NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

watch the trailer:

 

 


NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

June 4, 2013

now you see1 Greetings again from the darkness. Come on … who wouldn’t get excited about a movie that mixes magic with the heist genre, and fills the cast with stars old and new? Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) is clearly engaged with the material, and maybe his vision of “just one more twist” is what keeps it from reaching the next level.

Magic is inherently a very difficult subject for movies. Why? Because with magic, human nature is such that we are always trying to “catch” the sleight of hand. With movies, we have come to accept the fact that any special effect is possible. We rarely ask “how”. That kind of takes away the mystique, eh? Maybe the best magic movie to date is The Prestige, but even that movie was made stronger by the story of its characters … something this latest lacks.

now you see2 Heist movies, on the other hand, have historically produced some of the most fun and thrilling times on screen. Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job are just two examples of clever, almost light-hearted heist films that are also thrillers.  Everyone loves a clever caper … so long as we aren’t on the wrong end. What doesn’t work in either genre, and especially when they are blended, is a story that defies logic. We don’t mind being tricked. In fact, it’s kind of fun getting to the end and realizing you are part of the “gotcha”. What we don’t like is being cheated.

This premise is terrific. An unknown benefactor secretly assembles The Four Horsemen – a hand-picked (by a hoodie dude) group consisting of Jessie Eisenberg, the smug super-illusionist; Woody Harrelson, the wise-cracking mentalist; tart escape artist now you see4(think Houdini with piranha) Isla Fisher; and street-hustler pickpocket (Artful Dodger type) Dave Franco. The group is bank rolled by industrial tycoon Michael Caine, and is soon enough headlining a giant Las Vegas extravaganza. Their first trick is to rob a French bank vault by transporting an audience member, video streaming the job, and showering the audience with the stolen cash. They do this under the watchful eye of magic naysayer Morgan Freeman, a huckster who earns a buck exposing the tricks of magicians.

Soon enough, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent, so stunning as the theatre owner in Inglourious Basterds) are working together trying to stop the next job, which Morgan Freeman has warned them is really a set-now you see3up for a huge finale. The movie has some really fun moments, but with all of Morgan Freeman’s warnings that we (and Ruffalo) are always a step behind, we can’t help but think ahead … and there is only one super twist that makes all of this click.

In fact, I would argue that there are too many twists here. The basic story was enough and the movie would have benefited from us getting to better know the main characters. Instead, they are merely chess pieces who spout one-liners in order. In particular, the characters of Woody Harrelson and Melanie Laurent could have gone much deeper. But that clashes with what the filmmakers were after … big, fast, wild, glitzy, cute, clever, and twisty. Just don’t be tricked into thinking. Turn off your brain and take in the wild, twisty ride … even if it does defy logic, and remember … “it’s all part of the show”.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a wild cinematic ride without thinking too much OR you’ve always wanted to see Common play air-violin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy solving the movie mysteries before the solutions are revealed OR in these tough economic times, you are looking for real bank heist tips (sorry to disappoint)

watch the trailer:

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


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

May 14, 2013

great gatsby1 Greetings again from the darkness. Movie versions of beloved books are always a risky proposition. Devotees of the written word recoil in disgust when a filmmaker dares re-imagine a character or scene, while critics take delight in itemizing each and every stray from the source material. Director Baz Luhrmann is an artist. His canvas is the silver screen, and he thrives in presenting his interpretations and visions. When he agreed to take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s 88 year old masterpiece… one that consistently lands on the lists of top ten novels of all-time … he most assuredly prepared for the onslaught of criticism and outrage that would follow (and has). He must have also known that his work would delight and entertain those open-minded viewers not shackled to thoughts of a single “correct” form (it has).

great gatsby2 If you have seen Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Romeo + Juliet (1996), then you are prepared for a Gatsby vision significantly different from director Jack Clayton‘s somber and oft-dreary version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Taking a different route altogether, Luhrmann worked with Jay-Z on the soundtrack that mixes Roaring 20’s jazz classics with contemporary hip-hop. He worked with award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Martin (his wife) on creating a kaleidoscope of colors for dazzling outfits that range from Gatsby’s pastel suits and shirts to the glitzy and sparkling party dresses at his over-the-top parties. Additionally, Luhrmann invoked the newest 3-D technology to add even more emphasis to the visual spectacle that included free-flowing champagne, high-gloss and high-powered automobiles screaming down narrow roads, sky-filling fireworks, and enough glittery confetti to stop down a parade. Jay Gatsby may know how to throw party, but so does Baz Luhrmann!

great gatsby5 Knowing this movie was coming soon, I re-read Fitzgerald’s novel back in January. While I was once again struck by the depressing feeling it leaves you with (it is after all a tragedy), I was also reminded of what stunning prose the writer lays out. At times I find it borders on poetry. You may agree with many of the 1925 critics who claimed the characters are unlikeable and the plot has little to offer, though you must also acknowledge the work acts as a timeless reminder that the vast majority of us could never come close to writing something as beautiful.  I pity the next high school student who opts to watch Luhrmann’s movie rather than read Fitzgerald’s words.  That essay will likely miss some key themes … but at least the student will be treated to a visual feast!

great gatsby4 The cast members are talented and game for Luhrmann’s world. Leonardo DiCaprio infuses the mysterious Gatsby character with the uncertainty and teetering balance of secrecy, desperation and illusion that Redford never could. His obsession with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) may be difficult to understand, but then why should obsessive love make sense? Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s husband Tom) is a womanizing brute who sets apart his own inherited wealth and culture from that of Gatsby as East and West Egg. Tobey Maguire‘s Nick Carraway is our lone hope for normalcy. He is thrust into the Gatsby world and never really understands it … but then who could? The Carraway character is my single biggest complaint in regards to the movie. The framing device of Nick writing the story down for his psychiatrist as part of his therapy, means we get entirely too much Tobey Maguire and Nick Carraway for my tastes.

great gatsby7 It’s also a bit disappointing that we get so little of the strong supporting cast: Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s husband, and especially Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim and exciting newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, are seen and heard from entirely too few times. In fact, the Nick and Jordan connection from the book is mostly ignored. These are all fabulous actors who did what they could with the characters, but we should remind ourselves that Fitzgerald’s book was always more about the prose than the characters or plot. He told us what he wanted us to know more than have his characters show us. That was his art form. Baz Luhrmann’s art form is showing … and his show is quite a treat!

**NOTE: this is neither a documentary nor exact adaptation … it takes artistic license for automobiles, clothes and music (among other things)!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy varying interpretations of art OR you just can’t decide who makes the dreamiest Gatsby – Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a literary traditionalist and believe movie versions of classic books should not vary from the script (this one does).

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaBVLhcHcc0


RANGO

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I just can’t believe it. Last year I was raving about Toy Story 3 being my favorite film of the year, and now here I am again extolling the excellence of another animated feature. However, Rango is a different experience … these are all new characters and a whole new look for animation. I would even say this is more a film for grown-ups than for kids, though kids will certainly get a kick out of Rango, a colorful chameleon energetically voiced by Johnny Depp.

 The story and film pay homage to many classic movies and especially to spaghetti westerns. You will easily spot the tributes to Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Hunter S Thompson, Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, High Noon, and of course Chinatown. The main story line is nearly identical to Chinatown … the control of a town’s water. Here we get the Mayor, voiced by Ned Beatty, in the John Huston role. For film fans, this is just so much fun!

Rango the chameleon is a very likable character who just wants to make friends. He dreams of being a hero so that people will look up to him. Of course, he learns the hard way what being a hero really means. The town of Dirt, the desert, and multitude of characters are all fantastically drawn. There are times the film has a look of live action with terrific lighting and detail, and the colors are perfect.

 The voice acting in the film is truly outstanding and it starts with Depp’s fine work. Also contributing are Ned Beatty (Mayor), Bill Nighy (Rattlesnake Jake), Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Alfred Molina (Armadillo), Ray Winstone, Charles Fleisher (from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and Timothy Olyphant as the Clint Eastwood character no-named Spirit of the West. There is also a useful and very funny Mariachi band that pops up periodically to push the story along.

Director Gore Verbinski is known best for his Pirates of the Caribbean movies (with Depp) and he really gets to go all out on his visual style here. He is helped immensely by George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and their first foray into animation. Heads up Pixar … you definitely have some tough competition!

A note of caution: I did notice a lot of younger kids seemed to get bored and had trouble following the story.  There are some terrific action scenes, but there is also a great deal of time spent on the story and characters – not exactly perfect for keeping a kid’s attention.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you love a good western or good animation (this one is both)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have very young kids … there are long dialogue-driven sequences between the few action effects