SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

watch the trailer:

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FRANK & LOLA (2016)

December 8, 2016

frank-lola Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Shannon continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today. In this first feature from writer/director Matthew Ross, Mr. Shannon is the titular Frank, and his pained facial expressions elevate this neo-noir into a dark and intriguing exposition on male obsession and sexual jealousy.

The abrupt opening scene finds Frank and Lola (Imogen Poots) frolicking in bed after obviously just meeting for the first time that evening. We (and Lola) know we are in for something a bit different when Frank slams on the breaks and states, “Maybe we should wait until next time.” Lola is taken aback, and we are soon watching this relationship develop … while simultaneously noting the subtle signs of troubled pasts for each of them.

Frank is a talented French chef and Lola is just starting her career as a fashion designer. His dark side flashes a bit more often, but before Lola ever comes clean, we realize there is unhappiness in her past. They seem to be two tortured souls in a jinxed relationship.

Filmmaker Ross keeps us (and Frank) on our toes as the script seems to continually offer yet another deeply held secret or mysterious character. Justin Long plays Lola’s new employer, while the rarely-seen-these-days Rosanna Arquette plays Lola’s name-dropping mother. However, it’s Michael Nyqvist (so great in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the suave Frenchman with ties to Lola’s past and present that really makes things interesting … and somehow even darker. His wife is played by the terrific French actress Emmanuelle Devos. Her screen time is limited, yet crucial.

The film was well received at Sundance, and it shares the creepiness of such films as Basic Instinct, Body Heat and Night Moves. Rarely do contemporary movies go as deep into the male psyche of obsession as this one, and the throw-back atmosphere is a perfect fit for the tone. Not many actors simmer like Michael Shannon, and the story offers him the perfect vehicle to remind us that everyone longs to be loved – even when we aren’t sure we deserve it.

watch the trailer:

 

 


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


A LATE QUARTET (2012)

November 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those little indie flicks that will probably get lost in the shuffle. Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman delivers a twist to the familiar life lessons and substitute family story lines, and is wise enough to let his outstanding cast do what they do best.

It is by no means a great movie, but there are some terrific and wonderful moments thanks mostly to some top notch acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanik and Christopher Walken make up a famed string quartet who are approaching their 25th year together. All heck breaks loose within this group that thrives on precision when the patriarch (Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This announcement is followed immediately by a battle of egos between the two violinists (Hoffman and Ivanek), a falling out between the married couple (Keener and Hoffman) when he has an affair, and a break in trust when Ivanek starts a relationship with the much younger daughter (Imogen Poots) of Keener and Hoffman.  It’s kinda like Peyton Place with classical music.

If this sounds like a dysfunctional family, that’s a very accurate description. These four people are outstanding musicians who made the decision to forgo solo careers and build something even better with the quartet. It’s a life lesson that four people working in harmony are both much stronger and more fragile than any one person going it alone. The music is what drives these four despite their other issues. Watching them battle through the challenges is quite similar to any film based on familial shenanigans, but the actors are so good that a few moments really resonate.

The chamber music is a joy to listen to, though the plot devices are often quite familiar and predictable. Christopher Walken has a couple of scenes that are alone worth the price of admission. Ivanek expertly captures the ego-maniacal first violinist, and Keener is perfectly cast as the one who can’t help but wonder how her life turned out so. Mr. Hoffman may be up for an Oscar thanks to his performance in The Master, but it’s these “small” roles which I find so complimentary of his talent.

Kind of off topic, there is a scene featuring Wallace Shawn drinking wine as he converses with Walken. Wallace Shawn drinking wine will forever remind me of The Princess Bride and the lesson of going up against a Sicilian when death is involved! To summarize, the individual pieces here are much stronger than the overall film … just the opposite of a world class quartet.

**Note: that’s the real Nina Lee (world class cellist) who steals the scene near the end

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy “little” films with great acting

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a soap opera disguised as top notch chamber music has you longing for the next Bond film

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX66lRnNmqs

 


FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

August 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We can’t really discuss this movie without referencing the 1985 original. Writer Tom Holland was involved with both (including directing the original) and gets credit for updating the story while maintaining the look and feel. It seems as if vampires are everywhere these days, but the Fright Night recipe expertly mixes suspense, danger and campy humor.

Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his single Mom (Toni Collette) live in a quiet Las Vegas suburb. Charley’s nerdy friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) notices the place is getting quieter everyday … people are disappearing! These disappearances correspond with the arrival of Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell). Yep … Jerry the Vampire.

 Charley at first ignores Ed’s investigative skills and concentrates on Amy (Imogen Poots), the out-of-his-league girlfriend whom he desperately wants to get to know better. And then … Ed disappears. Charley tries to push Amy aside and solve this mystery. It doesn’t take long since he breaks into Jerry’s house and discovers where he stores the bodies of his victims. As you might expect, Jerry doesn’t take well to the invasion.

Charley goes to Vegas showman Peter Vincent (David Tenant) to seek help in destroying Jerry. See, Peter Vincent’s crazy Vegas show is all about fighting the evil dead among us. Of course, Vincent isn’t quite as tough off stage.

 There are plenty of moments of campy fun as Charley pursues Jerry. Not the least of which is a fender bender which includes Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original. While it’s a nice homage, it just made me miss Roddy McDowall, who originated the role of Peter Vincent. Still, watching McLovin as a tough-talking vampire is quite a bit of fun as are the few moments of doubt from Collette and Poots.

Craig Gillespie directs the film, and his success a few years ago with the indie hit Lars and the Real Girl brings an added touch of class to the film. He really does a nice job of balancing the terror of the story with the humor necessary to make this one enjoyable and a bit different.

 A tip of the cap to the casting of the movie. Yelchin (Star Trek, The Beaver) is a real up and comer. Ms. Poots was very effective in Jane Eyre and it will be interesting to follow the direction of her career. Collette is a real pro. Colin Farrell seems to really enjoy his turn as a vampire and adds some subtleties and quirks that make it fun. David Tenant (“Dr. Who”) really captures the Vegas Peter Vincent. Mintz-Plasse is one of the few who can effectively bounce from high school nerd to powerful vampire. Must also mention some hidden gems: singer Lisa Loeb makes a quick appearance as Ed’s mother, Charley’s friend Mark is played by Dave Franco – brother of James (you will spot the resemblance), and Peter Vincent’s girlfriend Ginger is played by Sandra Vergara, sister of Sofia from “Modern Family” (again, you can’t miss the resemblance).

In this day and age, it isn’t easy to assemble such a strong cast, script and director for a movie that isn’t centered around alien action, terminal disease or toilet humor. If you enjoy campy horror films done with an acknowledged tongue planted in cheek, then I recommend this one. It delivers exactly what you hope and expect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1985 original OR you get a kick out of campy vampire flicks

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your vampire movies to be dark and mysterious OR you are convinced no one can ever be a better vamp than Robert Pattinson

watch the trailer:


JANE EYRE (2011)

March 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. For a film to rate highly with me, mass appeal is not necessary. The requirements are an interesting story that is well cast, well acted and well directed. Though it is often required reading in high school, the novel by Charlotte Bronte is a timeless classic and among the most popular of all time. The key roles in this latest film version are played well by Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane). Cary Fukunaga directs. He was also responsible for the powerful 2009 film Sin Nombre (highly recommended).

There have been numerous film and TV versions of this classic over the years, with the 1943 version being the most famous. Orson Welles starred as Rochester and Joan Fontaine was Jane. While that version still works, this year’s model is the first that I believe surpasses that one in quality. The two keys are the performance of Mia Wasikowska and the direction of Mr. Fukunaga.

 The film surprises a bit with it’s flashback approach, but it works well in linking the older Jane with her early struggles. This version really rests heavy on Wasikowska’s shoulders and she does not disappoint. You will recognize her from her recent turns in Alice in Wonderland, and The Kids Are All Right. She quickly jumps to the head of the Jane Eyre class. Very impressive.

Fukunaga’s direction relies on art direction and spectacular lighting. He draws in the viewer to this dark and mysterious world where much goes unstated, yet so much is communicated. The good girl/bad boy battle is always fun and moreso when the good girl is a remarkably independent and brassy girl, while the bad boy is very dark and dangerous. Of course, this is Hollywood so the novel’s unattractive Rochester is played by the strapping Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds).  I even thought the “reveal” was well-handled and the fall-out simple enough to follow.

 What always attracted me to this story was the strength and perseverance of Jane herself. To find a girl with such fortitude and moral stamina despite her upbringing and longings means the central character is both fascinating and easy to pull for. She is what we would wish of our own daughters … self confident, full of character and observant of what is fair and just.

If you aren’t the literary type, don’t expect to enjoy this film. Watching it is truly like the visualization that occurs when reading a top novel. I was completely drawn into life at Thornfield Hall and the life of Jane Eyre.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the classic novel OR enjoy strong female characters OR appreciate an atmospheric approach to literary subject 

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the nuanced courtship of two polar opposite characters does not provide enough action, gun play or explosions for your taste