MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The history of monarchs goes back more than a thousand years. These days we view British royalty as little more than telegenic subjects for gossip sites, though for hundreds of years, the crown carried real power. Of course, the system never made any logical sense. Why should a baby born to the “right” family be pre-ordained to rule the country? These birthrights even caused much confusion and debate … and wars … when there was uncertainty about which kid was the most important. And yes, kids is the proper term. Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was six days old when her father King James V died, and she ascended to the throne (though the actual ruling was done by regents until she was older).

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). The two were cousins (not sisters), and the film examines many aspects of this era: the struggle for the throne between the two, the unusual circumstances that found two women in power, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by men in an effort to wrestle power from the women, the importance of marriage and heirs, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and the bizarre arrangement that caused Mary to spend nearly half her life in custody.

Director Josie Rourke is best known for her stage productions, some of which have been broadcast live in cinemas. This is her debut feature film, and her talent is quite obvious. She gets “big” with stunning sweeping vistas, and intimate with dark chamber meetings. The castles look and feel like castles, and not the sound stage sets we often see in costume productions. The film is a thing of beauty and the two lead actresses are sublime … and with much more screen time, Ms. Ronan delivers a ferocious performance.

The screenplay from Beau Willimon (creator, producer and head writer of “House of Cards”) is based on the John Guy book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”. This matters because Mr. Guy theorizes that the two sovereigns actually met in real life, something very much doubted by historians. Either way, it makes for an interesting (if not a bit hokey) segment in the film, as Elizabeth and Mary wander through billowing curtains in a clandestine spot. The costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne are so beautiful, they are nearly a character altogether.

Beginning at the end, we get an early look at Mary’s “martyrdom” march to her execution on 1587 at age 44. If you’ve ever read about the actual execution, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not shown on screen. Supporting work comes courtesy of Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, and an explosive David Tennant as a fire-breathing priest. This version plays up the inner-turmoil and challenges in power faced by the women – more so than the 1974 version starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson (the film received 5 Oscar nominations). Ms. Ronan and Ms. Robbie really help us understand the challenges these women faced – challenges that men on the throne wouldn’t have faced.

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GENIUS (2016)

June 17, 2016

genius Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.

It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.

And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.

The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical?  In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.

The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.

It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.

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THE ROVER (2014, Australia)

June 29, 2014

rover Greetings again from the darkness. This is Australian writer/director David Michod’s follow-up to his excellent 2010 film Animal Kingdom – one of my favorite films that year. While that film took us inside an Australian gangster family, this one is set in a dystopian Outback ten years after what the film terms “the collapse”.

Michod’s script from a Joel Edgerton story goes pretty light on the details and depends heavily on the shared scenes with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. Both deliver the goods, and Pattinson in particular is quite something to behold … his gun shot wound plays second fiddle to the most bizarre speech pattern and accent we have heard in awhile. Initially appearing somewhat flawed in his mental aptitude, Pattinson brings his character through a full cycle of emotions; which is the polar opposite of Pearce’s character who though quite stoic, leaves no doubt that he is angry at 3 goons for stealing his last possession – his car.

The mood of the film and the tone of the character keep us in suspense on why this blasted car is so important to Pearce, and it’s not until the final sequence that the mystery is solved. The more interesting scenes occur when Pearce and Pattinson are facing off – their relationship evolves from adversarial to something kind of oddly touching.

The usually dependable Scoot McNairy plays Pattinson’s brother, but really isn’t given much to do except for his final scene with Pattinson. The most interesting supporting role comes courtesy of screen veteran Gillian Jones as the inquisitive Grandma. She leaves the impression that a film about her would be much wilder than the minimalistic landscape and dialogue of our feature.

Michod’s latest is not at the level of Animal Kingdom but it does offer a couple of intriguing characters and vastly toned down Mad Max flavor. It’s beautifully photographed and the sparse soundtrack is the perfect compliment.

watch the trailer:

 


IRON MAN 3 (2013)

May 5, 2013

iron man1 Greetings again from the darkness. My initial reaction upon seeing this opening day was that some fanboys are not going to be happy. Of course, this happens every time Hollywood makes changes to the original comic book material in hopes of attracting massive box office numbers. While I recognize many of the “flaws”, I found this to be an interesting and entertaining turn on the Tony Stark/Iron Man series.

Shane Black was brought in to direct and help write the script. Mr. Black is best known for his crackling buddy dialogue in movies like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Robert Downey Jr), but doesn’t have significant directorial experience (his most recent effort was KKBB 5 years ago). My belief has always been that what sets this franchise apart is Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. A wiseiron man4-cracking billionaire playboy technology and mechanical genius searching for his true identity. Mr. Black re-focuses the story on Stark. In fact, he basically takes everything away and has him start over.

Regardless of the story, many line up for these movies to see the special effects and the bad guys. The special effects are everywhere … and loud … and massive. The trailer shows a clip of Stark’s Malibu mansion being destroyed, but the entire segment is quite impressive. The number of Iron Man suits seems unlimited at times and the big finale gave me the same feeling of a 4th of July fireworks display when it ends with so many clumps of fireworks being fired at once, that the impact is dulled. As for the bad guys, The Mandarin is one of the most fierce opponents faced by Iron Man in the comics. His portrayal here by Ben Kingsley is a blast to iron man2watch, but will undoubtedly upset the true fanboys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a demented mastermind, once snubbed by Stark – in a scene we witness in flashback.

My preference here is to focus on the fun elements since that’s clearly what Marvel and Black are shooting for. Jon Favreau directed the first two entries in the franchise and here takes on a slightly bigger acting role as head of security for the Stark corporation … and he provides some comic relief. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally gets to do more than roll her eyes, but she still has her damsel in distress moments. Don Cheadle returns as Col. Rhodes … or War Machine … now re-branded as Iron Patriot, but mostly he is just waiting for his own movie. Rebecca Hall has some screen time as a smart woman who is not so wise in her choosing of partners. No comment. Ty Simpkins plays Harley, a country boy who helps Stark in his time of need. James Badge Dale, Miguel Ferrer, William Sadler, and Dale Dickey all have strong moments, but therein lies what may be the film’s biggest weakness.

iron man3 It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch … giant visuals, really good actors and quick, witty dialogue. But there seems to be an overload of each of these things. Guy Pearce’s character is woefully underdeveloped. I so wanted more of his backstory and motivation. Same with Harley, the boy. Much could have been done with that. Miguel Ferrer, always a worthy opponent, must have had his best scenes left in editing. The scene with Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr, may have been the best in the movie simply because we got a real peak at each of these character’s personality. That’s way more fun that another explosion!

The film pummels us with action, probably has too much Tony Stark and too little Iron Man for the fanboys, throws in a hard-to-swallow sub-plot regarding Anxiety issues for Stark (thanks to his Avengers escapades), and underutilizes Guy Pearce in what could have been a world class evil doer. Still, despite all of that, it’s fun to watch and Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man!

*NOTE: the expected Stan Lee cameo occurs during the Beauty Contest scene (he plays a judge)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the Iron Man franchise … it delivers what we want and what we expect

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something wildly different from the first two Iron Man movies – the tweaks are minor and mostly effective

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV8H7kszXqo


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:

 


PROMETHEUS (2012)

June 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ridley Scott bounds back into the sci-fi genre 30 plus years after his two classics: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Since then, he has avoided sci-fi and had some ups (Gladiator, American Gangster) and some downs (too many to list). Of course, in the film world, one need only create a single masterpiece to be forever worshiped … and the Alien lovers have always held out hope their master would return. Despite the sly marketing approach, Mr. Scott has delivered a prequel that should keep the geeks happy, while also having the “wow” factor to generate multiple viewings.

In the year 2089 we witness an archaeologist played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) discover an ancient cave gallactic map. With remarkable efficiency found only in the private sector, four years later, the Prometheus space ship is landing on the moon depicted in the drawings. It’s lofty mission is to discover the origin of life. The crew make-up is almost identical to the crew in Alien, only this time we get an ice queen corporate director, played by Charlize Theron, to emphasize corporate greed and lust for power, and the lack of love for science.

Once the ship lands, we pretty much know what the search crew will find. That doesn’t ruin the impact of the images. The strength of the movie comes from the visuals and effects. We never doubt that we are in a far away galaxy or that the aliens are real. This is one of the RARE times that the 3D version is recommended. Despite the dulled images caused by the glasses, this one was actually filmed in 3D and some of the effects really pop.

There will be much debate over this film because it looks effectively creepy and fascinating … downright phenomenal. However, it has too many of what I call “stupid movie character moments”. You know, those times when a character does or says something that just makes no sense – other than to create an opportunity for the filmmaker? There are plenty of those present here. The script is co-written by Jon Spaihts and “Lost” guru Damon Lindelof. The overall idea is brilliant and worth pursuing, however, the details and gaps are quite disappointing. We know there will be minor characters sacrificed in the name of creating fear in the survivors, but couldn’t we have more than one strong character? The Noomi Rapace character has much in common with Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley, but the others here are pretty generic.

 Idris Elba plays the ship’s captain, Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland, the old man funding the mission and seeking immortality, and Logan Marshall-Green plays Rapace’s partner and lover. The only other character of interest is Michael Fassbender‘s android David. He models himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, right down to the golden locks. Android technology has come a long way since Alien and David can be quite a wry smart-ass.

In the end, the sci-fi geeks will decide if this one deserves to live on, but for me, despite the breath-taking technological effects, it’s not worthy of the “classic” label. It was kind of humorous to hear a score that bears an uncanny resemblance at times to the iconic score of Inception. It seems that film’s impact is nothing short of never-ending.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Alien OR you are fan of sci-fi and special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a coherent story line and strong characters

watch the trailer:

 


DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2010)

September 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I really enjoy a good horror movie, I have never been too fond of those that featured unexplained or other-worldly creatures. However, with Pan’s Labyrinth to his credit, Guillermo del Toro has earned my trust. Supposedly the 1973 British version of this film (Nigel McKeand teleplay) so frightened a young del Toro that it inspired him to become a filmmaker. Here he acts as producer and co-writer, while first timer Troy Nixey directs.

 What makes this one work is that it takes full advantage of setting and dark tones, rather than over-exposure of the freakish fairies that live in the ash pit. Blackwood Manor is one creepy, yet fantastic mansion that belonged to a famous artist who was killed in the basement. Also, the three leads are good in their roles. Guy Pearce plays the struggling businessman who gets his 10 year old daughter forced upon him by his ex-wife. Katie Holmes plays Pearce’s girlfriend and the interior designer in charge of the mansion re-do. The real gem of the film is Bailee Madison, whom you will remember from Bridge to Teribithia.

 Putting a cute kid in peril is one of the most over-used cliches in horror films, but here young Sally (Madison) is actually quite brave and rational … she is trying to solve this mystery without bothering the oh-so-busy adults. As is customary, the dad (Pearce) is clueless and the last to catch on, but there is a very interesting dynamic between Holmes and Madison. Those are the kind of details that make this one worth seeing for all you lovers of horror. Just remember the second rule of real estate: never buy a mansion named Blackwood.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you never miss a decent horror film OR you want to see Jack Thompson (so great in Breaker Morant) as the crusty old caretaker

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: little creatures in the basement is all you need to know to find something else to do

watch the trailer: