HEARTS AND BONES (2020)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. How would you feel if someone photographed the worst moment of your life, and then exhibited it for the world to see? That question is at the heart of this drama, the first narrative feature from writer-director Ben Lawrence. His co-writer is Beatrix Christian, who also wrote the screenplay for JINDABYNE, an excellent 2006 film directed by Ben’s father, Ray Lawrence.

Daniel Fisher (Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” franchises) is a renowned war photographer, and we first see him on assignment in 2018 Iraq. When he returns home to the Western Sydney suburbs, his longtime partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney, THE BABADOOK 2014) surprises him with news that she’s pregnant. They still struggle with the pain of losing their previous daughter, Eve. On top of that, Fisher’s work is scheduled to be the centerpiece of a high profile exhibit coming soon. The stress manifests itself physically through shaking hands and fainting spells.

Fisher is a bit of a mess when he’s tracked down by Sebastian Ahmed (the screen debut of Andrew Luri), who requests that Fisher not include photographs of the massacre which occurred in his south Sudan village 15 years prior. Sebastian says the memories are too painful, as he lost his family during that time. He’s now a refugee building a new life for his pregnant wife Anishka (Bolude Watson) and their young child. Sebastian works as a taxi driver and in a commercial laundry, and when he pushes Anishka to let him buy a house for their family, she says matter-of-factly, “We work. That is our life. It’s all we do.” It’s a frustrating dose of reality for Sebastian who sees a house as confirmation that they belong.

There is so much going on in what, on the surface, appears to be a quiet little film where two men form an unlikely friendship. PTSD is a factor for both men, as war has left its mark, as it so often does. Sebastian has kept his past life a secret from his wife, but that’s only part of the story when it comes to why he doesn’t want the photographs exhibited. Fisher is described as “documenting human pain and misery”, while his work is labeled “misery porn”. Is that fair? We get both sides of the gray area associated with that question noted in my first paragraph above.

Filmmaker Lawrence benefits from four terrific performances, and though the ending is a bit shaky, the stress and emotional turmoil that those four characters endure is extremely well handled. “Who are you?” is a question Anishka asks her husband, and by the end it can be asked of all four characters. There is little wonder why this has been so warmly received on the film festival circuit … it’s thought-provoking and emotional.

In theaters and On Demand November 20, 2020

watch the trailer


BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

watch the trailer:


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


THE DRESSMAKER (2016, Australia)

September 29, 2016

dressmaker Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just have to give thanks (and credit) to a filmmaker for boldly stepping out of the Hollywood box and delivering a cinematic experience that is creative, interesting and downright unusual. Such is the case with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her first film since A Thousand Acres (1997).

We know immediately that we are in for something a bit different. A1950’s era bus rolls down the dusty road and stops in a desolate little Aussie town with only a handful of store fronts. Western-style music accompanies Kate Winslet as she steps off the bus brandishing a Singer sewing machine rather than a Winchester or Colt. She lights up a cigarette, squints out from under her hat, and utters one of the more memorable first lines of any movie. We are hooked. (You had me at “bastards”)

What follows is based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel with a screenplay from the director and PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, 1997), and features a most remarkable blend of slapstick comedy, dark humor, tragedy, romance, mystery, and revenge. At times the film has a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson feel, while at various other moments it recalls the Keystone Cops, Chocolat, a spaghetti western and a spoof of … well it’s difficult to say whether it’s a spoof or homage to numerous genres.

Ms. Winslet is in full lead mode as Tilly … the local girl who was accused of murder at age ten and banished from her mother and hometown. After 25 years, Tilly returns to Dungatar in an attempt to reconnect with her mom, gain a bit of revenge on the petty townfolks, and remember that fateful day that has been blocked from her memory. The tool of her trade is a sewing machine (and at times a golf club) and Tilly has the magic touch to transform the local ladies into more attractive and confident versions of themselves. She wields her Singer with every bit of danger as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) did with his revolver in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Judy Davis (A Passage to India) is fantastic (worthy of an Oscar nom) as Tilly’s mother “Mad” Molly. In a role that would have been pure caricature in different hands (Maggie Smith), Ms. Davis provides a depth and humanity to a role that is truly the heart of the film. Also excellent is Hugo Weaving as the local Police Sergeant who has his own secret quirks and guilty conscience, and is one of the first to appreciate the talents Tilly brings to the small town. Liam Hemsworth spends the movie grinning and gazing in the role of arm candy Teddy – one easily recognizable as the female role in most movies (those not directed by a woman). The deep cast always features Sarah Snook as Gertrude and Kerry Fox as the villainous school marm Beulah (replete with devilish hairdo).

