TOUCHED WITH FIRE (2016)

February 19, 2016

touched with fire Greetings again from the darkness. We all have good days and bad. Sometimes we energetically leap from bed, while other days we barely muster the energy to push off the covers. For those who are bi-polar, those peaks and valleys are mere child’s play. When “up”, they often are filled with frenetic creativity and hyper-energy. When “down”, life holds no purpose and the simplest daily actions are deemed impossible. Medication seems to be their only hope for “normal”.

Writer-director-editor-composer Paul Dalio admits much of the story comes directly from his life and that Carla and Marco carry much of him. Katie Holmes plays Carla and Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz, 2011) plays Marco … theirs one of the few on screen meet-cutes to occur in a psychiatric hospital (not counting McMurphy and Chief). When the pendulum swings, Carla frantically scrawls out poetry based on nature and feelings. Marco is also a poet – the rapping kind – but he seems more addicted to the energy and spirit that goes with being up.

The film is really two-in-one … a star-crossed love story and a commentary on treatment (to medicate or not to medicate – that is the question). The writings and work of clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison play a vital role here, and she even appears as herself in a critical scene. Carla really wants to get “right”, especially when she discovers she is pregnant.  Marco, on the other hand, spends much of his time trying to maintain the “high” as he finds life so much more fulfilling and interesting when not medicated. Marco uses the track record of many suspected bi-polar types as proof that greatness is near – Emily Dickinson, Tchaikovsky, and Van Gogh.

Bradley Cooper was Oscar nominated for his bi-polar role in Silver Linings Playbook, and both movies pay some attention to the challenges faced by families. Carla’s parents are played by Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman, while Griffin Dunne is Marco’s dad. The best intentions often fail miserably, leaving all parties feeling frustrated and emotionally distraught. The movie seems to make the argument that medication is the only real hope if a sufferer wants to live anything approaching a normal life, and it’s Ms. Jamison’s stated contention that medication will neither change the personality nor negatively impact creativity.

Katie Holmes offers up her best work since Pieces of April in 2000. Of course, there was a “marriage” mixed in there that stomped down her career. This role reminds that she is capable of finding the core of a deep character. Welcome back. Spike Lee is listed as a Producer here, and Mr. Dalio says Lee, who was his NYU Film School professor, encouraged him to explore this facet of his affliction. Dalio’s wife Kristina Nikolova shared cinematographer duties with Alexander Stanishev.

The film, previously entitled “Mania Days”, does a nice job of showing us the extremism involved with being bi-polar, as well as the challenges that come from being part of the medical field or familial support staff.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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TUMBLEDOWN (2016)

February 10, 2016

tumbledown Greetings again from the darkness. If I find myself three minutes into a movie and have already executed a couple of eye-rolls, any hopes for a decent little Romantic-Comedy-Drama would ordinarily be dashed. However, having Rebecca Hall’s character narrate her writing efforts as she taps away on the keyboard, actually does serve the story. The first feature from director Sean Mewshaw and his screenwriting wife Desiree Van Til takes advantage of a beautiful setting, a slew of contrasts, and some heartfelt music to keep us interested in how things plays out.

Ms. Hall plays Hannah, the grieving young widow who has stashed herself away in a lakefront cabin located in the rural Maine community in which she was raised. Her grief remains burdensome some two years after the tragic death of her husband Hunter Miles – a folk singer whose only album (and subsequent death) created a public mystique and a defensiveness on the part of Hannah to protect and control his legacy.

As a Ph.D from Brown, periodic contributor to the local newspaper, and soul mate of Hunter, Hannah undertakes the writing of his biography in the shadow of the studio monument that continues to expand with trinkets left at his gravesite by a cult of fans paying respect. Griffin Dunne plays her friend and owner of the local bookstore and publisher of the newspaper. His less than enthusiastic critique of her early pages of the biography correspond with the vigorous pursuit by a Hofstra Pop Culture Professor with a book publishing deal who wants to make Hunter a key element of his new project.

Jason Sudeikis plays Andrew, and his fast-talking big city mannerisms don’t initially mesh so well with the hyper-sensitive and protective grieving widow. The two spar like brother and sister, and the initial adversarial relationship means only one thing in the movie world … romance is in the air. Fortunately, the focus on telling the story of Hunter acts as a form of grief therapy for Hannah and a bit of redemption of spirit for Andrew. Of course, the path to enlightenment is not simple for either. Hannah’s “friend with benefits” is a hunky local power company worker played by Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), and Andrew’s big city music industry girlfriend is played by Dianna Agron (“Glee”).  But as you would expect, the biggest obstacle faced by the two leads is their own stubbornness.

