10,000 SAINTS (2015)

August 13, 2015

10,000 Saints Greetings again from the darkness. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll – not just a bumper sticker, but also frequent and fun movie topics. Throw in 1980’s New York City, some excruciatingly dysfunctional parenting, and the coming-of-age struggles of three youngsters, and you have the latest from co-writers and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the real life couple behind American Splendor, 2003).

Based on the novel from Eleanor Henderson, it’s a nostalgic trip with little of the positive connotations usually associated with that term. The surprisingly deep cast features Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County, 2013) as parents to son Jude played by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011). Emily Mortimer plays Hawke’s new girlfriend and mother to Eliza played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010). Avan Jogia plays Jude’s best friend Teddy, and Emile Hirsch is Teddy’s big brother Johnny. It’s an unusually high number of flawed characters who come together in a story that features some familiar coming-of-age moments, yet still manages to keep our interest.

The story centers on Jude as he comes to terms with finding out he’s adopted, works to overcome his less than stellar parents, and spends an inordinate amount of time finding new ways to experiment with drugs. One night changes everything as it leads to a tragic end for one character and pregnancy for Eliza. Ms. Steinfeld is extraordinary as Eliza and really makes an impressive step from child actress to young adult. Julianne Nicholson is also a standout, and Ethan Hawke provides some offbeat comic relief.

So many elements of 1980’s New York are included, and no effort is made to add any touches of glamour. The Tompkins Square park riots also play a role, if only briefly as the key characters realize life is just not so simple … a consistent theme for both kids and parents. The fragility of life is always an interesting topic, and the filmmakers bring this to light through some characters that we feel like we know – and wish we could help.

watch the trailer:

 

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LONE SURVIVOR (2014)

January 21, 2014

lone survivor Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those times where, in order to analyze a movie, one must separate from the emotion of the subject matter. In the traditional sense, this is not a great movie. However, in terms of practicality, the true story and characters and their actions, leave us emotionally exhausted and questioning whether any war actually makes sense. The other thing it does is bring to light just what impressive beings these brave soldiers really are.

The story is taken from the book (co-written by Patrick Robinson) and real experience of Marcus Luttrell. A Texan and member of Navy SEAL Team 10, Luttrell was one of four chosen for the June 2005 Operation Red Wings … the capture or kill of al Qaeda bad guy Ahmad Shahd. Dropped into the Afghanistan Hindu Kush mountains, the mission goes horribly wrong once the group is stumbled upon by goat herders. The Rules of Engagement provide guidance that is supported by CNN concerns … and the decision is made to release them and call off the mission.

To say all hell breaks loose after that is simply an understatement. The four SEALs face insurmountable odds that end according to the spoiler title. If you have seen Blackhawk Down or the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, then you have some idea of what to expect on screen as these elite soldiers fight for their lives and their country. The intensity and visceral violence is impossible to describe here. The bullets rip flesh and bone, while desperate re-grouping efforts lead to horrendous tumbles down rocky cliffs.

The movie begins with a glimpse at SEAL training, followed by a few minutes of base life … the competitiveness, the bonding, the breeding of fighting machines. Director Peter Berg does allow for a peek at humanity and personality, but the Band of Brothers culture is unmistakable. When one of them states “moderation is for cowards“, we never doubt for a second that this is part of their psyche.

The four Seals are played by Mark Wahlberg (Marcus Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Danny Dietz), and Ben Foster (Matt “Axe” Axelson). While they are all believable, this is not an actor’s seminar. Neither is it a geopolitical editorial. Partisanship is non-existent here. Rather, we are reminded of the sacrifice that comes with war, and left to decide for ourselves if this approach is the best we can do … but never having any doubt that these are heroes and extraordinary men.

The real Marcus Luttrell makes an appearance in the movie … he is the SEAL that spills coffee and tells the rookie to clean it up. Finally, as director Berg was meeting with the families prior to filming, this quote came from Danny Dietz’s father after reading the obituary: “That’s who my son was. That’s how hard he fought. Make sure you get that right“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a realistic glimpse at just how horrific war can be

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a political statement about whether US policy is right or wrong

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoLFk4JK_RM

 


KILLER JOE (2012)

August 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every so often there’s a movie that just defies description and leaves me at a loss for analysis. Initially I thought maybe I could come up with a comparison, but that has proved futile. It also falls short (but does set the tone) to imagine if David Lynch, John Waters and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a film. And then it hit me that really the most likely legacy for this movie is as a midnight movie favorite. A cult film if you will. It has the twisted humor and borderline caricature characters and enough wild scenes and bizarre lines of dialogue, that I believe the midnight crowd will embrace it wholeheartedly.

