CAPONE (2020)

May 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I was really hoping for a Josh Trank resurgence. When his FANTASTIC FOUR became one of the worst reviewed movies of 2015, he lost out on a chance to direct a Star Wars film. Given creative control as writer-director-editor, CAPONE was supposed to be his chance bounce back and re-capture the intrigue and promise of his first film, CHRONICLE (2011). And he even chose the fascinating notorious gangster Al Capone as the subject for his comeback. What could go wrong? Well … most everything.

Tom Hardy usually adds enough interest to make any of his projects entertaining to watch, and sometimes he’s downright brilliant. Going back to BRONSON (2008), and on through TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), WARRIOR (2011), THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), THE REVENANT (2015), and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”, Mr. Hardy has quite a resume of memorable characters – and the above list barely covers half. This time out he plays Al Capone … “Fonse” … don’t dare call him Al “in this house.” He has recently been released from Alcatraz where he was serving his sentence for tax evasion. Confined to his Florida mansion, Capone is only 47 years old, but looks twenty years older thanks to the effects of neurosyphillis-induced dementia. His mind is never clear and his visions take him back to his violent criminal past, or snapshots of his youth (with an ever-present gold balloon).

We can’t really tell if filmmaker Trank meant this as a parody or not. Capone is seen as a mumbling near-zombie, almost always wearing a bathrobe. His eyes are bloodshot, and the once menacing gangster is now a paranoid, saggy diaper-wearing shell who noisily chomps on a cigar (or carrot), fires off his gold-plated Tommy Gun, and has constant issues with vomit-bladder-bowels. Typically a parody offers either slapstick or black comedy, but I only recall a single chuckle … one that occurs when Capone pulls out a shotgun while on a fishing boat with his old mob buddy Johnny (Matt Dillon). Other than that, it’s mostly a bleak look at dementia and the lost power of a man who follows his visions into closets and basements, and jumps up during a movie to sing-a-long with the Cowardly Lion’s “If I Were the King of the Forest.”

The supporting players are given little to work with. The great Linda Cardellini plays Mae, Capone’s supportive wife, while Kyle MacLachlan is his crooked doctor, Noel Fisher is Al junior, Al Sapienza is Capone’s brother Ralphie, and Kathrine Narducci is Ralphie’s wife. There is a secondary plot point involving government surveillance as they attempt to discover the whereabouts of the $10 million Capone supposedly stashed years ago. Of course, Capone doesn’t remember, and when and FBI agent (Jack Lowden, with director Trank in a cameo) interrogates him, he’s unsure whether Capone is acting or actually that far gone. There is also a bit about phone calls from “Tony”, possibly a long-lost Capone son borne from an affair.

The film covers Capone’s final year, and mostly it comes across as a sad and depressing view of dementia. The most obvious statement on Capone’s loss of power, comes in the form of a metaphor, as his beloved “Lady Atlas” garden statue is removed to be sold off. There is also a recurring moment where Capone tunes the radio to a broadcast of the Saint Valentines’ Day Massacre, and family time at Thanksgiving is nothing short of painful to watch. Cinematographer Peter Deming (MULHOLLAND DRIVE, 2001) gives us a well shot film, but despite a couple of David Lynch-type moments, the film mostly lacks entertainment value. I can’t figure out who might want to watch this. Trank seemed to go the deeply artistic route on a subject that’s tough to watch. Maybe he’ll get yet another shot.

Available on VOD beginning May 12, 2020

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:


DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

watch the trailer:

 

 


TOMMY’S HONOUR (2017)

April 19, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Connery (Sean’s son) directs this story about old Tom Morris and his son Tommy (Young Tom), written by Pamela Martin from the book by Kevin Cook. It’s a bit surprising that the story focuses as much or more on the melodrama and personal story of the younger Tommy than the historical influences, but there is links action to give us a feel for the times.

Jack Lowden and his dimples portray Tommy, while Ophelia Lovibond plays his love interest Meg. Their relationship drives the story, and we are reminded that small-minded people were every bit as prevalent 140 years ago as they are now. Tommy’s mother, their community, and even the minister of the Church pass harsh judgment on Meg and her unfortunate past. Combine that with the element of “Gentlemen”, which are anything but, and we get an understanding of how Tommy’s actions changed not just the game of golf, but also influenced the softening of the class difference. His push to bring respect and fairness to professional golfers erased the similarities with how race horses and golfers were treated the same from a wagering perspective.

This was the time of the original “13 Rules of Golf”, and when rowdy crowd hovered right next to the golfers as they played. Other than the closing credit graphics, Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) isn’t really given his due as a course designer, but this is really the story of his son, and though the film is a bit too long, it’s a story that deserves to be told.

watch the trailer:

 


DIFF 2017: Day One

April 2, 2017

The 2017 Dallas International Film Festival runs March 30-April 9

 The usual excitement of festival Day One was tempered somewhat by this incessant cough that I can’t seem to shake, and the realization that I will be a nuisance to others in the theatre. However, my goal of 30 movies in 10 days will not be stopped so I loaded up on Robitussin, cough drops and a giant bottled water, and headed off to my first scheduled movie. Of course, it was Friday afternoon so Dallas traffic forced me to into a fall-back plan before I had even seen one movie. Pulling off to the Angelika rather than continue creeping on Central expressway towards the Magnolia ended up as a fortuitous turn of events. The three movies I watched are recapped below.

WAKEFIELD

While I wasn’t a big fan of Robin Swicord’s directorial debut (The Jane Austen Book Club, 2007), she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle with one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that I’ve ever seen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Most everyone has had the impulse to put their life on hold.” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing unnoticed through the stained glass window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while staying close to his previous life in a voyeuristic way. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience.

 

TOMMY ‘S HONOUR

Jason Connery (Sean’s son) directs this story about old Tom Morris and his son Tommy written by Pamela Martin from the book by Kevin Cook. It’s a bit surprising that the story focuses as much or more on the melodrama and personal story of the younger Tommy than the historical influences, but there is links action to give us a feel for the times.

Jack Lowden and his dimples portray Tommy, while Ophelia Lovibond plays his love interest Meg. Their relationship drives the story, and we are reminded that small-minded people were every bit as prevalent 140 years ago as they are now. Tommy’s mother, their community, and even the minister of the Church pass harsh judgment on Meg and her unfortunate past. Combine that with the element of “Gentlemen”, which are anything but, and we get an understanding of how Tommy’s actions changed not just the game of golf, but also influenced the softening of the class difference. His push to bring respect and fairness to professional golfers erased the similarities with how race horses and golfers were treated the same from a wagering perspective.

This was the time of the original “13 Rules of Golf”, and when rowdy crowd hovered right next to the golfers as they played. Other than the closing credit graphics, Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) isn’t really given his due as a course designer, but this is really the story of his son, and though the film is a bit too long, it’s a story that deserves to be told.

 

CITY OF GHOSTS (documentary)

Oscar nominated director Matthew Heineman delivered the stunning documentary Cartel Land in 2015, and here he once again proves his expertise as the messenger of important stories that need to be told.

The film begins in the Syrian city of Ragga in 2012, and we see the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. The sayings “Death is Death” and “Danger has a special taste” come into play, and by the end of the film, there is a clarity that is devastating.

The courageous and dedicated Citizen Journalists are divided into two groups: the internal who risk their lives in Ragga uploading news stories and videos of ISIS actions and, the external who are based in Turkey and Germany and post regularly to social media outlets. Their combined efforts and risk taking allow the real story to be told from their home city mostly cut-off from the outside world – as evidenced by the satellite graveyard.

RBSS (Ragga is Being Silently Slaughtered) is the movement spreading the truth about ISIS atrocities – including public beheadings, shootings, and bombings. It’s a terrifying story, never more so than during the professionally produced recruiting ISIS videos featuring young children. These brave folks have had friends, family and neighbors slaughtered which inspires them to continue fighting the guns and bombs with the power of words. It’s breathtaking.