We learn the most about Andrew and Hannah when they are around others. An Easter luncheon with Hannah’s family is especially insightful. Her parents are played by Blythe Danner and Richard Masur, and as viewers we long for more scenes featuring these two characters (and terrific actors). We sense that these parents see right through Andrew and Hannah. Can Hannah let down her guard so that she can move on with life? Can Andrew quell his ambition so that the emotional connection takes place?

Beautifully shot (with British Columbia substituting for Maine), the aspect of nature plays a role in contrasting country girl with city boy, and it’s the accidental discovery of a long lost song that highlights the stark difference in motives … while also being the impetus for change. Hunter’s original music is heard throughout the film, and it’s actually Damien Jurado whose singing and songwriting add an element of intrigue and realism. Hannah, as narrator, states “In the middle, we feel like it’s never going to end.” While that may be true for many romance movies, the filmmakers here avoid the “too cute” moments that spoil most in this genre … and impressively overcome those early eye-rolls.

watch the trailer:


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

November 11, 2013

dallas1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for an actor or actress to alter their physical appearance for a movie role. Sometimes those changes become the story: Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist and Charlize Theron in Monster are a few that come to mind. Regardless of the transformation or make-up, what really matters is the performance and the character. Just ask Eddie Murphy (Norbit) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Shallow Hal). In Dallas Buyers Club, we actually get two incredible transformations that lead to two stunning performances.

dallas2 Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto each lost approximately 40 pounds for their respective roles as Ron Woodroof, the redneck, three-way loving, alcoholic, drug-addicted electrician/rodeo cowboy; and Rayon, the sensitive, street-savvy, would-be transsexual so desperate for a kind word. Their physical appearance will startle you more than once, but is quite effective in getting across the struggles of those infected with HIV virus in the 1980’s. The number of victims impacted exploded and the medical profession was ill-equipped to properly treat the patients.

This is based on a true story and a real life guy (Woodroof) who became a most unlikely beacon of hope for AIDS patients. Woodroof fought the medical industry, Pharmaceutical companies and the government (FDA, DEA, IRS). It’s impossible to miss the message and accusations that most of these had a single goal of increasing profits, rather than dallas3curing the disease. And that’s where the story lags a bit. Michael O’Neill and Dennis O’Hare are the faces of greed and bureaucracy, while Jennifer Garner, Leto, and Griffin Dunne represent the side with a heart (though Ms. Garner is clearly out of her class here). Woodroof seems to be a guy who just doesn’t want to die, sees a business opportunity, and even learns a little bit about humanity along the way.

There have been numerous other projects that deal with AIDS, including: Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. This may be the first with a protagonist who is distinctly unlikeable, despite his passion and strong survival instincts. McConaughey doesn’t shy away from the homophobic personality and cruel manner of speech that Woodroof possesses. We never doubt his frustration at those controlling the big picture, but we never really see him connect with those his brash tactics help.

dallas4 McConaughey is on a dream run as an actor right now, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see him garner an Oscar nomination. But it would be a mistake to chalk that up to his losing so much weight – he really delivers a character that we won’t soon forget. And let’s not overlook Mr. Leto, who has been away from acting for 4 years touring with his band. He is a remarkable talent and a true screen presence. Compare this role to his Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. It’s not just the range of weight, but moreso the range in acting that so impresses.

Also worth noting here is the outstanding cinematography of Yves Belanger. This movie is shot in a way that brings out the intimacy of the moment, while not losing the big picture. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and co-writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack work together for a solid foundation, but it’s McConaughey and Leto that we will most remember … and of course, the pics of the great Marc Bolan on the wall.

**NOTE: for you baseball fans, that is in fact slugger Adam Dunn as a bartender.  He was also an investor in the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two of the best and most startling acting performances of the year OR you want a glimpse at the confusion and panic that the AIDS epidemic brought to the mid 1980’s.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an elegant treatment of AIDS … this one will make your skin crawl.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvMPU0WaPcc


LITTLE ROCK FILM FESTIVAL 2013

May 21, 2013

LRFF In a manner quite typical of our history, my college buddy Lawrence and I avoided an actual plan for attending the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) until just a couple of weeks prior to its start date.  He made the drive from Norman, Oklahoma where he pursues his lifelong profession of higher-education for future teachers.  My Southwest Airlines flight arrived from Dallas in time for us to jump right in to the festival schedule midway through Day 2.  Neither of us are the Opening Night “gala” types, but we are sorry to have missed the festival opening film Short Term 12 on Wednesday evening.  Our 3 days were spent juggling start times and venues throughout downtown Little Rock, so as to maximize our movie watching.

The key components of a Film Festival are: the selection of films (obviously), the venues, the crowds, transportation, special guests (writers, directors, actors, etc), the festival volunteers, the local flavor, and any perks (the always awkward abbreviation for perquisites) for attendees.  Here is my breakdown of each of these categories:

  1. SELECTION OF FILMS LRFF categories include: Narratives (traditional features with scripts and actors), Spotlight (usually with a special guest or discussion), Documentaries, Made in Arkansas, and World Shorts. There were also special categories such as Youth Films for young aspiring filmmakers, and Film Talks (seminars).  With much of the audience being local types, the emphasis on “Made in Arkansas” films made sense.  Providing screening for these productions brings attention to the state’s film industry and talent base.  Since neither Lawrence nor I have ties to Arkansas (insert punchline here), we focused our time on Narratives and Documentaries. We never once used our “safety net” of World Shorts.  This speaks highly of the quality and variety offered during all time slots.
  2. VENUES.  While the program lists 15 different event locations, which includes special discussions, parties and other non-movie screening spots, our movie viewings took place in 5 different venues of widely varying quality and comfort.  One of these was a modern lecture hall in the beautiful new (and highly green) Heritage Center, while another was simply unoccupied retail space with a black curtain marking the screening area. You can imagine the corresponding picture and sound quality.  A community stage theater had a wonderful look, but offered leg room seemingly designed for the Munchkins from the Land of Oz.  Its balcony offered little improvement. The soon to be completed Arcade Theater will serve as the main venue and central hub for LRFF 2014. This will allow for more continuity and a true gathering spot for festival attendees.
  3. THE CROWDS. In a pleasant contrast to many festivals, the crowds were minimal and easily spread out among the various venues. Made in Arkansas films were shown to audiences comprised of friends and family, while the Narratives and Documentaries had mostly sparse crowds made up of the few out-of-towners (like us). Since the festival overlaps with the world famous Cannes Film Festival, there is a noticeable absence of big-name filmmakers, highly-anticipated movies, and snooty Frenchmen. Cinephiles find much joy in “discovering” quality work in an entertaining or informative movie that offered little more than an upfront 2-3 sentence synopsis. LRFF is that type of opportunity, while Cannes offers a chance to stand in line for hours hoping for admission and to see Johnny Depp or Cameron Diaz posing for paparazzi. To each his own.
  4. TRANSPORTATION. The venues were spread out all over downtown Little Rock.  If you have never been there, the Arkansas River divides the city, and we spent time on both sides. A car was a basic necessity to navigate the schedule and various venues. Maybe next year’s opening of The Arcade will minimize the need to drive so often. Luckily, cheap parking was readily available.
  5. SPECIAL GUESTS. A high percentage of the films had writers, directors, producers and/or actors in attendance. Post-screening Q&A’s can be very enlightening, but the staggered screening schedule usually had us rushing off to catch “the next one”, rather than learning more about the last one.  When we did have time, we certainly enjoyed the filmmakers’ insight into their work. This was especially true for Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer director Maxim Pozdorovkin, and Marc Menchaca, writer/director/actor for This is Where We Live.  I would have liked to have spent some time with Dawn Porter, who directed TWO of the better documentaries we saw: Gideon’s Army and Spies of Mississippi.  Film Producer and famous Bill Clinton friend Harry Thomason was there filling in for his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who directed the award-winning Bridegroom (which we did not see).
  6. FESTIVAL VOLUNTEERS. There was certainly no shortage of volunteers working the festival. The presence of these people allows for a smooth-running operation and prevents mis-communication in regards to delays, etc. Larger crowds might have impacted the effectiveness, but there were no issues during our visit.
  7. LOCAL FLAVOR.  This category delivered the biggest surprises. Downtown Little Rock is clean and offers city parks and many pleasant views of the Arkansas River.  There are numerous locally owned mom-and-pop diners, cafes, pubs, etc. The service people were extremely friendly and the food was all tasty and reasonably priced. Friday evening’s LRFF party was held on the Junction Bridge … a walking bridge that crosses the river. That was an unusual experience and a creative party place.
  8. PERKS FOR FESTIVAL ATTENDEES. This is one area where the LRFF could take lessons from others. The price of a pass bought you a program and … umm … well … oh yeah … a pass.  No gift bag. No swag. No special offers or details on sponsors. One of the venues offered a community cheese and grapes tray that was quickly picked over.  Our Silver passes did allow us the privilege of paying a $10 entry fee for the bridge party, along with the opportunity to purchase beer or wine … our wine pour was approximately 2 oz.  The reason to attend a festival is to take in the movies, but some sort of appreciation shown to sponsors and attendees is not without merit and precedence.

LRFF2 On a personal note, I enjoyed meeting Stuart Margolin at one of the screenings.  Over the years, Mr. Margolin has been a favorite character actor. He is probably best known for his time as Angel, James Garner’s frustrating co-hort in “The Rockford Files”.

