THE WIFE (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. THE STEPFORD WIVES was stocked with some men’s ideal of the perfect spouse … attractive, dutiful, always ready to serve. In director Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of the novel by Meg Wolitzer (screenplay by Jane Anderson), Joan Castleman is all of that and more as she constantly caters to her literary giant of a husband, writer Joe Castleman. It’s 1992 in coastal Connecticut, and in only a few days, things will change dramatically for Mr. and Mrs. Castleman.

When we first meet this long married couple, they are in bed – she’s sleeping soundly, while he’s full of anxiety and anticipation over a phone call that may or may not happen. See, Joe is up for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and when the early morning call from Stockholm does come, Joe eagerly prompts Joan to listen in on the extension (it’s 1992, so these are land lines). As the authoritative voice on the other end announces Joe’s prize, it’s the look on Joan’s face that tells us that, for her, this is no celebratory moment. The facial expression is quite powerful, and it’s our first inclination that 6 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close (as Joan Castleman) is delivering a performance as memorable as her work in DANGEROUS LIASONS and FATAL ATTRACTION (only this time there’s no bunny).

Jonathan Pryce is spot on as the narcissistic Joe Castleman. He’s clearly addicted to the pedestal upon which he sits and the corresponding adoration from worshipping fans. He’s the type of guy who thinks he’s doing Joan a favor by mentioning her in his speeches and calling her over to be part of his oh-so-important conversations. But as good as Mr. Pryce is, this is a tour de force from Ms. Close. She’s always a step ahead of her husband – finding his glasses, ensuring he takes his pills, and monitoring his diet and sleep. It’s the Nobel Prize phone call that stirred some long-suppressed feelings; lighting a fuse that will leave us anxiously awaiting the fireworks.

Max Irons (Jeremy’s son) plays an aspiring writer and son to Joe and Joan. David’s bitterness towards his father is evident throughout and his desperate attempts to gain his father’s respect are nothing short of heart-breaking. Christian Slater plays Nathaniel Bone, a would-be biographer of Joe Castleman … if only Joe would give him the time of day. Nathaniel is often quite intrusive in his pursuit of the truth – at least what he hopes it would be since it would make a fantastic book. Karin Franz Korlof plays Linnea, a young photographer assigned to Joe during the Sweden trip. It’s an odd role as none of the other winners have their own photographer … but not as odd as the small talk amongst the various category Nobel winners. Those scenes, and the verbal exchanges, are as awkward as one might imagine.

Director Runge utilizes flashbacks to 1958 Smith College to provide us a foundation and narrative for the relationship between Joe and Joan. She was once a budding star writer under the tutelage of the young, married professor. Her flirting, babysitting and writing all worked to win Joe over, and they were soon married. Young Joe the professor is played by Harry Lloyd (great-great-great grandson of Charles Dickens), and young Joan is played beautifully by Annie Stark (Glenn Close’s real life daughter). These early days and an encounter with a broken female writer (played terrifically by Elizabeth McGovern) lead Joan to surrender her writing dreams and put her support behind her husband. Shooting down the purity of “a writer must write”, McGovern’s beaten down character instead says “a writer has to be read”.

Glenn Close will likely receive much Oscar chatter for her role. Her transformation from dutiful sidekick to self-enlightenment is a performance laden with subtle and nuanced signs of resentment. Her early disquiet could be compared to a volcano – the inside building towards eruption while the outside remains strong and majestic. Living a lie never becomes truth … even after 30 plus years.

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ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

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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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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

August 3, 2014

guardians Greetings again from the darkness.  Are you ready for a new brand of Marvel movie heroes?  You surely know Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, but it’s high time you are introduced to Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Groot and Drax – known collectively as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead of dark, brooding and super-serious, this group is not just funny … they are actually FUN!

The plot is admittedly a bit simple. Everyone is basically chasing a ball (the orb) around the universe.  Instead of good guys vs bad buys, it’s actually kinda bad guys vs really bad guys. See, the heroes of our story are, for the most part, criminals themselves. The main difference is, they aren’t on a quest for intergalactic super power or mega destruction like Ronan (Lee Pace).  Ronan makes for a pretty menacing villain, complete with a voice that shakes the theatre!

The band of misfits thrown together by circumstance actually provides much entertainment.  Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) is the self-nicknamed Star-Lord, better known as Peter Quill. The film begins in 1988 when his mother lay dying and he is abducted by aliens. Quill’s criminal activity has him crossing paths with Gamora, a green assassin played by Zoe Saldana; Rocket, a brilliant wise-cracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; Rocket’s bodyguard Groot, an unusually mobile tree with a limited vocabulary voiced by Vin Diesel; and the hulking, knife-wielding, bent on revenge Drax the Destroyer played by WWE star Dave “The Animal” Bautista.  It’s a rag-tag group of heroes unlike anything we have seen before.

Other colorful supporting work comes courtesy of a blue-faced Michael Rooker, who controls his lethal arrow through a series of whistles; Djimon Hounsou as a sparkly-eyed warrior; John C Riley as a galaxy cop; Karen Giillan as a smooth-headed daughter of Ronan; and Glenn Close as a community leader.  We also get the traditional Stan Lee cameo, plus Benecio Del Toro as The Collector (teased in Thor: The Dark World).  The music actually plays a strong supporting role with such classics as “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps”.

Despite the lack of familiarity with these characters for most viewers, writer/director James Gunn (Slither) does a terrific job of having us quickly connect and even groot … err, I mean root … for these guys. Quill’s possession of a Sony Walkman to play his mother’s mix tape of songs from the 1970’s and 80’s give the film a very different flavor, having the familiar songs pop up at just the right time.

Pratt does an admirable job in the lead, although compared to the GQ of Tony Stark/Iron Man, his Quill is more Mad Magazine (funny and easy to like)  The best comparison I have for Quill is Han Solo, and for the movie it harkens back to 1978’s Superman … both very high compliments. It’s also the first time I have been completely caught off guard and laughed out loud at a Jackson Pollack reference!

**NOTE: If I had seen this movie as an 11-year-old boy, I would probably think it’s the coolest movie ever made.  Of course, they didn’t make movies like this when I was 11, so I have to enjoy them now.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a comic book fan but kinda tired of the all too familiar string of Avengers OR you just want to sing along to some classic songs of yesteryear (please don’t sit by me)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a talking raccoon and tree are likely to give you nightmares, no matter how funny their lines are.

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ALBERT NOBBS

January 30, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are accustomed to movies with men posing as women for comedic effect … Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie come to mind. Watching an extremely serious, even bleak, film with a woman (Glenn Close) posing as a man is quite rare, and I will say, downright uncomfortable. When Albert Nobbs is described by his co-workers as a strange little man, they have no idea!

The film is based on a novella by George Moore, and has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she starred in the off-Broadway play in the 1980’s. Her dream has been realized in this film directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film has an extremely talented cast including Brendan Gleeson as a doctor, Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Page, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and Brenda Fricker as hotel staff, Pauline Collins as the hotel proprietor, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a frequent hotel guest.  The song over the closing credits (co-written by Ms. Close) is sung by Sinead O’Connor.

Beyond that fabulous cast, the only thing that really makes the film worth watching is the curious performance of Ms. Close as Albert Nobbs and the much more colorful and lively turn by Janet McTeer as Mr. Page … the only one (we know of) who can understand what Albert is going through. Both are nominated for Oscars. During the film, we get the personal story from each of these characters on why they made their choice, but Albert’s story is a bit muddled. He/she seems to have just fallen into the life and been unable to stop for the past 30 years. Now, Albert has a dream that can only be achieved through the wages earned as the non-descript, efficient waiter in an 1890’s Dublin hotel.

 There are many painful scenes to watch, but none moreso than Albert courting Helen so that he can have a partner for his new business. He has no idea how a real relationship works or why people are attracted to each other. Albert just sees Helen as a means to an end, and is following the blueprint set by Mr. Page.  Some will enjoy this much more than I, as the thought of pretending to be someone you aren’t for 3 decades is just more than I can even comprehend. When Gleeson’s doctor spouts that he has no reason why people choose to lead such miserable lives, I concur whole-heartedly.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how little joy would be had spending one’s life pretending to be someone else OR you don’t want to miss two Oscar-caliber performances (Close, McTeer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: misery in 1890’s Dublin holds no more interest for you than misery in any other era or locale

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