does Sam Claflin as Snow’s lusty, trusty childhood friend. Sam Spruell plays the Queen’s henchman brother, but is most memorable for one of the worst haircuts in Hollywood history … straight out of Dumb & Dumber.

The battle scenes are well done, the soundtrack is not overbearing as one would expect, but there seems to be something missing here. The film is fun to look at it, but just doesn’t deliver on any type of emotional level. Perhaps the material is just too familiar after all these years of hoping the first bite of an apple doesn’t render us unconscious.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the darker, sinister version that the Brothers Grimm intended OR you are just trying to wash away the memories of Julia Roberts cackling as the wicked Queen earlier this year

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something in line with the classic animated Disney version

watch the trailer: