Greetings again from the darkness. The meek may inherit the earth, but if this Steven Soderbergh movie based on Jake Bernstein’s book (screenplay by Scott Z Burns) is correct, they aren’t likely to get the money too. To put it more bluntly, the first of the film’s 5 rules of creating and protecting wealth is, “the meek are screwed.” In order to follow this film that is “based on true secrets”, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the Panama Papers … a 2016 anonymous leak of more than 11 million documents exposing how the rich skirt the laws when it comes to protecting their money. Offshore entities had previously been a mainstream punchline, but these documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama, clearly outlined just how widespread the practice had become.
Rather than traditional narrative form, the information is presented through multiple vignettes featuring an impressive roster of well-known actors: Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Melissa Rauch, David Schwimmer, James Cromwell, Matthias Schoenaerts, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, and Rosalind Chao, plus a few others you’ll recognize. In the role of tongue-in-cheek emcees are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, respectively. Their coordinating flamboyant outfits correspond to these caricatures of the real men behind this web of fraudulent activity. They are meant to add humor to the situation, but also tell “their side of the story.”
We are caught off-guard when Meryl Streep’s story and her character are not the main focus. Her slow unraveling of insurance fraud after her husband’s death is but one segment of the lesson that will likely confuse most people. The easy comparison is Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT (2015), which used some of this style in explaining the mortgage backed securities market. Whereas Mr. McKay won an Oscar for his screenplay, that’s highly unlikely for this one. Scott Z Burns is a talented writer, but this was simply too complex of a subject to tackle in 95 minutes. Mr. Soderbergh, as is tendency, not only directs the film, but is also the cinematographer, editor and producer.
This is a Netflix production that I caught at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival, and thanks to the presence of Ms. Streep, will likely have at least a limited theatrical release. Unfortunately, neither big screen nor small will solve the inherent issues here. There are some nuggets such as Delaware, despite its population of less than one million, being king of corporation filings (thanks to its business-friendly tax laws). Understanding shell companies, tax evasion, and other illicit financial activities among the world’s ultra-rich requires more than a talented cast, but perhaps there is enough here to motivate some to dig a little deeper with their own research. That is, if the film’s finale – a lecture on reform – doesn’t turn you off completely. Many of us appreciate being informed, but rebel against the preaching.
Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.
J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.
We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.
Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.
Greetings again from the darkness. The question must be asked: is the movie worthy of the man? The man was the first attorney for the NAACP. He won 29 of the 32 cases he argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the ground-breaking 1954 Brown v. Board of Education (separate but equal public education). This man was a trailblazer for Civil Rights, and in 1967 became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. This man was, of course, Thurgood Marshall … a man who unquestionably deserves not just a movie, but a really good and important one.
Chadwick Boseman has taken on film versions of such icons as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in GET ON UP, so he likely jumped at the chance to play the revered figure, Thurgood Marshall. Mr. Boseman has true movie star screen presence, and supplies the young Mr. Marshall with a self-assured swagger that accompanies a brilliant legal mind – a mind that refused to be ignored during a time it was desperately needed. Lest he be labeled a superhero, the film does portray Marshall smoking and drinking, while also hinting at his carousing. The common flaws of a great man.
It’s 1941 and the young (33 years old) Marshall is the lone NAACP attorney, so he spends his time ping-ponging around the country fighting for fair trials for those African-Americans accused simply because they aren’t white. He works only for “innocent” people and his efforts during this time were crucial to the Civil Rights movement gaining attention and legitimacy. Most of the film centers on a case in Connecticut (no, not the Jim Crow south) where a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K Brown), is accused of sexual assault of a “respectable” married white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). If you are reminded of the great book and film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, you must know that those literary and cinematic standards are such that few can ever hope to reach.
What follows is not one of the more dramatic or tension-filled cinematic courtroom dramas. There is simply too much levity for the film to be classified as a historical heavyweight. That said, the man and his story are fascinating, and though director Reginald Hudlin chooses a deft touch rather than a sledge hammer, it’s likely the wise choice if the goal is to entertain, while also educating the masses to Marshall’s early career. Josh Gad co-stars as Marshall’s co-counsel Sam Friedman, a specialist in legal technicalities within the insurance industry. Boseman and Gad have nice chemistry (at times it feels like a buddy movie), and as a Jew in those times, Friedman is himself stuck in limbo between staunch racism and acceptance by the white community.
