DIFF 2015 – Day 10

April 24, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 10 – Sunday April 19

The festival comes to an end on a high note, and once again, I recommend DIFF for any movie lover who wants to overdose on independent films and documentaries without fighting the crowds of Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.  It’s a very well run festival and, with 160 films on the schedule., likely holds multiple films for you – regardless of your movie tastes.  My final three movies of this year’s festival:

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

love and mercy Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band’s creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960’s period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980’s – his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It’s during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian’s new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian’s life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian’s genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues.  It’s a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as “The Wrecking Crew” … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It’s during this period that the Wilson brothers’ father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his “new” music.  There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected “fun” style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Mostly, I found the 1960’s portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it’s like “Someone is inside me. Not me.” His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the “sunny” music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda’s strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

MANGLEHORN (2015)

manglehorn Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970’s cinema, it’s been painful to watch Al Pacino’s career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it’s time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV’s “Eastbound & Down”, and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions “locked” away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn’s brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, “When you choose this life, there is no one”. It’s a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn’s daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

SLOW WEST (2015)

slow west Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay’s babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector.  There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas’ motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay’s mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel’s (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It’s likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.

 

 

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LITTLE ACCIDENTS (2015)

January 17, 2015

little accidents Greetings again from the darkness. You know how we always hear that there are no secrets in a small town – how everyone knows your business? This first feature film from writer/director Sara Colangelo exposes the fallacy of that notion. It seems all residents of this small mining community are carrying secrets, and some are whoppers!

The story picks up about a year after a horrible coal mining accident killed ten local miners. The lone survivor was Amos (Boyd Holbrook) who is struggling with physical limitations resulting from the incident.  However, generating more pain for Amos than his withered arm and leg is the internal battle the ongoing investigation is causing him. Should he expose the known safety issues that caused his co-workers to die?  If he does, those 10 families probably get justice and a financial reward, but the mine likely shuts down – crippling the local economy and throwing much of the town out of work.  If keeps quiet, those families get nothing and it’s business as usual for everyone else.

Amos is joined in a daily conundrum of secrets by: Owen (Jacob Lofland), who is much too young to handle the situation an accident has placed him; Owen’s brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down Syndrome and is even less equipped to keep his secret; the mine’s supervisor Bill (Josh Lucas) who defends his poor decisions by saying he only did what the company forced him to do; and Diane (Elizabeth Banks) who is Bill’s wife and reacts to the disappearance of her son and lack of respect for her husband in a manner that can’t possibly end well.

As is common in poverty-stricken communities, there is even more to add. Owen’s father was one of the miners killed in the accident, and Owen was among the group who last saw Bill and Diane’s son alive. Also, Amos is living with his father who is paying the health price for a lifetime of coal mining. The film is bookended by Amos’ testimony regarding the accident, and in between we see these intertwined lives and much soul-suffering and personal stock-taking. It’s a reminder of how powerful grief can be, especially after such an instantaneous tragedy.

Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland deliver outstanding performances. Mr. Holbrook’s career is in skyrocket mode as he appeared in 8 projects during 2013-14 (including Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), and has 5 more for 2015 (including Terrence Malick’s next film). Young Mr. Lofland was a standout in both Mud (2012) and his recent recurring role on TV’s “Justified“. Also of note is one of the few dramatic turns for Elizabeth Banks. We have come to expect comedy excellence from her (even as Effie in The Hunger Games), but we have rarely seen the emotional depth she portrays here.

The movie is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and the film stock provides the grainy look that adds to the realistic feel necessary for us to be absorbed into this isolated world. Comparisons to other mining movies are expected, and North Country (2005) and Matewan (1987) come to mind, however, those were centered on mistreatment in the workplace and labor issues, respectively. This movie is much more concerned with grief, and for some reason The Stone Boy (1984) comes to mind. Dealing with tragedy does not become easier with age, financial status or social standing. Ms. Colangelo’s film provides an intimate look at this.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8

 

 


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer:


THE NEXT THREE DAYS (2010)

November 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Paul Haggis, Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson?? COUNT ME IN! Oh wait, you mean there is more to making a quality movie than just gathering together a bunch of talented people? Well if you need proof …

Maybe my expectations were too high. Paul Haggis has proved himself to be a remarkable writer (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and an excellent director (Crash, In the Valley of Elah). Russell Crowe is one of the finest actors working. Elizabeth Banks is a stunning talent – both highly comedic and full of range. Liam Neeson adds a touch of class to every film he is in (this one’s no exception). The film is watchable, but an unnecessary stretch from the real world.

The best part of the film is the scene with Crowe and Neeson. Neeson’s character has escaped from SEVEN prisons and Crowe needs some tips so he can bust out his wife (Banks) who has been wrongly (maybe, maybe not) convicted of murder. The scene plays awfully close to an infomercial on “How to Break out of Prison” hosted by Liam Neeson. OK, I didn’t say the scene was believable, just the best in the film. Try not to wonder how a guy that breaks out of prison SEVEN times (and finally surrenders because he is tired of looking over his shoulder) is actually a free man able to meet Crowe for coffee.

What I am most disappointed in is the manner in which Crowe’s college professor frump of a man transforms into an action figure after meeting with Neeson and getting his rear-end kicked trying to buy fake ID’s. Suddenly he is out-gunning drug dealers and driving the world’s fastest Prius in reverse down a dark alley … and then going head to head with strategy against some near-clairvoyant detectives. Wow.

Certainly not going to tell you if Crowe’s plan actually works or if somehow he masters the art of flexibility while on the run. Whatever happens, I would have preferred him to remain true to his character early in the film. Every viewer could relate to his frustration with the system and his desperation to free his wife – just not the quick transformation to modern day Gladiator.  A movie pet peeve I have is when a movie purposefully misleads the viewer in an effort to have the story come across as more complex than it really is.  The black & white “flashbacks” in this one are a prime example.  Don’t misinterpret … I live for the complex plot twists that challenge me as a viewer.  But outright fraud from the filmmaker ruffles my feathers no end.

The supporting cast in the film is given very little to do. Olivia Wilde (Thirteen from “House”) is wasted as the mother of a friend to Crowe’s kid. Daniel Stern has one scene as Banks’ attorney. RZA plays an unscrupulous drug dealer (redundant?). And while it’s great to see Brian Dennehy on screen as Crowe’s father, it is unfortunate he is reduced to being near silent and all-knowing.

The movie would make a fine diversion on one of those sleepless nights once it hits cable, but right now, I am just annoyed at the waste of talent and the lack of effort to make a better film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a quick “how to” on breaking a loved one out of prison

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think dropping your kid off at a birthday party two hours early is acceptable behavior – especially if the reason is to break your spouse out of prison