 The first surprise is that it’s directed by 76 year old William Friedkin, who is best known for his 1970’s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. He even throws in a bit of a chase scene here just to remind of us of his timeless scene from the latter. The story is from playwright Tracy Letts who won a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” (a film version coming soon). Mr. Letts took the inspiration of the story from a real cop in Florida, moved the setting to Texas for obvious reasons and then filmed in Louisiana for economical ones.

 The next surprise is Matthew McConaughey, who has made a career of playing Him-bo’s in farcical rom-coms that seem only to exist so he can be filmed without a shirt. Here, he plays the titular Killer Joe Cooper as a fastidious, meticulous detective who runs a murder-for-hire “business on the side”. Killer Joe has a couple of rules and demands that the details be just right before he agrees to a job. But then he bends his rules when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal sister of Chris (Emile Hirsch) and daughter of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). She becomes the retainer when father and son can’t come up with actual money for the job.

The best way to describe these people, including and especially Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gena Gershon), is they are the epitome of trailer-park hicks who are not merely dysfunctional as a family, but even moreso as human beings. They barely have money to get by in life, but it’s spent on beer, cigarettes, fast food and horse racing. When a small drug deal goes bad, Chris (the scheming son) comes up with the idea of killing his mother (Ansel’s ex) to collect the insurance money. A touch of Double Indemnity thrown down by the Beverly Hillbillies.

 So hustler son and simpleton dad hire Killer Joe for the job. Think of the plan from Blood Simple, and now imagine it’s carried out by the cast of Dumb and Dumber. Things go awry when Joe meets Dottie. It brings out a side of him hidden by his smooth vocal manners and starched black exterior. A side best compared to the sadistic nature of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

No more details need be provided, just know that the story and the people are twisted and demented, and the violence and sexuality are the type that make a film tough to watch at times. That level of discomfort is assuaged by the laugh out loud moments offered by the dialogue, but merely leaves our brains desperately gasping for coherence.  Worth noting is the unique camera work is provided by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad).

Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” is fitting end punctuation for the film, and be warned that while I will never view canned pumpkin the same again, that pales in comparison to what Gena Gershon must now think of when someone offers her a piece of fried chicken.

watch the trailer:


SAVAGES (2012)

July 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I guess this qualifies as director Oliver Stone returning to his dark side. Based on Don Winslow‘s novel, it certainly has the foundation to be a complex, down-and-dirty, twisted plot, double-crossing, love triangle, ultra-violent, drug-dealing smörgåsbord. And while it possesses all of those elements, it still manages to come across as some slick Michael Mann cable TV project.

The film begins with narration from O (Blake Lively) who tells us that just because she is telling us this story, doesn’t mean she is alive at the end. Huh?? She also tells us that she is love with two drug-dealing buddies. Yes, both of them. Chon (Taylor Kitsch, John Carter) is the ex-Seal and muscle in the business. Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) is the gifted botanist who turns the magic Afghan seeds into the most potent pot in southern California. Oh, and Ben is also the ultimate philanthropist drug dealer. He builds schools in third world countries and invests in clean energy. After what felt like an eternity, the narration finally ended and I could stop yelling “Shut up, O” at the screen.

One day the boys receive a video via email. It’s an invitation to a business meeting with the Mexican Baja Drug cartel. Suffice to say that the video contained no balloons or party animals. It was more of a visual warning about what happens if you choose not to do business with them. The cartel front men are played by Demian Bichir (fresh off A Better Life) and Benecio Del Toro (MIA since The Wolfman). The queen of the cartel is Elena, played by Salma Hayak. Throw in a corrupt DEA agent, playing both sides against each other, portrayed by John Travolta, and all the pieces are in place for real fireworks once O is kidnapped (it’s in the trailer).

The rest of the movie is pretty much the war you would expect with some poor negotiation skills, torture and back-stabbing tossed in for fun. Overacting is the word of the day, especially from Travolta, Ms. Hayak and Emile Hirsch (money man). Still not sure what to make of Ms. Lively (The Town). The camera certainly loves her but it’s too early to tell if she has staying power as an actress. The only character that is really fun to watch is Lado, played by Del Toro. He is truly a frightening guy who also happens to have a deceptive mind on how to take over from the weak.

The whole good versus evil story line really only works if one side is good and one side is evil. If the good side (Ben) is a drug-dealer in a love triangle with his best friend, it’s much more difficult to muster empathy. Otherwise, when the necessary hostage/money exchanges occur, we really aren’t invested in the characters … and the action takes center stage. That’s the sign of a forgettable movie with no real heart.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see beautiful people playing drug dealers OR you want to see Benecio Del Toro at his sleazy best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a gritty, down and dirty drug dealing drama with the political extremism we have come to expect from director Oliver Stone

watch the trailer: