THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)

October 10, 2019

North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF) 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The meek may inherit the earth, but if this Steven Soderbergh movie based on Jake Bernstein’s book (screenplay by Scott Z Burns) is correct, they aren’t likely to get the money too. To put it more bluntly, the first of the film’s 5 rules of creating and protecting wealth is, “the meek are screwed.” In order to follow this film that is “based on true secrets”, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the Panama Papers … a 2016 anonymous leak of more than 11 million documents exposing how the rich skirt the laws when it comes to protecting their money. Offshore entities had previously been a mainstream punchline, but these documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama, clearly outlined just how widespread the practice had become.

Rather than traditional narrative form, the information is presented through multiple vignettes featuring an impressive roster of well-known actors: Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Melissa Rauch, David Schwimmer, James Cromwell, Matthias Schoenaerts, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, and Rosalind Chao, plus a few others you’ll recognize. In the role of tongue-in-cheek emcees are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, respectively. Their coordinating flamboyant outfits correspond to these caricatures of the real men behind this web of fraudulent activity. They are meant to add humor to the situation, but also tell “their side of the story.”

We are caught off-guard when Meryl Streep’s story and her character are not the main focus. Her slow unraveling of insurance fraud after her husband’s death is but one segment of the lesson that will likely confuse most people. The easy comparison is Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT (2015), which used some of this style in explaining the mortgage backed securities market. Whereas Mr. McKay won an Oscar for his screenplay, that’s highly unlikely for this one. Scott Z Burns is a talented writer, but this was simply too complex of a subject to tackle in 95 minutes. Mr. Soderbergh, as is tendency, not only directs the film, but is also the cinematographer, editor and producer.

This is a Netflix production that I caught at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival, and thanks to the presence of Ms. Streep, will likely have at least a limited theatrical release. Unfortunately, neither big screen nor small will solve the inherent issues here. There are some nuggets such as Delaware, despite its population of less than one million, being king of corporation filings (thanks to its business-friendly tax laws). Understanding shell companies, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities among the world’s ultra-rich requires more than a talented cast, but perhaps there is enough here to motivate some to dig a little deeper with their own research. That is, if the film’s finale – a lecture on reform – doesn’t turn you off completely. Many of us appreciate being informed, but rebel against the preaching.

watch the trailer:

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DARKEST HOUR (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.

It’s May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he’s the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill’s adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision-maker in this crucial time.

Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation’s freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.

We can talk all you’d like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman’s Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it’s actually kind of thrilling.

The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the “V” hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, “I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous.” It’s this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright’s film.

We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It’s an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.

Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill’s most famous speeches: the “Never Surrender” speech to Parliament and “We shall fight them on the beaches …” prompted by the red glow of the “on air” radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman’s performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that’s worth a ticket and a gold statue.

watch the trailer:

 


MAN DOWN (2016)

December 3, 2016

man-down Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps this movie and story would have hit me harder had I not recently watched Michael King’s documentary When War Comes Home. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the focus of both films, but the reality of the three soldiers in King’s film simply packs a bigger emotional punch than the fictionalized version of one soldier in this latest from director Dito Montiel. That said, the dramatization offers a few worthy moments.

The story/stories revolve around a new Marine named Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf). We are bounced between three timeframes: a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world; the time Gabriel is serving on the frontlines of Afghanistan; the pre-Marines time when we see Gabriel as a loving father, husband and friend … he’s the kind of dad who surprises his son with a birthday puppy, and creates a secret phrase so he can tell his son he loves him without embarrassing him at school.

An interrogation sequence between Gabriel and the military counselor (played by the great Gary Oldman) provides the film’s best scenes … the two actors go head to head in what is really psychological warfare in a trailer office. There is an “incident” that occurred, and the counselor is attempting to figure out Gabriel’s mental state. Once we are provided the details of the incident, we fully understand why Gabriel is an emotional mess, and basically shut-down from conversation and life.

Kate Mara appears as Gabriel’s wife and Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) as his son. The film probably would have benefitted from more attention on the family foundation prior to Gabriel being shipped out. Jai Courtney stars as Gabriel’s close and lifelong friend, though when Gabriel asks his friend to “watch out for my family”, we know where things are headed. It’s here where the film just stretches too far. The effects of war provided plenty to make the point director Montiel is going for, and the cheap/clumsy gimmick only distracts.

LaBeouf is in fine form and in quite a different role than his quick-with-a-quip charmer in this year’s American Honey. This latest film probably has more in common with A Beautiful Mind than with Born on the Fourth of July, or any other film dealing with post-war challenges. The statistics posted prior to the closing credits make it obvious that Montiel meant this as a message movie – making the melodrama and extreme visuals all the more misplaced. Montiel made some festival noise with his 2006 debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and it seems he is destined to make a really good movie at some point.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

July 14, 2014

planet Greetings again from the darkness. Admitting a weakness is the first step. Yes, I am a proud, long-time fan of this series. My soft spot for these films began when I was a kid – mesmerized by the 1968 original, while watching from the back seat of the car, as the clunky metal speaker hung on the window and my parents sat in the front. Oh, and yes, I was wearing my pajamas!

It’s pretty much impossible to describe the technological advances in movies since Charleston Heston stumbled into one of the biggest shocker endings the movies have ever provided (and that was 46 years ago!). Heck, the advances since the 2011 movie with James Franco are staggering to see. The combination of real actors, CGI and fantastic motion capture technology make for a realistic look that is unsettling at times.

Many know the work of Andy Serkis (Gollam, King Kong) who is considered the master of motion capture acting, and here he returns as Caeser, the leader of the apes. Only this time, he has real competition, especially from Toby Kebbell as Koba, his friend who was previously mistreated in the lab by humans … thereby explaining their opposite view of the few remaining humans.

This entry from director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) picks up 10 years after the 2011 movie. The apes have established a very cool community in the forest, while only a few immune humans survived the lab-born simian virus that was leaked. The apes have continued to get smarter and even have their own culture and code (apes don’t kill apes). The surviving humans have fought amongst themselves and only recently organized a faction with Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus as their leader. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) takes a small group over the Golden Gate Bridge to see if they can reignite a dam which could produce the energy so desperately needed in human town.

Almost immediately, humans and apes meet. The big philosophical chess match begins with Malcolm and Caeser negotiating for cooperation and peace, while Koda and Drefus see war as the only solution. Alliances are drawn, fragile accords made, loyalties are questioned, and hierarchies crumble. See, it turns out the apes are like us, and we are like the apes.

There is a terrific battle scene, but the real joy here is the personalities and look of the apes. It is fascinating to watch the interactions … and that final shot is startling! The only downside is the caricature of Carver played by Kirk Acevedo. He is the token human d-bag but his character is so over the top it ruins most of his scenes. Luckily, he has very few … and they are offset by the really cool horse dismount displayed by Caesar. If you buy into this, it’s a tension-filled jolly good time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the series and want to be awed by the evolution of the apes – both in the story and on the screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy into the apes thing OR you miss Roddy McDowell and his rubber mask too much to ever give the nod to CGI.

watch the trailer:

 


ROBOCOP (2014)

February 14, 2014

robocop Greetings again from the darkness. The expected cringes and groans never fully surfaced as the modernized re-boot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic unfolded on the screen. Sure, I wish Peter Weller made even a cameo appearance, and yes, I missed the charm, humor and satire that has allowed the original to remain relevant; but, director Jose Padilha reimagines the story, sticks to PG-13 action, and incorporates the video game look favored by today’s filmgoers.  The result is an adequate action movie with a Dr Frankenstein twist, a dash of questionable technological morality, topped with the always evil corporate conglomerate.

The opening sequence takes place in Tehran and is extremely well done, setting the stage for incisive commentary on today’s foreign policies and drone usage. Unfortunately, THAT movie never materializes, but we do get the over-the-top conservative news host … played colorfully by Samuel L Jackson, who does manage to work in his iconic catchphrase (yes even a PG-13 movie is allowed one MF). His holographic studio reminds of Minority Report, and has the futuristic look required to distract us from any real message.

Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing“) adequately fills the part man/ part robot role (good guy and good cop Alex Murphy), but the script really lets him down when it comes to his wife (Abbie Cornish) and kid, his crime-fighting instincts, and the overlapping criminal elements – some poorly cast generic arms dealer and the ultimate villain known as mega corporation OmniCorp run by the great Michael Keaton. The movie’s best scenes involve the interaction between Keaton and the always terrific Gary Oldman, playing a conflicted doctor/robotics genius with a conscience (most of the time).

The supporting cast is stellar and features a nasty Jackie-Earle Haley, a properly proper Jennifer Ehle, a relatively straight-laced Jay Baruchel, a two-faced police captain played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Murphy’s partner Michael K Williams, and Oldman’s loyal assistant played by Aimee Garcia (“Dexter“). The biggest missed opportunities involve the cop partnership with Mr. Williams … such an integral part of the first movie (Nancy Allen), but here it seems most of this story was inexplicably left on the editing floor.  The story, the viewers and Mr. Williams deserved much better.

A bit too much shakycam in the first shootout left me disappointed, as did most of the action sequences. However, the effects for the robotic suit and Murphy’s “body” are fantastic.  Especially effective is the scene with Murphy first becomes aware of what remains of him and how much is robotic suit.  This is very much a tale of moralistic choices, and it could have been interesting to see Murphy go a bit deeper in his existential questioning of Man or Machine. Mostly, I was simply relieved it wasn’t terrible and didn’t tarnish the legacy.

**NOTE: the city of Detroit is the base, but the movie never really touches on the problems within the actual city.  In fact, very little crime solving is shown – but we do have the stats relayed to us.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wonder what Iron Man would be like with an evil billionaire calling the shots rather than a  brilliant billionaire wearing the suit OR you never miss the rare (these days) chance to see Michael Keaton on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are perfectly content to allow the 1987 film version to maintain its spot as THE Robocop movie.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8


JFK (1991)

November 22, 2013

jfk1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.

When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.

jfk2 Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.

Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.

jfk3 In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.

Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.

This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.

**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald

**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)

**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know

 


LAWLESS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gangster and family crime dramas are always a favorite film genre, especially when “based on a true story”, as this one claims. The story comes straight from the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of Jack Bondurant, portrayed in the film by Shia LaBeouf. The screenplay and direction come courtesy of the latest collaboration from Nick Cave (alt-Rocker) and John Hillcoat (The Road).

The cast is deep and talented. The three Bondurant brothers are played by Tom Hardy (Forrest), Jason Clarke (Howard) and LaBeouf (Jack). The brothers are moonshiners who also run their own bootlegging business in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition and the great depression. They are assisted by a moonshine savant named Cricket (Dane DeHaan as a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). A beautiful former Chicago dancer played by Jessica Chastain stumbles into their café while inexplicably searching for a quieter life. Mia Wasikowska is the preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak who gets courted by Jack. Gary Oldman is terrific, though sadly limited in screen time, as the notorious gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce plays Special Detective Charlie Rakes. Rakes is a corrupt, outlandishly colorful character out of Chicago who is on assignment to either get a cut of the business or kill everyone in the process … all while smelling like a “nancy” and keeping blood off his tailored suits. He does this with the worst movie haircut since Anton Chigurh. Pearce plays him like a mix of a Christoph Waltz villain and Willem Dafoe’s detective in The Boondock Saints. Quite a visual.

 With this cast and a very stylistic look provided by wonderful camera work, color scheme, and costumes, it’s a bit confounding that the movie isn’t a little better than it is. The war between outlaws and crooked lawmen, splashed with minor love stories and interesting characters seems to have a gap. Apparently there are too many vying for too little screen time. Gary Oldman’s character has a stunning and violent screen entrance, but then is wasted and ignored for the balance of the film. Chastain’s Maggie is carrying a back-story that is clearly very intriguing, but all we get is a few pouty looks.

 Since the novel’s author is the grandson of Jack, we can assume that’s why LaBeouf gets so much attention and screen time. He is the family runt, and can’t wait to prove his worth to his brothers. Even if this is true, this story line is nowhere near as interesting as that of Forrest, Floyd Banner, Detective Rakes, or Maggie. Whenever LaBeouf came on screen, I felt like I was watching an actor. When Hardy or Clarke were featured, it felt like real hillbillies were trying to protect their moonshine business. Speaking of Hardy, he dominates the screen again … just like in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane). So anxious to watch his career continue to develop.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis combine on the excellent score, as well as some of the fine songs performed by The Bootleggers. The music adds even more to the film’s feel. With all of the characters here, this might have taken a step up as a mini-series. As it stands, it falls short of The Untouchables or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. While entertaining enough, it leaves us with an empty feeling and a hokey shootout finale.

** RECOMMENDATION: for an excellent movie about a family criminal group, see Animal Kingdom (from Australia)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the gangster/outlaw/bootlegger genre and relish the violence and street justice OR you want to see another powerful screen performance from rising star Tom Hardy, grunts and all.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the obnoxious, near-constant screen presence of Shia LaBeouf is enough to ruin whatever potential a hillbilly bootlegger movie might offer

watch the trailer: