THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)

November 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Reitman has proven himself to be an outstanding filmmaker who delivers entertaining stories with insightful commentary often accompanied by biting humor. His excellent films include: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and one of this year’s most underappreciated films, TULLY. His latest is based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” Producer Jay Carson), and it tells the story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and his derailed 1988 campaign for President.

The film begins in 1984 when an idealistic Hart loses the Democrat party nomination to Walter Mondale, who of course, went on to lose the national election to Ronald Reagan. It then picks up as the 1988 campaign is underway and Hart is the party frontrunner, and some say the candidate most likely to win the Presidency. Hugh Jackson plays Hart and is unfortunately burdened with an ill-fitting and distracting wig meant to emulate the lush locks sported by the youthful looking Senator. Vera Famiga plays his wife Lee, and Kaitlyn Dever plays their daughter Andrea. Casting two such fine actresses matters because of what happened during the campaign.

Senator Hart was the favored candidate of the young and the idealistic forces, though the details of his platform were never communicated clearly. Mostly, he was presented as the energetic candidate of hope versus the stodgy Republican Party that had delivered Ronald Reagan for 8 years and was now looking to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everything changed for Hart when rumors of marital infidelity, and possibly even an open marriage, began to circulate. When the media asked him, he was defiant … at times snapping in anger that his personal life was no one’s business.

We are taken inside the campaign via many familiar faces, including campaign manager Bill Dixon played by JK Simmons, and a terrific turn by Molly Ephraim as staffer Irene Kelly. We are invited on board the aptly named party yacht “Monkey Business” when Hart first meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), setting off what could considered be the birth of political gossip-columns. The Herald and Washington Post are key players here, as are editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and iconic journalist Bob Woodward. Apparently this is supposed to show us how politics and the media coverage of politics changed with Gary Hart.

Where the movie lets us down is in not providing any explanation to why Hart was the front runner, whether the U.S. or even the democratic party missed out on a great (or even competent) President, and how in the world Hart was so clueless as to why citizens might have an interest in his personal life activities that included sleeping with a woman (or women) that weren’t his wife. By the way, the reason for the last one is character … and we’ve since learned it’s not as important as what we might have once thought. These are all key issues as to why this is even a story, and whether or not it’s interesting enough to re-tell.

Instead of details, we are bombarded with overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing designed to generate some buzz and energy. The reality is that Gary Hart was really not that interesting, and in fact, by denying the importance of character, he thumbed his nose at his supporters. This blip on American history is simply not enough to justify a 2 hour a movie, and Mr. Jackman never seems able to capture the essence of Hart (whatever that essence might have been). There is obvious relevance to how today’s press treats personal stories, but a bland candidate makes for a bland movie.

watch the trailer:

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PAN (2015)

October 8, 2015

pan Greetings again from the darkness. Writer J.M. Barre first introduced the world to Peter Pan just after the turn of the twentieth century. Children and adults alike were enamored with “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”. The stories were filled with the mischief created by Peter and his Lost Boys buddies from their Neverland home, and although there existed elements of danger (Captain Hook), Barre’s story was mostly about holding on to the joy and carefree world of childhood.

Sadly, these days we don’t encourage kids to be kids. Instead, we push them to take on responsibility and act ‘grown up’ … heck, most kids today never really experience free play time with their friends. Everything is organized and scheduled (just check the calendar on the fridge). Writer Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) have created a Peter Pan “origin” story that lacks any touch of whimsy or enchantment from the original books or the numerous film adaptations: the 1953 Disney animated classic, the 1991 Steven Spielberg/Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the underrated 2003 live action version from director P.J. Hogan, or even last year’s Live TV broadcast featuring Allison Williams as Peter.

This one begins with a talented Parkour-enabled Mother (Amanda Seyfried) dropping off her infant son on the steps of an orphanage. She leaves only a note and a pan flute medallion. Flash forward twelve years and Peter (Levi Miller) is questioning the mysterious disappearance of kids from an environment straight out of a Dickens novel, as well as the hoarding talents of the evil Mother Superior (Kathy Burke). Soon enough Peter finds himself, along with scores of other youngsters, slaving in the fairy dust mines belonging to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  Are you depressed yet?

Things only get bleaker as Peter escapes with his new friend James Hook (the name is no coincidence). They soon encounter the tribe that protects the Fairy Kingdom and the fairy dust that Blackbeard so values. Part of the tribe is Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who believes that Peter is “the chosen one” who has come to lead and protect them. Lots of fighting ensues, plus some soaring giant crocodiles, flying pirate ships, and a trio of mermaids (all played by supermodel Cara Delevingne).

Re-imagining the classics is about the closest thing we get to creativity in Hollywood these days, so it’s not the idea of the project that so bothers, but rather the approach. Where is the fun?  Where is the sense of wonderment?  In fact, young Peter’s destiny seems to be an urgency to assume more responsibility as a leader … not live the carefree days of fun and games that Mr. Barre had set out.

