LUCY IN THE SKY (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Space – the final frontier.’ Well, that wasn’t the case for real life astronaut Lisa Nowak. In 2007, Nowak made the national news for her cross-country, diaper-wearing road trip that ended with her being arrested in Orlando for attempted kidnapping. Nowak had been a Navy pilot and conducted spacewalks as an astronaut. She had been married and divorced from a NASA contractor, and the purpose of her long drive to Orlando was to kidnap the astronaut she had an affair with and the astronaut that she had been dumped for by that astronaut (the other one she was kidnapping). Noah Hawley’s feature film directorial debut is “inspired by true events”, and about the only thing missing is those diapers.

OK, that’s not the only thing. Also missing are a coherent story, believable dialogue, a realistic Texas accent, a competent psychologist, and an inspiring story of girl power. Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, and the film opens with her being filled with awe during a spacewalk that will forever make life on Earth seem small … even while her dreadful accent (with San Angelo gun joke) tortures the ears of every viewer. Jon Hamm co-stars as astronaut Mark Goodwin, the “action-figure” prize in the eyes of Lucy. This despite Lucy’s cheery, stable and very grounded husband Drew (Dan Stevens), who works in NASA Public Relations. Playing the 4th wheel in what should have been two separate two-wheelers is astronaut Erin Eccles (an underutilized Zazie Beetz). Thankfully, Ellen Burstyn is around to inject some raunchy old woman humor and life lessons as Lucy’s Nana. For no apparent reason, other than possibly in hopes of attracting a younger audience, Pearl Amanda Dixon plays Iris, Lucy’s teenage niece. Iris spends most of the movie casting confused looks at her famous aunt, wondering why Nana told her to take any advice from Lucy.

Noah Hawley is best known for his excellent TV work with “Fargo”, and here is credited as co-writer with Brian C Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi. It’s the first feature film for all three and it shows. There are some interesting ideas and approaches, but most of the stylistic attempts are just too much: the non-stop shifting of aspect ratios, the by design blurring (out of focus) images, and the Malick-type edits early on, are all more distracting than artistic.

There are some intriguing bits to Lucy’s character. She’s a woman in a field dominated by Type A men, and she matches or exceeds all in determination, grit and expertise. It’s only after she is “star struck” that she begins her descent into mental and emotional instability. As she loses herself, there is a scene where Hamm’s Goodwin is watching the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy over and over. That scene probably offers more insight into being an astronaut than most anything we see from Lucy. As for the finale, it’s a rain-soaked mess, and perhaps drives home the point that the filmmakers were handcuffed by a true life story that was simply too bizarre to work as a movie … especially since they left out the diapers.

watch the trailer:


TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015)

March 18, 2015

two men in town Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rachid Bouchareb, a long time festival favorite, has taken the general story of writer/director Jose Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title and relocated it from France to a New Mexico border town. It touches on many elements such as rehabilitation of criminals, small town justice, human personality traits, freedom and justice, and conversion to Islam.

Opening with the silhouette of a brutal murder against the sunset in a New Mexico desert, the film has a western feel replete with the sense of doom and impending showdown. Forest Whitaker stars as Garnett, a paroled man who has just been released after serving 18 years for killing a deputy. Despite a life of crime that began when he was 11 years old, Garnett was a model prisoner who obtained his GED and mentored others while becoming a converted Muslim. His words make it clear he wants to put his old life behind and start fresh – however, his actions show he still struggles with explosive anger issues.

In a move that seems counterintuitive, Garnett is confined while on parole to the county in which he killed the deputy. The local sheriff (Harvey Keitel … who else would it be?) sets about making things difficult for Garnett, and expresses anger at his release while the “deputy is still dead”. The idealistic parole officer is played by Brenda Blethyn, so the stage is set for the clash of philosophies: trust and rehabilitation vs historical behavior and justice. Adding one more challenge to Garnett’s new world is the presence of his old crime boss played by Luis Guzman, who of course, wants him back in the business.

While many folks all over the globe struggle endlessly to find love; Garnett is 2 days out of prison when he falls for the local banker played by Delores Heredia. Herein lies the problems with the movie. The love connection just happens too quickly. Guzman is never the ominous presence of a truly bad guy. Keitel only gets to offer glimpses of his disgust at Garnett’s freedom. These three characters are all severely underwritten despite the efforts of three fine actors.

If not for the terrific performance of Forest Whitaker, the film would fall totally flat. It’s his screen presence that keeps us watching, hoping against all odds that he will find the peace he so desperately seeks. There is a wonderful scene with Whitaker and Ellen Burstyn, and a couple of the scenes with Whitaker and Blethyn are powerful, but the other pieces just never pack the punch necessary for this one to fully click.

watch the trailer:

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) revisited

September 27, 2013

last pic1 Greetings again from the darkness.  Tuesday night was a real treat for this movie lover.  Thanks to the Dallas Film Society, Frost Bank and Alamo Drafthouse, the first in a Texas-themed film series was presented … The Last Picture Show.   As I have stated many times, seeing the classics in a theatre goes far beyond reminiscing. It is experiencing the best of cinematic art in the forum its creators meant for it to be seen.

Forty-two years ago, director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich and writer Larry McMurtry (screenplay and novel) assembled a cast that blended veteran stage, screen and TV actors such as Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, with an energetic and fresh-faced group of relative unknowns such as Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd.  It was the first screen appearance for Quaid and Shepherd (who had been a successful last jeff cybillteenage model), as well as Sam Bottoms (Timothy’s brother) who plays Billy, the smiling, sweeping mute boy who so adores Sonny and Duane.  Of course, Bridges had been acting off and on through his childhood thanks to his dad Lloyd, but this was his breakout role.

It’s not unusual for this film to be pre-judged as some simplistic, outmoded black and white movie with no relevance to today’s world.  In fact, a better argument can be made that this is one of the finest commentaries ever made on human nature, friendship, growing up, mentoring and personal dreams.  You might wonder how a story that takes place in some tiny, desolate, wind-blown rural Texas town in 1951 (the start of the Korean War) has anything to do with society today.  The small town setting actually strips away all distractions of today’s stories and focuses on what makes people tick … why they do the things they do.  We see the strong, the weak, the disabled, the rich, the poor, the innocence of youth, the melancholy middle-aged and the impact our decisions and actions have on others.  It’s easy to ask “why do they stay” or “what makes life worth living” in Anarene.  Those same questions are asked by many people every day in any town or city you can name, regardless of size or location. This is also one of those rare movies that causes your outlook and perception to change depending on your age.  When I first watched, I was seeing through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), while now I relate much more to Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).  Not many movies have that kind of generational power.

last ben The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Cinematographer, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), with wins for Supporting Actress (Cloris Leachman) and Supporting Actor (Ben Johnson).   The French Connection was the big winner that year, and other nominees included A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof.  What a year!  Ms. Leachman and Mr. Johnson (pictured left) are both heart-breakingly terrific in the movie. Johnson’s scene at the fish tank is mesmerizing and he perfectly captures the wistful wonderings of so many middle-aged men who feel like life has passed them by.  I’ve often interpreted Sonny and Duane as the two sides of Sam the Lion (what he once was and what he is now). Johnson passed away in 1996, but used his wonderful slow drawl and strong presence in such films as The Wild Bunch, Dillinger and many John Ford westerns. Ms. Leachman (still working today in “Raising Hope” after striking it big in “Mary Tyler Moore” and Young Frankenstein) generates such empathy from the viewer as she re-discovers a reason to live.  She is also the key to what I consider one of the most powerful closing scenes in cinematic history.  As for the others, Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn are both in their 5th decade of Hollywood stardom and have each won Oscars.  Eileen Brennan has a very memorable moment in this film where she shoots one of those filled-with-disgust glares at Jacy (Shepherd). It’s one of those looks that only exists between one woman and another. Ms. Brennan (who passed away earlier this year) was Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Private Benjamin (1980).

last bog Equally fascinating are the stories of the creative forces behind the film.  Peter Bogdanovich (pictured left) was a film historian and film critic when he broke into Hollywood as a bit actor and filmmaker.  He later had some directorial success with such films as Paper Moon (1973) and Mask (1985), but he never again reached this level as a director (though very few do).  In fact, much of his career has been spent as a supporting actor (including a psychiatrist in “The Sopranos”).  Bogdanovich can be heard as the DJ on the radio during this film … a New Yorker giving his best impression of a Texan.  Married to his artistic collaborator and (later) producer Polly Platt while filming this movie, he soon began a very public affair with young Cybill Shepherd. They made quite the high profile couple for a short while.  You might remember the story of 1980 Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Paul Snider, and was the subject of Bob Fosse’s film Star 80.  At the time of her death, Stratten was dating Bogdanovich.  A few years later, Bogdanovich married Dorothy’s younger sister Louise.  Even in Hollywood, this was greeted with raised eyebrows.  Bogdanovich worshipped the films of Truffaut, Ford and his friend Orson Welles … the influence of each is visible in The Last Picture Show. Unfortunately, Bogdanovich was never able to re-capture the magic of this 1971 gem.  Some blame his divorce from Polly Platt, while last mcmothers claim it was writer Larry McMurtry’s input that helped make the film something special. In addition to this novel and screenplay, McMurtry (pictured left) is also known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Lonesome Dove” (later an award winning TV mini-series),  his novel “Terms of Endearment” (adapted into an Oscar winning movie), and his screenplay for Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain.  Despite all the success, it’s The Last Picture Show that hits closest to home … it’s a semi-autobiographical rendering of his life in Archer City, Texas (renamed Anarene in the film).  Even today, McMurtry is a book seller and frequent resident in Archer City.  In 2011, he married the widow of author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).  Lastly, cinematographer Robert Surtees captured the desolate landscape of Anarene through his horizontal pans of a landscape that never seems to change.  Mr. Surtees was a 16 time Oscar nominee for such films as Oklahoma!, The Graduate, A Star is Born and one of his three wins came for the classic Ben-Hur.  His son Bruce followed in his shoes and was Oscar nominated for his work on Lenny (1975)

last tim cloris There are a few other things I like to point out in regards to the film.  The high school teacher reciting Keats’ “Truth and Beauty” to a class who couldn’t care less is John Hillerman (a native Texan), who went on to stardom in “Magnum P.I.” in the 1980’s.  Randy Quaid received an Oscar nomination just two years later for his work in the great The Last Detail. Of course, he later went on to star as Cousin Eddie in the ‘Vacation’ movies. Clu Gulager plays town lothario Abilene. He is the son of vaudeville star John Gulager, who worked with George M Cohan. Clu has had a long career in TV and movies and even appeared in last year’s Piranha 3DD … at age 84!  The music in the film corresponds closely to the story and much of it is the work of the great Hank Williams, Sr. Check out the two versions of “Cold, Cold Heart” as they are performed by both Williams and Tony Bennett.  Now THAT’s how you use music in a flm!  Cybill Shepherd became a star thanks to her work here, then in Taxi Driver, and in the hit TV show “Moonlighting” (with Bruce Willis), her own show “Cybill”, and the Showtime series “The L Word”.  She continues her work in both TV and movies.  As previously mentioned, she began a very public affair with director Peter Bogdanovich while filming this movie. What many don’t know is that she was actually seeing Elvis Presley at the time, and chose Bogdanovich over the King of Rock and Roll.

In 1990, director Bogdanovich revisited Anarene and caught up with the characters 30 years later in the sequel Texasville.  While it’s based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name, Mr. McMurtry was not involved in the production and Bogdanovich wrote the screenplay himself.  Many of the original cast reprised their roles, but the film was not well received either critically or at the box office.   On the bright side, The Last Picture Show was selected to become part of The National Film Registry in 1998.  Maybe the film deserved a happy ending after all.

**NOTE: I have elected not to post the original movie trailer as it is my opinion that if you have not seen the movie, it’s best to view it with fresh eyes … in other words, the trailer shows too much of a few critical scenes.