There were of course a few movies that really made an impression.  The most entertaining documentary for me was titled Muscle Shoals. Despite my love of music from the 1960’s, I was oblivious to the real impact that FAME Studios owner and record producer Rick Hall had on the era.  This was incredible fun and filled a gap in my music knowledge.  Gideon’s Army provided insight into the absurdly difficult work environment of public defenders.  Spies of Mississippi showed us rare photos and video footage, and took an unusual angle on the Civil Rights movement … espionage from the Mississippi government.  Our Nixon showed us archival footage from the Watergate period and provided specifics on Nixon, Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin.  Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer took us inside the Russian judicial system, while The LRFF4Kill Team detailed the Military judicial system as it relates to Army infantry soldiers who went too far in killing Afghan civilians. We Always Lie to Strangers gave us a peek behind the curtain of the secondary performers in Branson, Missouri while breaking down the façade of the Branson bible-belt image.

The documentary that really kicked me in the gut was called 12 O’Clock Boys, and showed us the stunning images of illegal dirt bike riders wreaking havoc in west Baltimore. These inner-city riders create dangerous situations on the roads while knowing that the police have an anti-chase policy (for public safety).   All of that is difficult enough to watch, but the truly stunning moments come courtesy of young Pug and his mother. I have no words to describe these people … especially the mother. To give you some insight, she showed up for the screening and promptly sat front row and recorded the movie on her smart phone. I did not have the nerve (or stomach) to stick around for that Q&A.

The staggered start times and multiple venues and small crowds allowed us to skip out early if a particular movie was not capturing our interest in the first half hour. We only did this a few times, but in each case, it led to a more fulfilling cinema experience. While LRFF5the abundance of quality documentaries would have made the festival worthwhile, there were also three Narratives that caught our eyes. The Discoverers is a dysfunctional family dramedy featuring one of Griffin Dunne’s best ever performances, as well as strong supporting work from Madeleine Martin (“Californication”), Carla Buono (“Mad Men”), Dreama Walker (“Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23”), Ann Dowd, John C McGinley and Stuart Margolin.  It has some funny, cryptic dialogue as well as a message about the bonds of family.  Written and directed by Texas born Menchaca, This is Where We Live introduces us to a rural family that just can’t seem to catch a break … other than heart-break. It has strong performances from CK McFarland, Tobias Segal, Ron Hayden, Frances Shaw and the great Barry Corbin.  Finally, we saw an interesting little film called The Girl, which features Abbie Cornish and Will Patton. This is a tough story of a struggling single mom, only we get the rare script that doesn’t make her overly likeable for the audience.

Should you ever have an interest in taking part in a film festival, I would not hesitate to recommend Little Rock Film Festival.  You better love documentaries and independents, and be able to maximize your time over a few days. Of course, if your budget and personality and love of all things French allows … there’s always Cannes!


BROKEN CITY (2013)

January 20, 2013

broken Greetings again from the darkness. The best Political crime dramas are complex films with multiple intersecting sub-plots, filled with stylish mis-direction and intense wordplay and back-stabbing between good guys and bad. What doesn’t work is “obvious”. Especially obvious to the point where the audience is way ahead of the earnest, but clumsy protagonist. Luckily for director Allen Hughes (working solo without his twin brother Albert for the first time), he has stacked the film with a wonderful cast which makes it somewhat entertaining despite its major flaws.

Mark Wahlberg plays (what else?) a streetwise guy/cop/detective who tries to do the right thing but always seems to end up with the short straw. Russell Crowe is in fine form (though a bit too tan) as the megalomaniac NYC mayor who plays dirty, but knows how to sell his stuff to the people … even as he schemes to do great wrong. Their paths cross twice and broken3neither time turns out so great for Wahlberg.

As for the rest of the cast, Barry Pepper is miscast as Crowe’s mayoral opponent; Jeffrey Wright is intriguing as the Police Commissioner seemingly playing both sides against the middle; Catherine Zeta-Jones is Crowe’s most unhappy and disloyal wife; Kyle Chandler plays Pepper’s campaign manager (and evidently more); and Griffin Dunne is a rich Crowe supporter and knee deep in the evil scheme. Also interesting is Alona Tai as Wahlberg’s wise-cracking and bright-eyed assistant.

broken2 While no details will be spilled here, there is a fun exchange during the debate between Crowe and Pepper, and well, the movie is just at its best when Crowe is on screen. Wahlberg’s character is pretty much the same he has played a dozen times prior, but it seems the real issue is with first time screenwriter Brian Tucker. He is just overrun with ideas and because of that, most go undeveloped. A script clean-up from a screen veteran could have turned this one around. Still, if you have seen all the Oscar nominated films and are looking for a watchable January release, you could do worse. Just try not to think too much!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are caught up on the December rush on late 2012 releases OR you want to see another fine Russell Crowe performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a “smart” thriller isn’t so smart

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3HgYu1atOo