MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer:

 


BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (2016)

November 17, 2016

billy-lynn Greetings again from the darkness. “Thank you for your service.” For those of us who have never served in the military, we say the words because we don’t know how else to show our appreciation. Do the words ring hollow to those in uniform? Maybe. Probably. But how else can we honor these brave souls? What if we have them share a stage with a pop singing group during halftime of a football game? It’s this line between honor and propaganda that takes up much of the new movie from two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain).

The story is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, and revolves around soldier Billy Lynn’s and his fellow “Bravo” squad members as they make the rounds back home (in 2004) for publicity after their intense battle sequence is caught on camera. There is much at play here: how the soldiers interact with each other, how they are treated by the general public, how they are used by the team’s owner and the Army for self-serving reasons, and how Billy juggles the stress of war, the spotlight of heroism, and the demands from his family.

Director Lee opted to experiment with the ultra-realism of the new 120 frames per second in 4k 3D, rather than the standard 24 fps. Though this may seem like a minor detail that shouldn’t be addressed in a review of the movie, it’s impossible to ignore this impact. Technical advancements in film and digital have resulted in some exciting new effects for movies, but this high speed approach creates a soap opera look and feel that will likely be disorienting to many viewers. Although the full effect will only be available in New York and Los Angeles (due to shortage of projectors), the clarity on the close-ups is distracting, while leaving the background quite fuzzy and out of focus. Many will find this new look to be “not right” for a movie, and prefer the traditional look. Others may embrace the heightened sense of reality … of being right there with the characters. Of course, this is Ang Lee’s film, so there is no shortage of stunning visuals and expert shots.

Beyond the technical aspects, this movie is simply a bit clunky to watch, not very well written (screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli), not very well acted, and has an overall awkward and unfinished feel to it. Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s sister, and her limited screen time is the best part of the movie. Newcomer Joe Alwyn makes a decent reluctant (and lucky) hero in playing Billy, but he doesn’t have the chops to overcome the script weakness and the burden of carrying so many scenes. This is especially obvious in his unrealistic bonding scenes with cheerleader Faison (played by Makenzie Leigh). Their scenes together are nearly unwatchable.

Supporting work comes from Vin Diesel as Billy’s philosophical officer in recurring flashbacks to the war, Garrett Hedlund as the current squad leader, a miscast Steve Martin as team owner Norm Oglesby (a Jerry Jones type), and Chris Tucker as the incessantly yammering agent/producer trying to put a movie deal together for the soldiers. Other minor contributors include Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McKinnon (in horrible make-up), Ismael Cruz Cordova, Deidre Lovejoy, and a couple of All-Pro players in Richard Sherman and JJ Watt.

Since there are some interesting and important elements to the story, the assumption here is that most effort went towards the experimental technical aspects. More attention to scene detail could have more effectively contrasted the soldier’s take on war versus the never-ending inclination of Americans to turn most anything into more and bigger entertainment … even Destiny’s Child isn’t enough. The questionable filmmaking decisions leave us with the shell of a good story, and too many sappy close-ups of actors emoting directly to the camera lens. The soldier vs hero debate deserves better, and the propaganda aspect deserves a more critical eye.

watch the trailer:

 

 


MOJAVE (2016)

January 21, 2016

mojave Greetings again from the darkness. The isolation of the desert seems the perfect place for an artist to achieve the existential awakening necessary during a time of personal doubt and crisis. The journey to find one’s true self becomes much more complicated when the one-man desert getaway is interrupted by heavy boozing, self-destructive tendencies, and a serial-killer sociopath. Such is the case with writer/director William Monahan’s (Oscar winner for his screenplay of The Departed) latest film.

Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a very successful filmmaker, who seems to take no joy from his life of luxury … a mansion in the hills, cool cars, a wife and daughter, and endless adulation. Sporting the ultra-cool celebrity look of sunglasses and long hair, Thomas heads off into the desert to either clear his mind or end his life. We aren’t really sure which, and neither is he. Lots of Vodka and reckless Jeep driving leave Thomas in a showdown of wits and machismo across a campfire from a sinister yet articulate drifter.

The drifter is Jack, played by Oscar Isaac, and it’s no surprise when we learn he is a serial killer … the sociopath part we figured out quickly, right along with Thomas. Their under-the-stars confrontation leads to a tragic accident the next day, and pits these two in a B-movie game of cat and mouse with a tone that reminds a bit of Cape Fear (1991) and U-Turn (1997).

Heading back to L.A., Thomas comes up with an incredibly stupid plan to cover his tracks. Being famous “since I was 19 years old” and having financial success with movies hasn’t trained Thomas on facing off against a clever nemesis. Even his discussion with his manager (played by an unusually low-key Walton Goggins) comes across as literary-speak rather than real advice. “Worry about what seems to be” is the advice Thomas rolls with.

Monahan fills the screen with tough-guy dialogue for these two characters that are both simultaneously stupid and smart. Jack and Thomas go at each like a couple of intellects, but it’s the class warfare that stands out. The 99% versus the 1%. The message seems to be that it comes down to circumstance on whether one is an artist or a psychotic felon … and the line separating the two is pretty slim.

It’s also not a very well disguised ripping of the film industry … especially of producers. Mark Wahlberg chews some scenery as a d-bag movie producer who talks loud and fast while accomplishing little. It’s a pretty funny turn for Wahlberg, though unfortunately his character spends limited time on screen. Louise Bourgoin has a couple of scenes, and quickly proves more would have been welcome.

The film may not be much to look at, and doesn’t really make much sense, but some of the dialogue duels and “brother” banter, manage to keep us interested throughout. “Take a left. Take a right.” It doesn’t much matter with these two well-read adversaries from opposite sides of the tracks.

watch the trailer:

 


PAN (2015)

October 8, 2015

pan Greetings again from the darkness. Writer J.M. Barre first introduced the world to Peter Pan just after the turn of the twentieth century. Children and adults alike were enamored with “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”. The stories were filled with the mischief created by Peter and his Lost Boys buddies from their Neverland home, and although there existed elements of danger (Captain Hook), Barre’s story was mostly about holding on to the joy and carefree world of childhood.

Sadly, these days we don’t encourage kids to be kids. Instead, we push them to take on responsibility and act ‘grown up’ … heck, most kids today never really experience free play time with their friends. Everything is organized and scheduled (just check the calendar on the fridge). Writer Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) have created a Peter Pan “origin” story that lacks any touch of whimsy or enchantment from the original books or the numerous film adaptations: the 1953 Disney animated classic, the 1991 Steven Spielberg/Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the underrated 2003 live action version from director P.J. Hogan, or even last year’s Live TV broadcast featuring Allison Williams as Peter.

This one begins with a talented Parkour-enabled Mother (Amanda Seyfried) dropping off her infant son on the steps of an orphanage. She leaves only a note and a pan flute medallion. Flash forward twelve years and Peter (Levi Miller) is questioning the mysterious disappearance of kids from an environment straight out of a Dickens novel, as well as the hoarding talents of the evil Mother Superior (Kathy Burke). Soon enough Peter finds himself, along with scores of other youngsters, slaving in the fairy dust mines belonging to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  Are you depressed yet?

Things only get bleaker as Peter escapes with his new friend James Hook (the name is no coincidence). They soon encounter the tribe that protects the Fairy Kingdom and the fairy dust that Blackbeard so values. Part of the tribe is Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who believes that Peter is “the chosen one” who has come to lead and protect them. Lots of fighting ensues, plus some soaring giant crocodiles, flying pirate ships, and a trio of mermaids (all played by supermodel Cara Delevingne).

Re-imagining the classics is about the closest thing we get to creativity in Hollywood these days, so it’s not the idea of the project that so bothers, but rather the approach. Where is the fun?  Where is the sense of wonderment?  In fact, young Peter’s destiny seems to be an urgency to assume more responsibility as a leader … not live the carefree days of fun and games that Mr. Barre had set out.

Newcomer Levi, who plays Peter, ranks right there with director Joe Wright’s previous discovery of Saoirse Ronan, as child actors with big time screen presence. Young Mr. Miller has a grasp of the script and character and is the best part of the film. Hugh Jackman plays Blackbeard, but can never really reach the necessary level of intimidation or theatricality. For some reason Garrett Hedlund plays Hook as if he is imitating Christian Slater who is imitating Jack Nicholson playing Indiana Jones. It’s so over-the-top that we must assume Hedlund was directed to bring some comic relief to the bleak environment. Much has already been written about the casting of ultra-Caucasian Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lilly, though she performs the role quite well (avoiding the screeching of her lines in the manner of Jackman and Hedlund).  Rounding out the cast is Adeel Axhtar as Smiegel/Smee.

Some of Wright’s action sequences and CGI are quite impressive, though it’s difficult to overlook the obvious influences of Terry Gilliam, Baz Luhrman, and even George Lucas and James Cameron. Particularly painful and out of place are the Luhrman-influenced musical interludes of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramone’s “Blitkrieg Bop”.  Even the pixie dust effect reminds of Dorian Gray, though Jackman only gets one brief scene in which to capitalize.

Devotees of the J.M. Barre source material will be no doubt disappointed and confused, but the theatre was filled with youngsters who couldn’t seem to care less that Joe Wright had taken a classic story in the opposite direction. They enjoyed the visual effects as evidenced by the numerous “oohs” and “ahhs”. So let’s allow that reaction to speak for itself, rather than saying this version just didn’t pan out.

watch the trailer:

 


UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

December 15, 2013

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).

llewyn6 The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.

The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.

llewyn5 We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).

As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.

llewyn3 Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.

If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.

**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013.  Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc

 

 

 

 


TRON: LEGACY (2010)

December 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. My guess is that you either really want to see this movie or you have no interest at all. Either way, you are probably making the best decision. It’s been 28 years since Tron hit the big screen. It became kind of a geeky cult film and never totally fell off the face of those in movie land. Tron‘s special effects awed us and the story was a bit creepy … could a computer actually suck us into cyber-space (or whatever we called it then)? It was a time when computers were a bit mysterious. We knew they were powerful, but weren’t yet sure if the “experts” were good or bad. Maybe we still don’t know (hello Julian Assange)!

Usually sequels are met with lackadasical dread. Especially those 28 years later. However, the advancements in computer graphic technology gave this one a shot. The new film opens with Jeff Bridges‘ Kevin Flynn still lost on the grid, his old company in the hands of the greedy and not-so-nice, and his son living a bit of a reclusive, rebellious life.

 The other familiar face to return is that of Bruce Boxleitner (Tron/Alan Bradley in the original), who tracks down Flynn’s son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) to inform him that he received a page from his dad’s old shop. Of course, Sam checks it out and stumbles onto dad’s old secret office/lab. Next thing we know, Sam is right there on the grid being drawn into gladitorial games of digital death. He is a very bright kid and quickly draws the attention of the ringmaster – CLU. CLU is also from the original, but has turned to the dark side and now has his sights set on world domination … REAL world domination. And of course, CLU tricked Sam into finding him to open the portal back to the real world.

 Confused? None of that really matters. Not following the story details is almost expected. What really matters is the visuals! Light-cycles may be the coolest thing ever seen on screen. For all I know, this effect may have been the single driving force for the sequel. If that’s not enough, watching a 30 year old Jeff Bridges as CLU square off against a 60 year old Jeff Bridges as zen master Kevin Flynn certainly makes the film worthy of a couple of hours for me.

When Sam and Kevin are reunited, it’s thanks to Olivia Wilde as Quorra. She is not “real”, but Kevin has been her adopted parent so she is quite loyal and well schooled   on all things human – especially Jules Verne! The other performance worth noting is that of Michael Sheen (who some now mistake as the real Tony Blair). Sheen, as Castor and Zuse, runs the bar/hang-out for CLU. Sheen certainly leaves nothing in his bag and the best way to describe his character is a glam rock cross between David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger. He is Ziggy Stardust with a greedy side. Pretty funny and clever. Also fun to note, the DJ’s in Zuse bar are actually Daft Punk, who are responsible for the thumping electronic techno soundtrack that adds its own stamp to the film.

Typically I wouldn’t have much to do with a movie that provides so little substance to the story, but that’s just not what this one is about. It provides a nice bookend to the original and is a statement on just how far special effects have come and also a glimpse into where things are headed. My guess is the effects won’t play so well on the average living room TV screen, so if you have any interest in this one, it’s probably best to catch it during the theatrical release.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the original Tron and somehow remember it OR you want to see how special effects might replace actors in future films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: True Grit has just the right amount of technology for your tastes OR you might get mad you didn’t ask Santa for a light-cycle