YOUTH IN OREGON (2017)

February 4, 2017

youth-in-oregon Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those tough little indie movies that would fit right in at most film festivals. Directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, the film has a few exceptional scenes, yet once it’s over, it’s pretty easy to just leave it behind. That shouldn’t happen with a story dealing with a theme of death with dignity. Shouldn’t there be a desire to talk about the issue, or at least spend some time in thought?

Perhaps the reason this one isn’t the gut-punch we expect is that while the central reason for the story is 80 year old Ray’s (Frank Langella) desire to end life on his terms, the vast majority of screen time is devoted to the exceptionally dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It’s not an “issue” movie, and dysfunctional family movies are about as common as superhero movies these days … we’ve become a bit numb.

Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) are living with their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband Brian (Billy Crudup) and Kate and Brian’s teenage daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a crowded house where emotions run high, voices are usually amped to 11, and Kate and Brian’s marriage is stressed to the limit with responsibilities.

Bad news at the doctor’s office leads Ray to the crucial decision on his future. He announces this while giving the most uncomfortable birthday speech ever at dinner that evening … “I want to die.” It’s a terrific scene and each person’s reaction is priceless – to the point where we almost wish it were in slow motion so as not to miss anything.

Typically poor teenage judgment by daughter Annie means mother Kate stays at home for discipline, while Brian reluctantly agrees to drive Ray cross country to Oregon to find out if he qualifies under the mercy killing law. Estelle and her always present booze come along for the ride, but it’s mostly the strained relationship between Ray and Brian that generate the fireworks. Along the way, they add Ray’s estranged gay son Danny (Josh Lucas), as well as Brian’s angry college age son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Once they reach Oregon, another wonderful scene/sequence occurs as Ray meets up with a longtime friend who has made the same decision. It’s a well handled and well acted portion of the story.

Ray’s decision to hide his medical diagnosis from the family is the source of the most recent conflict, but there’s a history in this family. Isn’t that always the case? A lack of communication often causes even more issues than too much honesty. The abundance of dysfunction can’t be offset by some peaceful bird-watching, and all of the frustration and anger prevents the necessary conversations on the more interesting topic … a reason to live vs. a desire to die. A slight re-focus would have taken more advantage of the terrific performance of Langella, and added some fun to the post movie discussion.

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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

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KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET (2015)

August 19, 2015

prophet Greetings again from the darkness. An animated, artistic, philosophical parable based on a 1923 book from a Lebanese poet … it’s as if the filmmakers went out of their way to make sure most everyone would be turned off by some aspect. Instead, director Roger Allers delivers a beautiful and thoughtful representation of nine of the 26 stories from Kahlil Gibran’s influential best-seller.

The story revolves around Mustafa, an artist and poet who was exiled seven years earlier when his words were deemed harmful to the local regime. Mustafa is informed that he will be granted his freedom to return home, and as he is escorted through town, Mustafa periodically delivers his insightful and inspiring words to the people of the land. These make up the 9 segments (Freedom, Children, Marriage, Work, Love, etc) within the movie, and each of these segments is the unique work of a different renowned artist/director. The artistic style and presentation varies between each segment, and some employ the use of music (Damien Rice, Glen Hansard).

As Mustafa recites the words of Gibran, the individual segments unfold with the artistry of each director. These blend well with the overall story which also features Mustafa’s housekeeper and her young daughter (who initially doesn’t speak). The voice acting is top notch thanks to Liam Neeson (Mustafa), Salma Hayek (the housekeeper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Almitra), John Krasinski (a lovesick guard), Alfred Molina (Sergeant), and Frank Langella (regime leader). Mr. Neeson is especially effective as the soothing voice of Gibran’s words.

This was evidently a pet project of Salma Hayek, who also is Producer of the film. She wisely enlisted director Roger Allers, who has ties to Disney and the hugely popular The Lion King. The film is Disney-esque in its approach, but is certainly not aimed at kids. It’s really a blend of the segmented structure of Fantasia, the adult-themed style of Watership Down, and the philosophical meanderings of Gandhi.

Gibran writes that “all work is noble”, and the work of these filmmakers certainly is. As with any poetry or philosophy, one must be receptive to the message and willing to be inspired. If not, it’s merely “love and flowers”.

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5 to 7 (2015)

April 5, 2015

5 to 7 Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhere along the line, the magic of movie romance has been lost. Love stories these days tend to take either the direction of snark or sap (or whips). Ever so popular in the 1940’s and 50’s, well-written sentimentality for the big screen would best be described these days as passé’. And that’s what makes writer/director Victor Levin’s little film such a pleasure to experience.

We begin with a narrator proclaiming that some of the best writing is found on the tribute plaques attached to the benches within Central Park. Those plaques are used a few times throughout the film to drive home a particular situation or status within the story. The narrator is Brian (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), a 24 year old struggling writer whose parents want him to give up his writing dream and head to law school.

One day, while walking through the city, Brian catches a glimpse of striking woman smoking a cigarette. He crosses the street and the two exchange some clever banter. Just like that … the story begins and their lives are forever changed.

The woman is Arielle (Berenice Marlohe, Skyfall), and she is French, older than Brian, and married … 3 things that are equally problematic according to his dad (Frank Langella), though his mom (Glenn Close) is just thrilled someone likes her boy. As the flirting escalates, Arielle proceeds to explain to Brian that she is open to seeing him daily between the hours of 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Familiar with French language, but unfamiliar with customs, Brian is brought up to speed on “cinq a sept” affairs – a tradition in France, where a married person’s whereabouts are not questioned during the period after work and before home.

As you might guess, the affair does wonders for Brian as he is finally experiencing the world … passion … connection. Arielle opens his eyes and mind to many things, and Brian is especially taken aback as the lines blur between family and outsiders. This leads him to meet Jane (Olivia Thirlby), who is not just a rising young editor, but also the mistress to Arielle’s husband Valery (Lambert Wilson). Yes, it’s a tangled web that’s woven.

Mr. Levin’s script is remarkable in its effectiveness at providing the awkward situations with a dose of humor; and his targets include Jews, the French, and Americans and their customs. It’s impossible not to think of the classic film The Graduate, or even Linklater’s “Before” franchise, but this one is different … it does not shy away from sentimentality, romance or emotion. The film wears its heart on its sleeve – or more aptly, the screen. We feel (good and bad) right along with the characters.

The camera only uses close-ups when it must, and instead allows the scene and the characters to breathe. There is a simple looking, but wonderful shot of Brian and Arielle walking through Central Park directly towards the camera. They are in discovery mode towards each other, and it’s fascinating to listen and watch.

Anyone who fancies themselves a writer will tip their cap to no less than eight lines that are near perfection. Being “too happy to write” is certainly a relatable emotion, but few films feature better last lines than this one … if only we could each be that one reader to which the line refers. If you are open to some heartfelt sentimental romance, then give this one a watch. If not, you’ll certainly find no shortage of reviews from caustic critics so quick to rip a film lacking in snark and sarcasm.

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ALL THINGS GOOD

January 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who among us isn’t intrigued by a real life “unsolved” murder mystery? Throw in a very wealthy New York real estate family, a never-discovered body, an executed friend, and a horrible childhood trauma and it is certain to draw the attention of filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. Jarecki’s film Capturing the Friedmans won numerous awards and is among the best  documentaries ever made. He has a knack with dark family secrets.

In the film, Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, disenchanted son of Real Estate mogul Sanford Marks (a powerful Frank Langella), who witnessed the grisly suicide of his mother when he was very young. David meets the energetic and affectionate Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and the two dreamers escape Daddy’s clutches and head to Vermont to open a health food store. Finally wilting under pressure from Sanford, the couple returns to the city and David joins the family business. The good things are soon to end.

Since much of the real life story is still a mystery, Jarecki does a nice job in assembling pieces from the trial records. Along the way, we meet David’s friend Deborah Lehrman (Lilly Rabe), an acclaimed writer who seems to always be there for David … as he is for her. We witness the transformation of David from loving husband to mentally disturbed murder suspect.

Jarecki gives us some guidance on what might have happened and how the plan could have been executed, but we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that there was not much happiness associated with this family, despite the wealth and 42nd Street real estate holdings.

The acting in the film is tremendous. Gosling, Dunst and Langella are top notch. Yes, Ms. Dunst provides what is easily her best screen performance ever. Support work from Lily Rabe, Phillip Baker Hall, Nick Offerman and Kristen Wiig is all strong and believable. This one will give you the creeps … and rightly so.

A brief overview of the real story: Seymour Durst is the real life NY real estate mogul, whose son Robert stood trial and was also accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen.  Author Susan Berman wrote “Easy Street”, was friends with Robert, and was the daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss.  She was murdered, execution-style, and the case was never solved … though police believe it could be linked to the disappearance of Kathleen Durst.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the best thrillers are based on real life mysteries OR you want to see Kirsten Dunst in her best ever performance (yes, better than Spider-Man)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: real life murder mysteries give you the creeps OR you don’t want to give your spouse any ideas!


WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010)

September 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The much anticipated sequel to the 1987 original has Oliver Stone back in the director’s seat for one of the most iconic characters in movie history, Gordon Gekko.  Michael Douglas is back as GG and the film opens as he is being released from prison … with no one there to pick him up. He is truly on his own.

Skip ahead a few years and we see Shia LeBeouf as Jake, a Wall Street hotshot working for Frank Langella, a Wall Street legend. It is very obvious that this legend, and Jake’s mentor, is in deep trouble and the entire market is pretty wobbly. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s 2008. Ahh yes, the juicy part … Jake is getting engaged to the lovely Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who just happens to be Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter. Now we’re rolling!

Turns out, the dirty tricks and back room deals didn’t stop while Gekko was incarcerated. Josh Brolin plays a high roller for a thinly disguised firm that most will recognize as Goldman Sachs. Brolin thinks he was wronged a few years back by Langella, and can’t wait to get even when the opportunity presents itself in a meeting with the Treasury Secretary. Sound deliciously nasty? Well not so fast.

The movie steers away from much of the back-stabbing and dirty deal making that was so prevalent in the original. It even avoids much commentary on the scuzzy financial services industry leaders who managed to profit while all of our retirement plans and home values were plummeting. Instead, we get an overabundance of melodramatic, sappy conversation about feelings and family and time. Apparently Gekko found a semblance of a soul while in prison. He’s certainly not perfect, but this is not the wheeler-dealer that was so much fun to hiss in part one.

Oliver Stone tosses in some touches that help: Charlie Sheen reprises his Bud Fox role for a brief encounter with Gekko, there are some terrific shots of NYC and we get Sylvia Miles back as the Realtor – this time helping Jake dump his loft in a soft market. We even get 95 year old Eli Wallach whistling his way through a power role, complete with Jake’s ringer playing the theme song to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. All fun aspects, but they don’t offset the inordinate number of times we must endure people choking up and crying. Had to check the credits to see if Nora Ephron was co-director.

Bottom line, if you enjoyed the original, you probably owe it to yourself to see how Gekko has come full circle. The ride is fine, just not at the same level as we were treated 23 years ago.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1987 original OR you have been waiting to see Shia LeBeouf play grown-up

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking tips on stocks or revenge OR your idea of fun is a steady stream of plastic surgery and “money room” jewelry