KAJILLIONAIRE (2020)

September 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A single month with new releases from both Charlie Kaufman (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS) and Miranda July, is almost enough to make this movie lover forget for a moment that we are suffering through a global pandemic, raging forest fires, and the most obscene presidential campaign of my lifetime. Ms. July is an absurdly talented writer and filmmaker, and it’s her first feature length film since THE FUTURE (2011). Prior to that, she served up ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005), and has a unique way of displaying her strange life observations. She and Kaufman are masters of quirk, and excel in twisting our minds.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio Dyne, daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (an unrecognizable Debra Winger). This is an oddball family of petty crime con artists who live in a run down, unused office next to the Bubbles, Inc. factory. And yes, they make bubbles in the factory … bubbles that seep through the walls into the office where this family sleeps. One of their scams is on the landlord (a surreal character himself) who has to explain to an always-negotiating Robert that “rent is an installment”.

The first part of the film allows us to get to know the family members. We see them pull off stealing mail from a neighboring post office box, and returning stolen goods for the reward. Ms. Wood stays attired in an oversized green track suit jacket, and has lowered her speaking voice by an octave, adding impact to her monotone liners. She’s socially awkward, and likely on the spectrum as she seems to be the smartest of the bunch. Daddy Robert is a control freak and has an emotional disability in regards to California earthquake tremors. He and Theresa show no signs of affection towards each other or Old Dolio.

An airline baggage scam results in the family meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an eager to join the grifters woman, whom Old Dolio sees as her replacement as both a daughter and partner. Jealousy ensues. Melanie is contrasted to Old Dolio by her bubbly personality, and by a wardrobe that is significantly more revealing than a tattered track suit. Old Dolio watches uneasily as Melanie is soon receiving the attention from Robert and Theresa that their own daughter craves.

The second half evolves into a film not so much about cons or heists (the film admits it’s no OCEANS 11), as about family dynamics. The twists and turns find Melanie helping Old Dolio break free of parental over-control in order to experience independence … and pancakes. Learning about warmth and affection from “normal” families is eye-opening for her, and sometimes a little confusing for us to follow.  Who is scamming whom, and when are they telling the truth?

Miranda July has created a crime-drama-comedy (dark comedy), with plenty of space to let the characters and dialogue breathe. “I’m Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton kicks in periodically, and the score from Emile Mosseri (THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO) complements it well. On the heels of last year’s team of family scamsters in PARASITE, this shaggy group has never met a swindle they wouldn’t try. And they never expected it to backfire with their own daughter. The divide between those who like the film and those who don’t was pretty clear after Sundance, and Miranda July will likely never be one to appeal to the masses. But for those of us who connect with her oddball way of seeing life, we appreciate the focus on what makes a family of outsiders click … especially when a superb performance from Evan Rachel Wood drives the film.

watch the trailer:


IDES OF MARCH

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political thrillers can be so juicy and filled with “gotcha” moments and “oh how could he/she” scenes. Inevitably, most come down to an “I believed in you” showdown and reckoning. This latest one based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, gives George Clooney an opportunity to play out his political aspirations without opening himself to the real thing.

Clooney also directs and the smartest move he made was assembling an ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today. Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, who is one of two still-standing Democratic Presidential contenders on the verge of the Ohio primary. His Campaign Manager is grizzled campaign veteran Paul, played with staunch principals and a black-and-white rule book by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their talented and idealistic Press Secretary Stephen is played by Ryan Gosling, who talks more in the first scene than he did in the entire movie Drive. Their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy is played by Paul Giamatti. Duffy oozes cynicism and seems to have misplaced the rule book that Paul holds so dearly.

 The film begins with the set-up so we get a feel for just how strong or weak of character each of these men are. Morris (Clooney) is obviously an Obama-type idealist who claims his religion is the US Consitution. He says this while gently poking fun at his opponent’s Christian beliefs. We see just how talented Stephen (Gosling) character is at handling the words that his candidate speaks and we see Paul (PSH) in full back room politico maneuvering.

 The film has two huge points where the mood swings. The first is a contrived, definite no-no meeting between the ambitious Stephen and the shrewd Duffy. The second is a sequence between Stephen and a 20 year old campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the DNC. These two events turn the film from political thriller to melodramatic Hollywood fare. That doesn’t make it less of a movie, it’s just different than it began.

 Cat and mouse games ensue and we see just who is the master manipulator amongst a group of professionals. This is one of those films where the individual pieces are actually more interesting than the whole pie. There are two really excellent exchanges between Gosling and Hoffman. Ms. Wood steals her scenes with ease. Jeffrey Wright nails his brief time as a desperate Senator negotiating the best deal possible. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is a work of art. The only thing missing is a confrontation between Giamatti and Hoffman. THAT alone would be worth the price of admission.  We also get a glimpse of the give-and-take gamesmanship between the campaign (Gosling) and the media (Marisa Tomei).

You might be surprised that Clooney actually minimizes the political meanderings, though he does get in a few jabs at the Republicans. This is more character drama … how far can your ideals and morals carry you. What is your breaking point? Where is the line between realist and idealist? Is it betrayal if you act for the right reason? The final shot of film is superb. Et tu, Brute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a mixture of political drama and traditional Hollywood melodrama, especially when performed by a group of top notch actors OR you are convinced that only Republicans do bad things

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you only want a full-fledged political expose’ around running for political office OR you still believe that politicians and idealists are above reproach.

watch the trailer:


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While not a historical expert, I commend writer James Solomon for his years of research into a fascinating, yet quite dark moment in America. Many have attempted to couch the film as presenting Mary Surratt as an innocent bystander. I would argue that the film is much less about her innocence or guilt, and much more about the state of our country’s leaders and the judicial system at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.

I found the two strongest elements of the film causing quite an internal conflict as I watched. First, the film is simply gorgeous. Costumes, props, sets and lighting all lead to a texture that puts the viewer right into the mid 1860’s. Second, the courtroom (and backroom) procedures generate a feeling of disgust. Although, we have had very recent examples of less-than-stellar judicial process in the U.S., we Americans still hold on to the belief that ours is the best and fairest system in existence.

 It was very interesting to see Kevin Kline as War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the guy calling the shots during this time and evidently had quite a power hold on the military, as well as the government. His viewpoint that the country needed a swift and decisive conclusion to this tragedy makes absolute sense … unless you happened to be one of the accused, or their legal counsel.

The lead actors in the film do a very nice job of capturing their characters and holding us in time. In addition to Mr. Kline, James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, the Union war hero and reluctant defense attorney for Mary Surratt. Tom Wilkinson plays Senator Reverdy Johnson who, as Aiken’s mentor, recognizes all elements of the procedures. Evan Rachel Wood portrays Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter. She has few scenes, but each is quite powerful. Danny Huston is Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney, who clearly has free reign to do whatever is necessary to ensure a guilty verdict. Other supporting work is provided by Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth), Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints), Stephen Root, Johnny Simmons and Colm Meaney. The two miscast roles are courtesy of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long.

 I found Robin Wright‘s stoic portrayal of Mary Surratt to be quite mesmerizing. Her strength and motherly insistence on protecting her son was absolutely believable. In my opinion she should gather consideration for an Oscar nomination when the time comes. This is not a showy performance, but rather the foundation of the story.

Lighting of the time was thanks to candles and lanterns, and director Robert Redford masterfully captures that on film. We are always hoping for a bit more light on the characters or in the courtroom. Instead we get the feeling of being present. I did find some of the “buddy scenes” to be unnecessary, but the scenes with Wilkinson and Kline more than offset this weakness.

This is the first film from The American Film Company, whose mission is to present historically accurate films on American history. If their initial entry is an indication, we anxiously await their next projects.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are in the mood to be transported back to 1865 and come as close as possible to experiencing the conflict and grief of the young country just out of civil war.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to see the flaws within what is basically a very strong and judicious system