FINAL PORTRAIT (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Geoffrey Rush is such a uniquely talented performer that I wouldn’t hesitate to walk into any of his projects with little hint as to the subject matter. He is simply that good at what he does. Here he plays renowned Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a man Rush seems destined to play given their quite similar physical appearances. It’s a 90 minute joy ride (though it’s not really joyful) for anyone who enjoys watching an artist work … or in this case, an artist working as an artist.

Writer-director Stanley Tucci is best known for his acting career, and he also has an eye for the camera and clearly admires Giacometti and his work. Set in 1964 Paris, most of the film takes place in Giacometti’s shabby little compound that includes his studio and a bedroom he sometimes shares with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). Occasional forays take us to his favorite café, or walks through the city by his latest portrait subject, the American art writer James Lord (Armie Hammer). In fact, the film is based on Mr. Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait”, which details his experience posing for the master … a task that was originally promised to last a couple of hours, and turned into 3 weeks.

Also appearing are Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother and assistant, and Clemence Poesy (IN BRUGES) as Caroline, a local prostitute who also serves as Giacometti’s muse. It’s a fine and talented cast, but this just as easily could have been a one-actor play. Rush plays the lead as a typical artist in shambles – one who cares as little for relationships as he does about money, clothes and appearances. He’s perpetually rumpled with mussed hair and a dangling cigarette being his sole accessory.

He is both charming and miserable, sometimes in the same breath – unwittingly pitting his forlorn wife against his more pampered muse … never more obvious than when comparing gifts of a new dress versus a new BMW. Much of the time on screen is spent in the daily ritual: adjusting the chair just so, Lord sitting down and assuming the pose, an artistic gaze cast, followed by the careful selection of a particular brush. More often than not, Giacometti mutters an “Ahh F***”, and proceeds to start over (and over and over). An honored yet frustrated Mr. Lord is forced into numerous flight reschedules, as time means nothing to an artist.

Director Tucci shoots through the smudged window panes more than once, and when Giacometti tells Lord, “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you”, it really captures the tortured madness and brilliance of such an amazing artist. He doesn’t see the world the way most of us do, and that’s what sets his art apart. Of course the personal toll on the man and those around him is quite high … Giacometti passed away less than two years after the Lord portrait.

watch the trailer:

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THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

December 1, 2013

book thief1 Greetings again from the darkness. You may be familiar with the source material – the huge best selling novel from Markus Zusak. If not, you may be surprised at the “through the eyes” of an illiterate, orphaned child’s perspective of the German home front during WWII. You may be more surprised to learn that it’s narrated by The Grim Reaper (British actor Roger Allam), and includes a Nazi rally, book-burning, bomb shelters, a look at the anti-Jew and anti-Communist movements, the German conscription/military draft and the dangers associated with hiding a Jew in one’s basement (with similarities to “The Diary of Anne Frank”).

book thief2 There is no denying the melodramatic nature of the story and the presentation from director Brian Percival, but this one avoids schmaltz thanks to the remarkable performances of the internationally diverse cast led by the great Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and especially Sophie Nelisse as the incredibly perceptive Liesel who provides the innocence and powers of observation that prove to us (and Death) that good people will do extraordinary things no matter the atrocious conditions. Another young actor to keep an eye on is Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s Aryan schoolmate Rudy … a dreamer who imagines himself as Jesse Owens (not a popular view among the Nazi powers that be).

book thief 3 As Liesel’s foster parents, Rush plays a warm-hearted WWI veteran, and Watson plays a cantankerous, grounded woman hiding the emotion she carries for her husband and new daughter. The biggest piece of hiding involves Max, a young Jewish man who is the son of a soldier who once saved the life of Rush’s character. Max and Liesel have a wonderful bond as he teaches her to speak through her eyes and she nurses him back to health by sharing her new found joy of reading.

The ghost of the boy who lived in the shadows … from H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” plays a key role as Liesel tries to make sense of a world that delivers a daily dose of relentless danger. As she develops her love and dependence on the written word, it’s clear that to survive in these times, one must have something that provides hope. The unusual story structure with the odd narrator, and a mix of wry humor, keep us connected with the characters and allows the humanity to shine through. Still, I challenge you to watch this without a lump in your throat.

**NOTE: the score is from the great John Williams, who once again excels in complimenting emotional storytelling.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the melding of a child’s innocence and strength can be enough to overcome the pain and shame of seeing how the Nazi movement affected so many, at least for a two hour period.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you care not to revisit any of the suffering and caused by WWII (even if it’s within a story of personal strength and survival)

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EBSmxinus


GREEN LANTERN

June 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have admitted many times that I am a sucker for Super Hero movies. There is just something really cool about an average guy falling bassackwards into super-human strength and being able to fly. With that said, I readily admit some Super Hero movies are better than others. While this one has some entertaining moments, it certainly isn’t one of the better entries in this genre.

It is difficult to know if a viewer is better off as a Green Lantern expert or novice for this adaptation. I can see both sides. The film beats us over the head with explanations, lectures and details but falls way short of the desired action sequences.

 Basic storyline has test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) chosen by “the ring” to become part of the Green Lantern Corps … an intergalactic peace-keeping patrol. Yes, he would be the first human Lantern and no, he is not readily accepted by the leader Sinestro (Mark Strong). By the way, who would choose a guy named SINESTRO to be the leader of your army of good guys?

There are roughly a half million sub-stories that get a blip and then are cast aside. That’s the film’s biggest problem, next to the shortage of action sequences.  I was surprised at the lack of imagination shown for Green Lantern‘s constructs.  They were a bit cartoonish and reminded of what we saw in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  On the positive side, Parallax, the evil mass that threatens earth and Oa, looks like a tentacled tumbleweed with a scary face. 

 Some stellar supporting actors here (in addition to Mark Strong) include Tim Robbins, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Bassett, Michael Clarke Duncan and Geoffrey Rush. Duncan and Rush are voice only, but definitely have an impact. Blake Lively plays Carol Ferris, the co-pilot and would-be girlfriend of Jordan. She is also involved with her Daddy’s defense contracting firm and just doesn’t work as a high-powered exec.

 The film is directed by Martin Campbell who also gave us the near awesome re-awakening of James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). He seems to have a feel for action, but gets to use very little of that talent in this film. It really seems to me that the writing was too scattered and just generally weak for a movie of this size. I kept thinking we were going to get some real mind games between Sarsgaard’s Elephant Man with psychic abilities and Reynold’s perfect body Lantern. Instead, we get just another tease and a disappointing action sequence to end the film.  I would say Marvel has a pretty clear lead over DC Comics on film … except, of course, for Christopher Nolan‘s Batman series.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Green is your favorite color OR you have any doubt that Ryan Reynolds has the physique of a super hero.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you never cared to see what would happen if The Elephant Man turned evil OR the recent exposure of Blake Lively has shown you enough

 


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

May 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will make no apology for being a fan of the “Pirates” series. This is the fourth film and the best since the first. Though I liked them enough, I felt the second and third depended too much on special effects and the need to overwhelm, whereas this one concentrates more on the colorful characters. This latest entry is also directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) rather than Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three.

 Of course, what really matters is that Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow. And in fine form, I might add. He comes across more clever, witty and less buffoonish  than in the previous two. His character is much better as a worthy adversary than a clown prince. In this one, he alternates between matching wits and swords with no less than three characters. First, Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa. Only this time, he seems to have gone legit with the King’s navy. Next we have Sparrow’s long-lost love from Seville played by Penelope Cruz. They also match wits and swords (and facial hair). Lastly, we have the legendary pirate Blackbeard, played with full force by Ian McShane. Were it not a Disney movie, McShane could have made his Blackbeard one of the most frightening characters ever seen on screen. Even with the limitations, he performs exceedingly well.

 The “plot” of the film involves the search for Ponce de Leon’s ship and the much desired Fountain of Youth. The race is on between Sparrow, Blackbeard, the Spainiards and Barbossa who is acting on behalf of King George (a wonderful Richard Griffiths). As always, it’s not always easy to tell which characters are partners and which are adversaries. That’s half the fun! An interesting twist is that in order to have the desired results from the infamous fountain, one must drink from a specific chalice and include a single mermaid tear. Of course, everlasting youth shouldn’t be too easy to achieve. The mermaid sequences are fascinating, though we really only get to know one of them – Syrena played with soulful eyes by Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

Thankfully, two long time characters are absent from this film – Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Both were dead-weight that caused major drag in the two most recent Pirates films. Cruz and McShane are infinitely more interesting and entertaining and play off of Captain Jack much better.  I did enjoy seeing Keith Richards reprise his role as Sparrow’s father.  Their scene together produces the best line in the film.

 Speaking of Depp’s Jack Sparrow, I would make the argument that this character has entered the rarefied air of film comedy icon. I would put him at or near the level of the all-time best recurring comic characters: Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers, NOT Steve Martin), Austin Powers (Mike Myers) and the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin). Of course, there are loads of others that have made a name for themselves but are a step below: Ernest (Jim Varney), Fletch (Chevy Chase), Wayne and Garth (Wayne’s World), Riggs and Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon), etc. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

As I have stated many times, comedy is such a personal taste that it’s always difficult to review. What sets the Pirate’s films apart (especially one and four) are the characters combined with action and witty banter. No, it’s not for everyone, but if you like this style, it’s difficult to beat.  YO-HO, YO-HO …

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been hoping this franchise would go back to featuring Depp’s Sparrow OR you somehow missed the first three but are in the mood for a rollicking good time

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you didn’t like the first one OR seeing Keith Richards causes nightmares


THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

December 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. British royalty is such easy pickings for film. The pomp and circumstance, colorful characters and dress, excessive everything, and especially the scandals provide an endless supply of material that can be twisted every which way. Director Tom Hooper who was responsible for fine work in the recent “John Adams” mini-series, takes the story of Prince Albert in a much different direction than one might think by reading history books.

Collin Firth does a masterful job of portraying Prince Albert, who falls directly into the role of King after the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) and abdication of the throne by his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) when he, for some reason, must marry the love of his life – a thrice divorced woman named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Now from a perspective of scandal, Edward and Wallis aka Duke and Duchess of Windsor, would make a far more juicy movie. Heck, even the story of pending World War with Hitler’s Germany would have, and often has, made for a more juicy movie. But Mr. Hooper has chosen to deliver a human drama filled with frailty, doubt, tenacity and hope. Turns out, this was a very wise choice.

Prince Albert ascends the throne as King George VI, husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom we knew as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002. The two were the parents of a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen of England. Yes, we Americans do struggle with our Royalty and all the re-naming, yet remain fascinated by it. However, it’s important to note that this was a much different time. The film leads up to King George’s infamous 1939 speech in which he calmly and steadily explained to many nations that England was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany.

 What many do not know is that George suffered a severe speech impediment that caused him to stammer excessively under pressure. As you might imagine, this is a horrible affliction for a war time King! The guts of this story is the relationship between King George and his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There are so many dynamics in their relationship that each scene is like a skirmish between the two. Truly a fascinating progression to behold.

A deep friendship based on respect and trust develops and remains through the rest of their lives. More importantly for Britain and the world, Logue guided the King to a strong performance in the most crucial speech … thereby bringing strength to a nation and commitment from allies. Not sure which of these men was the better leader, but together they were proved very strong.

Firth, Rush, and Bonham-Carter are all excellent in their roles, and I also got a big kick out of Timothy Spall as a young Winston Churchill. Mr. Hooper does a remarkable job of creating a very human drama out of a historical period and event. The death march to the microphone is just excruciating in the climatic scene. We can feel the pain of the onlookers and supporters as they will their King to perform. I can only guess that the Queen Mother was instrumental in the development of Rolaids after so many trying moments!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true Oscar contender OR you are looking for an inspirational, historically based story

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of Royalty is a Royale Burger with cheese OR you don’t mind missing out on one of the best lead actor and one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.


BRAN NUE DAE (2009)

September 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gosh! Enough already! How many Aboriginal musicals featuring a VW hippie van being pursued by a priest must we endure? OK, so maybe the premise isn’t all that common. Based on an extremely popular Australian play from the 1990’s, director Rachel Perkins screen adaptations features the deserts of NW Australia and a loony priest played by Geoffrey Rush.

Though the idea is pretty creative, the film execution comes up lacking a bit. None of the songs are very catchy and the overall talent in the film is mediocre at best. Newcomer Rocky McKenzie in the lead role of Willie is pretty nondescript. Willie is forced by his mother to attend a school led by Geoffrey Rush in order to train for a life in the priesthood. Of course, Willie is a teenager and all he really wants is time to hang out with Rosie … they make flutter-eyes at each other. Sadly, Rosie falls under the spell of a honky tonk musician as Willie heads out to study God.

Jessica Mauboy plays Rosie and has the musical highlight of the film as she belts out “Stand By Your Man”. The downside is that the lip-syncing is so poor that I found it quite distracting. As expected, when Willie rebels and runs away from the cloth and towards Rosie, the fun begins. He hooks up with Uncle Tadpole (an energetic and slightly twisted Ernie Dingo) and a couple of traveling hippies. One of the hippies is played by recording artist Missy Higgins. They are unknowingly being chased by the priest as they try to get Willie back to Broome (and Rosie!).

Along the way they stumble upon a roadside shop run by the great Magda Szubanski, who was so memorable as Mrs. Hoggett in Babe. That’s just one of the challenges they face along the dirt highway. For the sake of comedy, there should have been even more.

The film has bits of Bollywood, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease, but the parts just don’t add up to a full musical comedy. The colors and setting are spectacular and the words to the songs often reinforce the plight of the Aborigine people, but everything just falls a bit short of the target. Even the climactic scene where all the pieces of the puzzle come raining down doesn’t compare to the similar type scene in City Island. It’s a sweet, simple enough film with just not enough to offer.

SEE THIS MOVIE:  if you want to tell all your friends you have seen an Aboriginal Musical.  Be forewarned: There are no guarantees they will be impressed.

SKIP THIS MOVIE: if you prefer musicals with catchy tunes or Australian movies featuring big knives and crocodile hunters.