Newcomer Levi, who plays Peter, ranks right there with director Joe Wright’s previous discovery of Saoirse Ronan, as child actors with big time screen presence. Young Mr. Miller has a grasp of the script and character and is the best part of the film. Hugh Jackman plays Blackbeard, but can never really reach the necessary level of intimidation or theatricality. For some reason Garrett Hedlund plays Hook as if he is imitating Christian Slater who is imitating Jack Nicholson playing Indiana Jones. It’s so over-the-top that we must assume Hedlund was directed to bring some comic relief to the bleak environment. Much has already been written about the casting of ultra-Caucasian Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lilly, though she performs the role quite well (avoiding the screeching of her lines in the manner of Jackman and Hedlund).  Rounding out the cast is Adeel Axhtar as Smiegel/Smee.

Some of Wright’s action sequences and CGI are quite impressive, though it’s difficult to overlook the obvious influences of Terry Gilliam, Baz Luhrman, and even George Lucas and James Cameron. Particularly painful and out of place are the Luhrman-influenced musical interludes of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramone’s “Blitkrieg Bop”.  Even the pixie dust effect reminds of Dorian Gray, though Jackman only gets one brief scene in which to capitalize.

Devotees of the J.M. Barre source material will be no doubt disappointed and confused, but the theatre was filled with youngsters who couldn’t seem to care less that Joe Wright had taken a classic story in the opposite direction. They enjoyed the visual effects as evidenced by the numerous “oohs” and “ahhs”. So let’s allow that reaction to speak for itself, rather than saying this version just didn’t pan out.

watch the trailer:

 


THAT SUGAR FILM (2015, doc)

July 29, 2015

that sugar film Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since Morgan Spurlock provided us with a gut check on the evils of McDonalds with his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, movie goers have shown a real appetite for information on food and nutrition. We have since had informative and entertaining documentaries on wheat, corn, fat, organics and gardening. This latest sweet film comes from Australian director Damon Gameau. He takes the Spurlock approach and personally becomes a lab rat to expose the effects of too much sugar. His mission is 60 days of eating “typical” sugar intake through what would ordinarily be considered “healthy” foods. In other words: no ice cream, candy or soda.

Mr. Gameau introduces himself as a healthy guy who exercises regularly and eats a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables. His girlfriend is 6 months pregnant as he begins this 60 day experiment into the world of sugar. There is a quick history lesson on how sugar became a food staple, and fellow Australian Hugh Jackman explains the pivotal event that occurred in 1955 – a Dwight Eisenhauer heart attack. This spurred debate between US doctors who blamed it on high fat, while the British doctors attributed it to an excess of sugar. The low-fat revolution began, and was actually responsible for the increased amount of sugar in our processed foods. We learn that a full 80% of the standard products on grocery store shelves contain added sugar.

A panel of medical experts provides the necessary tests upfront that set the baseline for blood work, enzyme levels, liver function, weight, etc. The comparison 60 days later is frightening, but it’s Gameau’s daily journey that provides the real insight and biggest eye-openers. He doesn’t spend much time focusing on any particular brands, though Pepsi (Mountain Dew), Coca-Cola and Jamba Juice each takes some serious jabs. Instead we witness his mood swings and lack of motivation for exercise.

British actor Stephen Fry explains the Glucose/Fructose make-up of Sucrose and we are given an overview of how our bodies process this – including a briefing on the role of insulin. As the days go on, we witness Gameau’s weight gain and he explains his lethargy and most surprisingly, his mental inconsistencies. He has bouts of cloudiness in a mind that was once clear. It’s this and the dramatic change in his liver that delivers the real scare.

It seems clear that all calories are not created equally (a calorie from an apple is not processed the same as a calorie from a Snickers), and that food companies have put much effort into hiding, or at least disguising, the amount of sugars added to the massive amount of processed food consumed each year by the average person. Perhaps Diabetes and Obesity and tooth decay are not thought to be immediate enough threats to cause a shift away from the convenience of processed food. Mr. Gameau shows just how dramatic and severe the changes can be in only 60 days. So imagine 5 years. 25 years. Just how much warning do we need?

watch the trailer:

 


PRISONERS (2013)

September 23, 2013

prisoners1 Greetings again from the darkness. This film is one of those goldmines for discussion and debate. Each successive scene begs the viewer to judge the actions of those involved, but even beyond that, the movie is screaming to be picked apart by those of us prone to do so. It’s actually the best of both worlds for film lovers … it challenges us on a personal and moral basis, and also as one who analyzes scripts, acting choices, and filmmaking techniques.

Having seen the trailer, I was very much aware of the foundation of the film … two young girls are kidnapped and, frustrated with the lack of progress by the police, one of the dads seeks his own form of justice. So I couldn’t help but cringe with the obvious metaphor opening scene where Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) experiences one of those life-bonding moments with his teenage son Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette). Once past that, the set-up is expertly handled … two middle class families sharing friendship and Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and his prisoners4wife Holly (Maria Bello) have two kids: Dylan and their young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimokovich). Their neighborhood friends Franklin and Nancy are played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Perfect families and perfect friends shattered by a horrific ordeal when the young girls go missing. The main suspect is a simplistic man-child who drives a ratty RV. Alex Jones is played by Paul Dano in the most uncompromising manner possible.  He lives a simple existence with his aunt, played by Melissa Leo.

prisoners3 Enter Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki is an odd bird who never lets a case go unsolved. His quirky personality and facial ticks and buttoned-up shirt provide us with enough backstory that we understand his dogged pursuit and need to work alone. As the story unfolds, we are overwhelmed with an abundance of terrific story lines. In fact, there are so many that we feel downright cheated at all the deadends and dropped-cold sub-plots.

As a father, I certainly could relate to Keller’s relentless, stop-at-nothing pursuit of the first and only lead. Exactly where would I draw the line for my own actions? I can’t answer that other than to say that I totally understood his approach. That’s not to say I condone such actions, only that I fully empathize. Holly’s reaction to the ordeal is to curl up in bed with prisoners2meds. That too is understandable. Loki’s frustration with his own department and the false leads is also understandable. So while each character’s actions make sense, the viewer’s frustration is palpable, not just because of these things, but in the mis-use of such fine actors as Mr. Howard, Ms. Davis, and Ms. Leo. Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Dano dominate through much different methods, yet we viewers constantly find ourselves wanting to know more about the teenage kids, the priest played by Len Cariou, and of course, the Howard and Davis characters.

You will pick up on some thematic similarites to films such as The Lovely Bones, Primal Fear, Ransom, and Mystic River.  The film’s message is not vague; it’s even overly obvious. Keller is a survivalist … the kind of guy who is prepared for any disaster. No matter how prepared one is, the loss of a child will test your morals, faith and inner-strength. What would you do? How far would you go? Is there a line you won’t cross to protect your family? Those questions are much simpler until real life forces you to answer.

One thing you will quickly notice is just how stunningly beautiful this film is. The credits provide the answer in Director of Cinematographer Roger Deakins, probably the best in the business. French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve gave us the exceptional Incendies, and while this one has plenty to offer, I believe some fine-tuning with writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) could have elevated this one to Oscar worthy material. So take your friends and be prepared for post-movie discussion. Everyone will have their own thoughts and opinions. That doesn’t make this a great movie, but it serves the purpose of getting us to question our faith and beliefs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are willing to question your own moral bounds when the safety of your family is at stake OR you enjoy personal thrillers in the whodunnit mode.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer taut thrillers with few loose ends and easy puzzle pieces to assemble along the way

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpXfcTF6iVk

 


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


REAL STEEL

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Shawn Levy brought us the Night at the Museum Movies and I guess that’s about the same audience he is after with this one. Most will compare this to Rocky, and the similarities are obvioius, but the film this most reminds me of is Dreamer with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning – A spunky kid trying to prove everyone wrong in an against all odds competition. But while this one is entertaining enough, I would not put it at the level of either of those movies, which both had better performances and a much better script.

 Hugh Jackman is Charlie, a pompous, bombastic, self-centered hustler who tries to stay one step ahead of the collectors chasing him. He is always looking for a big score in the robot boxing game. What? You aren’t familiar with this sport? Well the film is set in not-too-distant-future, but the only thing I could tell had evolved was the technology of robots and cell phones. Jackman’s world gets jacked up when his 11 year old son (Dakota Goyo) is thrust into his life after the mother dies. Yes, he has been an absentee father and the kid is ridiculously smart and cute.

The two of them set off to make noise in the robot fight world with a dilapidated old model that they rescue from the junk yard in a driving rain storm. There are very few surprises along the way, but father and son develop a bond thanks to the success of their robot, and said robot is not the only one who gets “rescued”.

 Supporting work is provided by Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn. These are all competent actors who deliver fine work, but there is nothing special to the script. The one thing that makes this one a little different and will certainly appeal to 10-12 year old boys, is the fighting robots. The fights are action-packed and enjoyable/exciting to watch. They actually look like boxing matches … only with metal creatures, who for some reason are built to mimic human movement.

There have been countless other robot movies: Transformers, Bicentennial Man (Robin Williams), I Robot (Will Smith) and, of course, Lost in Space! Don’t expect much more from this than those offered, but it is a simple fun ride, especially for the pre-teen who enjoys any type of frenetic clash.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always looking for a movie that you and your 11 year old can see together

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to miss Hugh Jackman in hyper-over-acting mode.

watch the trailer (and get a feel for the robot fighting):