HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2017)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell exploded onto the scene in 2001 with his instant cult favorite HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and in 2010 he delivered the expertly crafted and somber marital drama RABBIT HOLE. In his first feature film since the latter, Mitchell revisits the punk world in what has been described as Romeo and Juliet with punks and aliens.

Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett adapted the screenplay from a short story by Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”). It’s set in 1977 Croydon (outside London) and though music plays a vital role, it’s not really a musical. And even with some funny moments, it’s not really a comedy. And while there are aliens, one wouldn’t label this as science fiction. There is a budding romance at the core, and maybe the romance description fits best … although, any unwitting group of film goers heading to the theatre expecting a typical romantic drama will likely walk out in the first 15 minutes.

Zan (Elle Fanning) and Enn (Alex Sharp) are star-crossed (or is it intergalactic-crossed?) lovers – she being an alien, he a young punk rocker. This is less about two worlds colliding than two worlds exploring each other: the freedom of punk vs the conformity of the alien colony. We cross paths with the local Queen of punk known as Boadicea (one of the most extreme Nicole Kidman roles of her career), the alien Stella (Ruth Wilson), and Enn’s punk mates Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence).

Far and away the most interesting puzzle piece here is the connection between Enn and Zan. Mr. Sharp (a Bob Geldof lookalike) and Ms. Fanning are terrific together and the film suffers when they aren’t on screen. Their live duet onstage is a true highlight and her wide-eyed curiosity combined with his zany punk persona provide most of the film’s energy.

Punk … the best thing to happen to ugly people” is likely the best line in the film, although Zan requesting “Do some more punk to me” isn’t far behind. There are messages here about parenting, diversity and globalization, but mostly it’s a creative and wild ride that’s not likely to please everyone … especially those looking for a Nicholas Sparks romance or anyone who might take the title literally.

The film is scheduled to show at the Texas Theatre in Dallas beginning June 1, 2018.

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20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

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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.

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WE BOUGHT A ZOO

December 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Cameron Crowe has finally emerged from his cocoon – 7 years after the abysmal Elizabethtown. Yes, he has had a couple of projects in that time, notably the Pearl Jam documentary, but he has avoided anything related to his dramatic film roots of which produced Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. This time he delivers a feel good, family appropriate, sentimental crowd-pleaser that should play very well to the holiday crowd.

Please know I do not use “sentimental” as a derogatory term. Sure there are moments where the actions and dialogue seem contrived and manipulative, but some of the best crowd-pleasers throughout Hollywood history have these same traits. This film is based on a true story and uses Benjamin Mee‘s autobiographical book as the basic source material. The real Mee family and their zoo, are stationed in England, not southern California as Crowe presents them. What I can tell you is that this version of the Mee family and the zoo staff is interesting and entertaining, even if you just have to let go and allow yourself to be guided through.

 Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee and the story picks up after his wife dies. He soon quits his job and moves his two kids to the country so they can work through their grief and start fresh. His teenage son Dylan is played with blazing anger by the talented Colin Ford. The precocious 7 year old daughter is played by scene-stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones. This family experiences the realities of struggling with their pain and difficulties in communicating.

 As for the zoo, it is in major disrepair and in danger of closing if it doesn’t pass its pending inspection. Benjamin works with the rag-tag staff, including head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), to bring the facility up to code and nurse the sick animals back to health. As the zoo is rehabbed, so are the individuals. No surprise there.

The main conflict in the story comes from the hard-headedness of Benjamin and Dylan, as they ignore their inability to communicate and connect as father and son. A couple of their scenes together are the best in the film for acting and realistic dialogue. At the same time, Kelly acts as a quasi-love interest for Benjamin, while Lily (Elle Fanning) uses puppy love to help Dylan through his misery. That sub-plot is where Crowe missed a real chance. Ms. Fanning is one of the top young actresses working today and her contributions here are limited to that luminescent smile.

 The wild cast of supporting actors includes wise-cracking Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s brother, JB Smoove as the Realtor, Peter Riegert as Mee’s editor, Patrick Fugit (from Almost Famous) as the guy with a monkey on his shoulder, Angus Macfadyen as the colorful zoo maintenance man, and John Michael Higgins as the snooty zoo inspector who knowingly holds their future in his smarmy hand.

As always, Crowe uses music better than most any other director. This includes his use of score and soundtrack to compliment a scene or drive the setting and mood. What really makes this film work is Matt Damon. His character is the heart of the film and the soul of the family. His performance is strong enough to prevent the film from lapsing into pure sap and makes us care for him, his family and this zoo. Don’t expect some cutting edge, independent sulk fest. Just accept the movie for what it is … a feel good story delivered for the holidays.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a sentimental family journey based on a true story – especially if some pretty cool animals are included!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you subscribe to the “conflict in every scene” theory of story-telling.

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SUPER 8

June 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. A nostalgic feeling generated by nostalgic filmmaking at the hands of JJ Abrams and classic Spielberg. Yes, I meant to use nostalgic twice … the film has a familiar feel to it, but also entirely new twists and effects. That’s what happens when the master (Steven Spielberg) and the star pupil (Abrams) unite.

Part of the nostalgia is that this is kind of a throwback to the blockbuster era that Spielberg helped create. There are bits and pieces of Jurassic Park, E.T., The Goonies, *Batteries not Included, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. Spielberg has always had a nice feel for kids and emotions, and in this film the genius of Abrams’ script and special effects make for a spectacular combination.

 You know there is nothing more fun for these filmmakers than a story about smart, outcast kids obsessed with making a movie! Throw in the adolescent battle over the out-of-reach older girl, the somewhat demented kid who just loves explosions, the sensitive kid dealing with the death of his mother, the wise beyond her years girl who is a natural actress, and the chubby, driven boy with a camera … mix it up with a couple of clueless parents and the evil, secretive Air Force, a sci-fi element and you have quite the exciting small town Ohio drama with comedic elements and startling special effects.

Not going to say anything about the “surprise” that was hinted in the trailer, but what I will say is that the first hour of this movie was pure movie magic to me. Unfortunately, the second half was a slight let down, though certainly not horrible. I just enjoyed the pure human elements on display before it became just another …

 The film really rides on the shoulders of Elle Fanning (probably the last time I will reference her as Dakota’s little sis). Ms. Fanning has proved again that she may be the most talented of the acting sisters. She really has a feel for her scenes and clearly melts the heart of young Joe Lamb, played by newcomer Joel Courtney. Also excellent are Riley Griffiths as Charles the movie maker, and Ryan Lee as Cary the demolition “expert”. Joe’s dad is played by Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), but again, this film really belongs to the kids.

The film is rated PG-13 for some pretty intense scenes and some language that many prefer not to hear coming from kids. It’s too bad more films “like” this aren’t made, but that’s probably a factor of not many filmmakers being in the class of Spielberg and Abrams (Lost, Star Trek).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a big ol’ blockbuster with a fun script and giant special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer high art that taxes the mind


SOMEWHERE

January 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. My reaction to this film is that no way it gets made and no way anyone would care … unless Sophia Coppola was involved. With her involvement, our approach as a viewer is totally different. She has lived this life and, more importantly, observed this life since she was an infant. She captures details and minutiae that no other writer or director would even sense.

Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a very successful movie star who is holed up at the infamous Château Marmont. This is the Hollywood retreat where celebs go to disappear for awhile. Marco has gone a step beyond retreat. He is lost.  Lost as a person. Even his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning, can’t “find” him. He dutifully fulfills his movie star responsibilities: press junkets, photography sessions, awards ceremonies, etc. He plays video games with his daughter with the same emotion that he poses for pictures or answers questions from reporters. He is a shell of a man and he is beginning to see that himself.

The film displays all the trappings of stardom and shows that no stream of Ferrari’s, strippers, fans, supermodels, international trips or pile of money can bring personal fulfillment. The man that has everything can still have nothing. Sound a bit depressing? Well it is. But it’s also a nice little peek behind the celebrity curtain.  The film could even be a fun parlor game with all the relatives of famous people who play some minor role … another tip of the cap to Ms. Coppola’s background.

 A ride in the elevator with Benecio del Toro (presumably a Marmont guest) is no more substantive than a party in his room filled with beautiful people who just want to be seen … or do what some people do with celebrities. Isolation can happen in plain site and Ms. Coppola has proven herself to be quite the expert with this film and her even better film, Lost in Translation.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like a peek behind the curtain of celebrity and the Chateau Marmont

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slow moving films put you to sleep … don’t pay $10 for a nap!