MY DAYS OF MERCY (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. There have been some fine movies centered on death row. These include: THE GREEN MILE (1999), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003), and TRUE CRIME (1999). The only one I can remember that even comes close to also being a love story is MONSTER’S BALL (2001), and if you’ve seen it, you would likely agree that it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy story of romance. With this latest, however, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer and British writer Joe Barton combine for a romantic story where death row plays a vital part.

Ellen Page stars as Lucy. She travels around the country in a well-worn motorhome with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz, UPSTREAM COLOR) and their little brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), as they partake in the anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the prison gates as the next execution takes place. Across the parking lot, the pro-death penalty side hold their own signs and keep their own vigil. Lucy’s eyes lock on those of a striking young woman from the other side. When they meet, the ironically named Mercy (Kate Mara) aggressively flirts with the shy and confused Lucy, and the two sneak out for drinks at a bar.

Soon Lucy is anxiously awaiting the next protest so that she can meet up with Mercy. The sexual tension builds as they get to know each other, and their awkward friendship turns romantic. Their activism for different sides of an important topic doesn’t have any negative impact on their attraction to each other. Each woman has been personally affected by the death penalty, and as viewers we struggle with the idea that these two lovebirds part each time with what amounts to ‘see you at the next execution!’

Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990) plays Lucy’s death row dad, and Brian Geraghty (THE HURT LOCKER) plays the attorney who is simultaneously working on his case and on Lucy’s sister Martha. The acting here is top notch as Kate Mara balances the two sides of Mercy, and Ellen Page flashes her familiar JUNO snark – albeit with the heft of a wisened adult. Ms. Seimetz adds to her list of always-interesting characters, and has a couple of truly outstanding scenes.

Blending love and the death penalty makes for an unusual combination, and we do understand that folks choose their side based on personal belief and circumstances. For the film, the death penalty issue is a bit of a distraction to the story of these two people, though it’s admirable that Mr. Barton chose to give them a personal stake in two different cases, rather than the same – which we would expect in a lesser movie. The use of “last meals” is quite creative, as we see the actual food, as well as the name of the inmate, the crime, and the prison.

The fallout from executions is widespread. Perhaps no one wants a narrative film focused entirely on such a depressing and divisive topic. We do ask ourselves if a romantic relationship is even possible for two who are diametrically opposed on such an emotional topic. It’s an ending that lets no one off the hook easily. Life is hard. So is death. Make your choices wisely.

watch the trailer:


FREEHELD (2015)

October 2, 2015

freeheld Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.

We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.

A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest.  However, this isn’t a story for laughs.  Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.

watch the trailer:

 


THE EAST (2013)

July 1, 2013

east1 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij re-teams with his Sound of My Voice co-writer and actress Brit Marling (Another Earth) to deliver another cult-based story. This time they focus on big, bad corporations and the eco-terrorists who target them.

Ms. Marling’s character is hired by Patricia Clarkson’s Security Company that specializes in protecting big corporations from the terrorist attacks and acts of revenge that these cults of anarchists perpetuate. Marling goes undercover to learn the secrets of The East, one of the particularly aggressive cult-like groups. The leader of The East is played by Alexander Skarsgard, who works with an overly-zealous and bitter Ellen Page and former med student Toby Kebbell.

east3 Are these idealists, anarchists, eco-activists or eco-terrorists? Is their “eye for an eye” philosophy a form of retribution or is it meant to draw attention so that a wrong can be righted? Are there extremes to which they won’t go? This group doesn’t seem united in their answers to these questions, though their deep woods hangout draws comparisons to Charles Manson’s compound.

As Marling becomes part of the group, she participates in the “jams”, which are the actual strikes against the companies and the decision makers in charge. Specifically, they give a pharmaceutical giant a taste of their own medicine … getting the desired results, which they watch online. Of course, there is always the risk of prison and/or injury and things don’t always go according to plan.

east4 The cast is pretty talented and also includes Jason Ritter, Shiloh Fernandez and Julia Ormond. The story will remind a bit of Sound of My Voice, and also Martha Marcy May Marlene. In other words, the attraction of the cult and commitment to cause. The set-up to the story is very well done, and it’s no real surprise as opposing ideals and conflicts creep into a group of idealists. Is violence necessary or are there more effective methods to make one’s protest heard and spur change? While the movie lacks the edge of the best indies, it still makes for good movie discussion … and crosses into real life beliefs and, personal and political stances.

**NOTE: Brit Marling is one of those rare combinations of Writer/Actress, and she is talented at both. She would be a wise choice as a prediction of future Oscar winner at some point … the only question is whether that will come as a writer or actress.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Sound of My Voice and/or Martha Marcy May Marlene OR you’re in the mood for a intriguing story during this time of blockbuster summer releases OR you just want to see Alexander Skarsgard in full scraggily mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you refuse to believe big corporations would never put profit above public well-being OR you’re looking for a few good laughs (not sure this one has even one)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oPoTrnHQ3I


TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

July 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I certainly consider myself a fan of Woody Allen‘s films and am in awe of his prolific ability to write and direct a new movie most every year since 1969. With so many films to his credit, it’s expected that a few will be clunkers. After a pretty nice run of non-New York based films, his love letter to Rome falls short … not from lack of ambition, but rather from a feeling that these stories have been on his “to do” list for too many years. They feel mostly stale and dated.

With one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities as a backdrop, Mr. Allen delivers four stories – none of which intersect with the others. There are some similar shared themes, but mostly what the four stories have in common is mass overacting by all involved. Surprisingly, the one exception might be Alec Baldwin, whose wise-cracking lines are played pretty close to the vest. Unfortunately, all of the other key actors seem to think they are onstage at a dinner theatre and that hyper-activity and bellowing one’s lines are required.

In one story, Woody Allen (his first acting gig since Scoop) and Judy Davis head to Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) fiancé (Flavio Parenti). Allen overhears the mortician father singing in the shower and works out a scheme to get him an audition that could lead to a career. The father is played by famed Opera tenor Fabio Armiliato and this story is so goofy, it could easily fit into Allen’s “early funny ones”.

Another story has newlyweds played by Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandro Mastronardi in a series of innocent happenstance that leads to some not so innocent events that include her favorite actor (Antonio Albanes) and high-priced call girl (Penelope Cruz). Most of this has the feel of a Benny Hill skit.

Jesse Eisenberg and his girlfriend Greta Gerwig share time with her visiting friend played by Ellen Page. This is the Alec Baldwin sequence, and he is a near-ghost-like entity who pops in to provide obvious advice or warning to the players so they don’t make the same mistakes he made as a younger man. This sequence had potential, but never amounted to much.

The fourth story is just an absurd commentary on reality TV and instant fame. Roberto Begnini plays a normal Italian citizen and family man who one day gets thrust into the world of celebrity for no apparent reason. See, that’s the joke. Probably ten years past the time when this was relevant.

Bashing Woody Allen is not my intent here. Simply pointing out that there are four stories and numerous actors and none of it struck a chord with me. Not to say there weren’t a few well written lines and a couple of terrific shots of Rome … just not enough to keep me going for two hours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need your annual Woody Allen fix, even if it’s not up to the level of last year’s Midnight in Paris OR you just want to see Penelope Cruz in a red dress that’s probably two sizes too small for her.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: catching a few glimpses of the amazing sites in Rome is not enough reason for you to sit through some of Woody Allen’s worst written dialogue in years.

watch the trailer:


INCEPTION (2010)

July 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some movies are made as pure visual entertainment. Others are made as a vision of a story. The best combine elements of both. The great ones WOW you with what you see on screen, while keeping your mind focused on the multiple dimensions of a story that just won’t let you jump ahead. The previous sentence is my feeble attempt at describing what happens during Inception.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan turns 40 at the end of this month. He now has 3 instant-classic films to his credit: Memento, The Dark Knight and now Inception. I am not a good enough writer to describe just how talented he his at making films. What I can tell you is that this movie gave me a “runner’s high” … it put me “in the zone”. As a viewer, I felt in perfect sync at each twist and turn.

There are two pieces of advice I will offer. First, go see the film at a theatre on the big screen. Don’t wait for NetFlix. Second, pay attention to every scene and every line. Trust Mr. Nolan to take you on this wild ride. You may be able to figure out the ending (if there even is one), but you will have missed the real point of the film … how did you get here?

Here is a brief synopsis: Leonardo DiCaprio plays an expert thief. He is a thief who steals ideas by infiltrating the dreams of his targets and snatching their ideas. A very wealthy tycoon played by Ken Watanabe hires DiCaprio for a risky project of Inception – the inserting of an idea into the subject’s mind through dreams, rather than the stealing of an idea. DiCaprio’s team is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with physical brilliance while lacking gravitational force), Tom Hardy (from Rocknrolla), master chemist Dileep Rao, and new recruit Ellen Page (“Juno” plays a brilliant architect prodigy with a genius of space and dimension). Cillian Murphy plays the target and Michael Caine is DiCaprio’s father in law … the link between who Leo is now and his previous life with his wife, played hauntingly well by Marion Cotillard.

A perfect Nolan touch is Ellen Page’s character name – Ariadne. A quick google finds that Ariadne, in Greek mythology, fell in love with Theseus and helped him escape Minotaur’s labyrinth. The film is full of mazes and is itself a labyrinth punctuated by a stunning and powerful score by Hans Zimmer. You will find yourself bouncing from dream to reality, jumping into another’s dreams, layering dreams upon each other … oh, and watching a mind-bending special effect as the city of Paris is folded over on top of itself.

Clear your mind for 2 and a half hours and let a terrific filmmaker take you on a journey through mindspace that we never really pay attention to. The payoff is dream-like.  This film was on my “films of interest” list on my First Half recap.  If you missed the recap, here is the link:  https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/2010-first-half-recap/