While the story itself is relatively predictable, it’s the manner in which scenes are staged that makes this such a pleasure. The offbeat combination of desolate Aussie town and near cartoon characters are set against the colorful and textured world of highly fashionable clothes, wicked twists, twisted humor, reconciliation and tragedy – many scenes combining more than a couple of these.

Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson deserve special attention for costume design, as the costumes themselves play as characters to contrast the local atmosphere. It’s startling to realize that such a coherent story utilizes such topics as domestic violence, spousal rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, murder, perjury, blackmail, Billie Holliday, South Pacific, cannabis brownies, and Sunset Boulevard in such creative ways. Though many critics will not agree, Ms. Moorhouse has delivered an entertaining and accessible movie despite its complexity with multiple subplots and various undertones. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait 20 years for her next film project.

watch the trailer:

 


CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

October 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ambitious and mesmerizing. Those are the two words that best describe my reaction to this stunning film based on the David Mitchell novel. Hopefully, you have not come here for answers to the many mysteries offered up by this most unique film experience. If you are the type that loves to think, analyze and discuss complex movies, you will be challenged and satisfied. If you prefer your stories clean, straightforward and gift-wrapped, you will be like some of those in my audience who walked out of the theatre at various stages -not to return.

 While there are no easy explanations for what we see on screen, this is undoubtedly one of the more complex and multi-faceted and challenging movies to watch. There are six stories that span approximately 500 years (beginning in 1849 and going through 2346 or so). We see many actors playing multiple characters of various ages, crossing racial and gender lines depending on the specific story.  We track the progression/regression of their souls through time. This will prove more challenging to you than it sounds on paper, as the make-up work is some of the most extreme ever seen on screen.  Many will describe the film as messy or convoluted, but the argument can be made that those traits add to the fun. Certainly, this won’t be to the taste of most; however, if you thrive on life’s puzzles, the film will hit your sweet spot.

 The six stories are co-written and directed by Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Lana and Andy, The Matrix trilogy). These six segments are split evenly between the two director groups, yet then blend seamlessly thanks to the truly expert editing of Alexander Berner. You will recognize the influence and similarities of such films as Master and Commander, Cocoon, Silkwood and Blade Runner, as well as many others.

Filling the costumes, donning the make-up and spouting the dialogue in manners that you often won’t recognize are such disparate actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Especially entertaining are Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse and Hugh Grant as a violent tribesman. The best laughs in the film are courtesy of the great Mr. Broadbent whose facial expressions are near clown-like in elasticity.

 As for the themes and points of the film, that is a topic for debate. A couple of lines of dialogue offer some clues. Hanks’ nasty ship doctor spouts “The weak are meat the strong do eat“, and we notice the recurring theme of the strong dominating the weak across all story lines. There is another line: “One can transcend any convention so long as one can conceive of doing so“, that provides the glimmer of hope in each story. Love and oppression are always present, but it’s clear to me that the human spirit remains strong and is capable of overcoming oppression in the past, present and future. You may disagree but our debates will be colorful … and may change after a second viewing!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy assembling the pieces of multiple storylines and numerous interconnected characters OR you just want to see Hugo Weaving play the toughest on screen nurse since Nurse Ratched

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movies to be short and sweet (this one is almost 3 hours and anything but sweet)

Watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQFAPeaJOf8


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

July 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If it seems to you as if the past three years have provided an overload of superhero and comic-based movies, you are absolutely correct. There have been too many. There are a few I would be willing to toss out, but Captain America is not one of them. This ranks right with the first Iron Man as the closest to a real movie … one with a story to go with the action and CGI.

It begins with the present day discovery of an exposed plane wing jutting from the frozen Arctic tundra. The search team quickly finds the Captain America shield visible beneath the ice. Flash back to WWII and we are introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with Benjamin Button FX) who wants nothing more than to fight for his country. Unfortunately, this 90-pound weakling might as well have 4-F stamped on his forehead, as the size of his heart far exceeds the size of his biceps.

His tenacity at trying to enlist is noticed by a powerful scientist named Erskine (played with sheer smirking joy by Stanley Tucci). Erskine happens to be working with Col. Phillips (a perfectly grumpy Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret plan to develop super-soldiers with the injectable cocktail Erskine has invented. As you might guess, the plan is thwarted immediately after scrawny Steve Rogers is transformed into a super soldier yanked from the cover of “Men’s Fitness”.

 Working with Col Phillips and Erskine is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Her main purpose seems to be adorning the brightest red lipstick and flashing her legs in front of the soldiers. She falls for Rogers and spends most of her scenes staring somewhat scarily into his eyes. Actually, their scenes together are pretty good and her character helps us remember that Captain America is still just a regular good guy … not a Norse God.  It was humorous to watch the early song and dance routines to sell war bonds.  Seeing the super soldier cast as a traveling side show could be seen as a commentary on the military.

 Personally, I thought the movie lagged just a bit in the fight scenes between good and evil. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) to be a terrific bad guy. Nazi’s still make for the perfect adversary. Although, I found myself laughing on occasion as Weaving’s German accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. I was quite impressed with the infamous Captain America shield, though I never quite figured out how he trained it to “return” to him … I am sure this is better explained in the comics.

 What makes this movie work is the fact that Captain America remains Steve Rogers. He is always a good guy wanting to do the right things. He is deeply affected when he thinks his actions may have caused the death of his best friend Bucky. But he also manages to keep his ego in check and his patriotic duty in the forefront. Also, the film is directed by Joe Johnston. If you are unfamiliar with his work, let me recommend two of his earlier films: The Rocketeer and Hidalgo. You are probably familiar with his Jumanji and October Sky. He is a director that creates a specific look and feel to his films, and the texture helps make this one work.

Since this is entitled Captain America: The First Avenger, it is obviously another step towards The Avengers movie slated for 2012. So don’t miss Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man). And don’t miss Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the odd ending to this film … and the obligatory “bonus” after closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always viewed yourself as the 90 lb weakling in those old Charles Atlas comic book ads OR you just never miss a chance to see nazi’s get thier asses kicked … especially by a guy in tights.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a comic book flashback to WWII seems about as appealing as having your air conditioner go out during this crazy heat wave

watch the trailer:

 


THE WOLFMAN (2010)

February 14, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness (and fog). OK, I admit it. I love this stuff. As a kid, I watched Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies again and again. The 1941 version with Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman is classic horror. Of course, the film itself wasn’t really so scary … instead, it’s the possibility of the transition from man to monster and then back again! Director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, The Rocketeer) stays true to the original story and shows us how far stunts, special effects and make-up have come in the last 69 years. Add in another terrific score from Danny Elfman and you get a few good jumps in your movie seat.

Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are absolutely perfect casting for the cursed father and son. Their transformations work well given their “natural” features … especially Del Toro, who looks as though he was born for the role.

Emily Blunt is the token eye candy, and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is the Scotland Yard detective on the hunt. Neither are really given much to do, but it doesn’t matter. The fun starts when the full moon arrives.

The down side is that the CGI are a bit weak when the creature is on all fours running, jumping and leaping tall buildings. But that’s a minor quibble when you consider the set design is breath-taking. Horse and carriage, cozy English pub in a quaint town, and a run down-once majestic castle that houses Mr. Hopkins and family.

I applaud the director for remaining true to the roots of the story and not “updating” it ala Twilight to show high school students in 21st century NYC as werewolves. Go in with the right attitude and this one will make for a fun Valentine date.