THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jim Morrison’s lyrics, “This is the end. Beautiful friend. This is the end” have been interpreted to have many meanings over the years, and they also seem just right for what is likely the final on screen performance from one of the few remaining iconic movie stars. Robert Redford claims this is probably the end of his nearly 60 year acting career. If that’s true, he couldn’t have selected a better project for his victory lap. The film itself is a nice mixture of mass appeal and the independent projects that Mr. Redford has long supported. As for the character he plays, it too fits him like a glove.

Filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off last year’s indie favorite A GHOST STORY) has adapted the story from a 2003 “New Yorker” article by David Grann, and it’s based on a true story – one that’s a bit difficult to believe … well, at least until Mr. Redford brings Forrest Tucker to life. Mr. Tucker escaped from San Quentin at age 70, and it was just one of his 16 prison escapes during a lifetime of robbing banks and getting caught. The story is that Tucker simply enjoyed the work, and went about it in the most gentlemanly possible way – often described by bank employees as polite and nice. It’s the perfect character for Redford’s trademark twinkle and grin acting style.

Most of this portion of the story takes place in 1981, and the film captures not just the era, but also the essence – something much deeper than clothes and cars. Starring alongside Mr. Redford is Sissy Spacek as Jewel, and their chemistry allows the quiet moments between their characters to work as effectively as their (sometimes) playful verbal exchanges. Tucker’s “crew” is manned by Danny Glover as Teddy, and the great Tom Waits as Walter. Waits is always fascinating to see on screen, and here he gets one especially good scene to shine. They are referred to as “The Over the Hill Gang” (in contrast to “The Hole in the Wall Gang” from Redford’s classic BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

Casey Affleck (reunited with director Lowery for the third time) plays Austin Texas detective John Hunt, who spent a great deal of time chasing Tucker, and actually put the puzzle pieces together. Tika Sumpter appears as Hunt’s wife, Gene Jones is memorable as a Bank Officer, and for you Austin music lovers, Lefty Frizzell’s granddaughter makes a brief appearances. Other far too brief appearances include Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Keith Carradine (weirdly brief), Robert Longstreet, John David Washington, and Elisabeth Moss. The parade of familiar faces can be a bit distracting, but it’s understandable why so many wanted to work with Lowery and Redford.

Joe Anderson’s cinematography is terrific, and the film is oddly devoid of violence. If not mistaken, I believe we only see Tucker’s gun once … and that’s in a glove compartment. There is a certain easiness and warm fuzzy to the film, somewhat conflicting with what we would expect following an armed bank robber!

Of course, the reason we buy into the gentlemanly outlaw is the performance of Robert Redford. Charming and easy-going comes pretty easily to a man that is charming and easy-going. Director Lowery even treats us to a quick clip from young Redford’s film THE CHASE, and does so within a delightful montage of Tucker’s prison escapes. Few actors get such a perfect farewell tribute, and though it’s not quite Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat, at least Redford gets to tip his cap to the fans. Since he’s moving his career off screen, let’s bid a fond and appreciative farewell to the man that once proclaimed, “I’m better when I move”.

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CHUCK (2017)

May 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That guy could take a punch.” It’s supposed to be a compliment and knowing nod to the machismo and toughness so valued in the world of boxing. Instead that trait is responsible for the two claims to fame for heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner: he shockingly went 15 rounds (minus 17 seconds) against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar winning movie Rocky.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and the four co-writers (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristopher, Liev Schreiber) spend very little time in the boxing ring or with the usual training montages, and instead focus on how Wepner’s ego and inability to handle fame affected his family, his health and his life. This is a portrait of Chuck the man, and it’s at times more painful than the barrage of punches Ali landed in Round 15.

Liev Schreiber is outstanding as ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, the disparaging (but accurate) sobriquet that stuck with Wepner – thanks to his propensity to bleed in most bouts. His self-motivation to “Stay up Chuck” against Ali (played here by Schreiber’s “Ray Donovan” brother Pooch Hall) is what became the foundation for Stallone’s Rocky screenplay. There are a few terrific scenes with Wepner and Stallone (a spot on Morgan Spector) as Wepner desperately tries to latch onto the Rocky bandwagon, going so far as to introduce himself as “the real Rocky”. It’s tough for an actor to get Oscar consideration for a performance in the first half of the year, but Schreiber is worthy.

It’s not the first time we have seen the pitfalls of instant fame and celebrity status, and even though it’s a true story, there is a familiarity to it that makes the plight of this lovable lug quite easy to relate to. Wepner’s blue collar narcissism may have been the cause of much of the pain in his life, but it also allowed him to become a folk hero. His connection with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight provides all the personality profile we require to grasp Wepner’s make-up.

The supporting cast is strong. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan is his hero-worshiping corner man and cocaine accomplice, Elisabeth Moss plays wrongly-done first wife Phyllis, Michael Rappaport is estranged brother John, and Naomi Watts (she and Schreiber ended their long-term relationship soon after filming) as his confidant and second wife Linda. Moss and Rappaport each have very strong scenes … scenes that remind us that these are real people and not part of some fairy tale.

Director Falardeau delivers no shortage of 1970’s cheese – wardrobe, facial hair, disco music, party drugs, and night clubs – but there is also enough humor to maintain balance: Wepner explains after the Ali fight how he tried to “wear him down with my face”. By the end we aren’t sure if Wepner was self-destructive or simply lacking in dependable counsel. Either way, the journey of self-discovery is even more interesting than the boxing career, and the film is punctuated with closing credit footage that provides viewers with a sense of relief. A tragic ending has been averted, and Chuck remains a local Bayonne, New Jersey resident – even if he’s no longer a bleeder.

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HIGH-RISE (2016)

May 12, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

high rise Greetings again from the darkness. When a novel has been deemed “unfilmable” for forty years, perhaps the designation should be honored, rather than accepted as a challenge. That said, there is probably a cult-like movie lurking somewhere in and around director Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, 2011) personal spin on the 1975 novel from J.G. Ballard (who also penned “Crash” and “Empire of the Sun”).

Amy Jump adapted the screenplay from Ballard’s novel, and in the blink of an eye, the tone shifts from a microcosm of a decaying society and class warfare to all-out anarchy and hedonism. What’s fascinating is that the talented cast nearly rescues the film from the misguided script. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Laing, a physiologist who moves into the futuristic (for the 1970’s) monolith, seemingly naïve to the wicked ways of this insular community. Sienna Miller plays Charlotte, a fellow middle-class resident, who not only crushes on Laing, but also seems to know where the skeletons are buried. On the Terrace level, the always entertaining Jeremy Irons plays Royal, the building’s architect and overseer … a kind of great and powerful Oz. An unrecognizable Luke Evans (out of his usual pretty boy mode) is stellar as the aptly named Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who adds a dose of skepticism towards the building – in contrast to Laing’s innocent approach.

Beginning at the macabre ending, the film then flashes back to “3 months earlier” as Laing first moves into the building. This device is the only semblance of time provided throughout. We witness how quickly Laing takes to the sport of social climbing, buddying up to Royal, and joining in with the communal decadence.

Power outages, orgies, class warfare and enough cigarettes to qualify as a non-smoking PSA, the film seems intent on ensuring viewers remain disoriented as to the reasons for mass chaos. The building itself could be considered a character, and certainly the use of mirrors and a kaleidoscope makes a statement … even while we hear multiple versions of Abba’s “SOS”. Black comedies typically make the best cult movies, and though this one is filled with aberrant and deviant behavior, it’s somehow not quite twisted enough … or at least not properly twisted for viewer fun. Beyond that, it comes across as an expression of filmmaker anger rather than the commentary on British infrastructure that Ballard intended.

**NOTE: I’m sure the similarities of the movie poster to that of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is no coincidence, although that’s a pretty ambitious stretch for High-Rise.

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TRUTH (2015)

October 29, 2015

truth Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the book written by Mary Mapes, “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power”, and plays like a desperate attempt at rationalizing the actions of a TV producer, a TV news icon, their team of reporters and researchers, and the endless drive for ratings by a network news organization. Telling only your side of the story when a significant conflict is involved, does not encourage thinking people to take up your cause.

In 2004, Mary Mapes brought in her team to dig into the rumors that President George W Bush had received preferential treatment in military assignments and that his military service records were either incomplete, had been altered, or proved that he did not fulfill his service requirements. Ms. Mapes professional relationship with Dan Rather allowed her to bring him into the fold, and resulted in significant air time on CBS and “60 Minutes”. Most of us know how this saga ended … Mapes and her team were let go, and Mr. Rather’s time as the network news anchor was unceremoniously ended. While there may very well be substance to the story they were chasing, both the book and the movie act as Ms. Mapes defensive pleas of innocence.

In the film, Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, and Robert Redford plays Dan Rather. Ms. Blanchett, as usual, is exceptional; and Redford is solid in capturing the essence of Rather (though the hair color variances are distracting). The other key players are: Topher Grace as reporter Mike Smith, Dennis Quaid as researcher and former Marine Lt. Colonel Roger Charles, Elisabeth Moss as Lucy Scott, Bruce Greenwood as Andrew Heyward (President of CBS News), Stacy Keach as Mapes source Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, and Dermot Mulroney as CBS attorney Lawrence Lampher. The film is well cast, but it’s not enough to make up for the weak script and the less-than-stellar direction from first timer James Vanderbilt (who did write the screenplay for Zodiac, and is the great-grandson of Albert G Vanderbilt).

Rather than provide any proof that the story was properly documented and confirmed, Mapes and Rather decry the loss of reporters who ask the “tough” questions. Their defense seems to be that they were brave enough to chase the story and ask questions. A sequence is included that positions these two as the last bastions for true news reporting, and that these days news organizations are more concerned with profits and ratings, than breaking a story. This argument conveniently omits the fact that information flows much more freely today than in “the good old days”. The actions of politicians and industry leaders are constantly being questioned and scrutinized by the endless stream of bloggers and reporters – both amateurs and professionals. There is no shortage of questions being asked, and the ease with which accusations are leveled actually fits right in with the Mapes approach.

The frustrating part of the movie is that it’s a missed opportunity to detail how “legitimate” news organizations go to extremes to document and verify their information and sources, and this is where Ms. Mapes’ team fell short. Without intending to, the film plays more similar to Shattered Glass (2003) than All the President’s Men (1976) … getting a story being more important than proving a story. We are left with the feeling that Ms. Mapes believes asking a question is more important than proving the facts. The cringe-inducing shot of Dan Rather’s final broadcast leaves the viewers with the impression that the objective of the film was to place Mapes and Rather on a pedestal of righteousness. The only thing actually confirmed here is that heads rolling at CBS was the right (and only reasonable) call.

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QUEEN OF EARTH (2015)

August 25, 2015

queen of earth Greetings again from the darkness. Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires constant maintenance along with give and take from both sides. When a long time friendship between Catherine and Virginia devolves into a passive-aggressive game of emotional “tag, you’re it”, the result is an unusual psychological expose’ on self-indulgence and grieving.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry follows up his critically acclaimed Listen Up Philip with a glimpse into the complexities of friendship between two women who seem mostly clueless to both their world of privilege, and their not-so-subtle narcissism. Both Catherine and Virginia have experienced personal tragedies at different times, and their friendship has basically crumbled due to the responses of each woman towards the other.

A startling opening scene serves up a very emotional Elisabeth Moss (Catherine) as she and her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) argue their way through an ugly break-up due to his infidelity on the heels of the suicide of Catherine’s dad and mentor. The rest of the movie covers the week (each day marked by a scripted placard) that Catherine spends with her best friend at Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter) family lake house. Flashbacks cover the previous year’s visit under much different circumstances, but it’s the intimate … and often quite uncomfortable … moments between the two women that provides the crux of the film.

Director Perry focuses a great deal of attention on the faces of Catherine and Virginia – many of these are extreme close-ups that leave thoughts unspoken, yet quite clear to the viewer. There are elements of 1970’s schlock horror films … but not in a bad way. The music, atmosphere and camera angles have a certain retro feel, but the tension between the two friends is palpable and timeless.

Perry’s script and the performances of Moss and Waterston tap into that nasty bit of human nature that makes us believe our problems are much worse than anyone else’s. Building on that, the animosity felt when our friends aren’t “there for us” in times of trauma, can lead to a dangerous slope that affects judgment and mental stability. Watching Catherine and Virginia go at it has elements of truth and dread.

Patrick Fugit appears in a few scenes as Virginia’s neighbor, and his sole purpose seems to be to torment Catherine – at least that’s how she sees it. The juxtaposition of the two visits (separated by one year) makes for some very interesting character observations, and helps us understand the delusions and bitterness. It’s an interesting and stylish little film that doesn’t so much entertain as spur introspection.

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THE ONE I LOVE (2014)

August 20, 2014

one i love Greetings again from the darkness. Starting out with a typical marriage counseling session, director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader lull us into a movie-going comfort zone based on our experience with such Hollywood fluff as Hope Springs and Couples Retreat. All that should be said at this point is … not so fast, my friends!

A crumbling marriage and the subsequent lack of success with communication, leads the therapist (Ted Danson) to recommend a weekend alone at a private country estate. The twists and turns that await Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), take marriage counseling to an entirely new spectrum. Sophie wants to reignite that early relationship spark and Ethan just wants things back to normal.

The setting does justice to the legend of beautiful California real estate, but things aren’t all they seem as Ethan and Sophie bounce back and forth between the main house and guest house. It’s in these moments where the big relationship questions are addressed … and the script is smart, funny, creative and dark. It’s not likely anyone can watch this without having some inner dialogue, and probably even some real discussion afterwards.

Mark Duplass (“The League“, Safety Not Guaranteed) and Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men“) not only carry the film, but also take on significant responsibility with wide-ranging personality traits and subtle physical changes. Duplass is exceptional and easy for most guys to relate to in how he handles the challenges. While I’ve never been a big fan of Ms. Moss, her performance here is quite impressive. Whether “together” or “apart”, they complement each other nicely.

The closest comparison I have for this one is Ruby Sparks (2012), but this one will have you questioning what makes a relationship work and what should we really expect from our partner. The idea of recapturing that initial spark is absurd and immature, but that doesn’t lessen the need for realistic expectations. For the first feature from director Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) and writer Justin Lader, the unique and creative approach to such a complex topic make them filmmakers to keep an eye on.

**NOTE: I found the film very well done and quite thought-provoking until the last 15 minutes or so.  One of the twists kind of knocked me off the rails and raised too many questions that this little film just couldn’t address, much less answer. Still, that doesn’t stop me from recommending it to my fellow indie movie lovers. During the Q&A after the screening, director McDowell admitted that they completed filming in 15 days, and that most of the sound and dialogue was recorded live.  The unusual and effective score was, of course, added later.

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