James Cromwell plays Judge Foster, yet another man caught between the old world he has lived in his entire life and the fast-changing society and legal system that permits him to silence Marshall, while also forcing (somewhat) fair treatment of the accused Spell. Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) is Loren Willis, the disgusted and disgusting prosecutor. This character is so cartoonish that the only thing missing is a neon necklace that flashes “racist” as he speaks. Sophia Bush has a brief, yet important scene and Sterling K Brown (as Mr. Spell) has the film’s most heart-breaking moment as he sits on the stand and explains why he lied.
Director Reginald Hudlin seems like an odd choice for the project. He has been working mostly in TV since back-to-back-to-back bombs BOOMERANG (Eddie Murphy), THE LADIES MAN(Tim Meadow) and SERVING SARA(Matthew Perry). Mr. Hudlin has experienced more success as a Producer, having been Oscar nominated for DJANGO UNCHAINED. Here he works with the father and son screenwriters Jacob Koskoff and Michael Koskoff. The elder Michael is a well respected criminal attorney and legal historian, and certainly understands the expectations that come with offering a public look at a near-mythical figure … especially one as revered as Thurgood Marshall.
This isn’t so much a movie about the icon as it is about a young man on the path to greatness and importance (he served on the Supreme Court from 1967-1991). The soundtrack is filled with jazz which complements the light-hearted approach, and further distances from any semblance of “heavy” or “historical”. Director Hudlin adds a contemporary touch by having Trayvon Martin’s parents (Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin) appear in a scene near the end. On the downside, multiple upshot camera angles are designed to make his lead character look larger than life. The truth is, Thurgood Marshall required no help in looming large. Hopefully this mainstream approach pays off and many are introduced to the legacy of a man who is more than worthy of this movie … and another.
Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said this before, but mixing romance with historical war time dramas is fraught with peril – it’s a difficult line to navigate for a movie. Writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and co-writer Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have delivered a sweeping historical epic that is immensely watchable by not over-blowing the romantic triangle, the war atrocities or the courage and bravery of the main characters.
The one-too-many lovers are played by the talented Oscar Isaac as medical student wannabe Mikael; Christian Bale as Chris, an American war correspondent; and blossoming international star Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, an American tutor based in Constantinople. These are three varied and distinct characters we accept because they have admirable qualities, as well as human flaws.
Mikael marries a local girl (Angela Sarafyan who was the robot with hypnotizing eyes HBO’s “Westworld”) for the sole purpose of using the dowry to pay for medical school. His “promise” is that he will return and learn to love her (so romantic!). Chris is a hard-driving and hard drinking journalist who is not welcome most anyplace he goes and finds himself in quite a predicament with his job, girlfriend and life. It’s not until later in the story that he flashes a caring heart underneath his armor of brash. Ana is nearly angelic at times in her goodness and with a smile that lights up the screen. Her devotion to Chris is as odd as her attraction to Mikael, but seeking logic in matters of love is often a journey without merit.
The story is based around the time of WWI and specifically highlights the Armenian Genocide – something the Turkish government denies to this day, referring to it instead as a “relocation” of nearly 1.5 million Armenians. The film began as a passion project for Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman, philanthropist and the once owner of MGM Studios. He raised the money and helped assemble the team, but unfortunately passed away just before production began. He would undoubtedly be proud of the finished film, and find some solace (if not humor) in the fact that it hits theatres only a few weeks after The Ottoman Lieutenant, a Turkish government backed project that purposefully ignored the atrocities and leaned heavily to a singular view of history.
The cast is deep and includes (one of my favorites) Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael’s wise and courageous mother, Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager”) as a fellow prisoner of the Turks, James Cromwell as an American Ambassador, Rade Serbedzija as a leader of the Armenian resistance, and Jean Reno as a commander of the French Naval fleet that plays a vital role in 1915.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresorobe captures some breathtaking vistas and desert landscapes, while also delivering the intimacy and urgency of both the romantic and dangerous moments (including a spectacular rain-drenched train sequence). The acting is superb throughout, with Bale dialing back his sometimes over-exuberant traits, Isaac giving us someone to pin our hopes on, and Ms. Le Bon bringing the compassion to an area when it’s so desperately needed. Expect to see her explode in popularity and respect when the right leading role comes along. Lastly, it’s rare that I would think this, but the film’s 2 hour and 14 minute run time might have benefited from an additional 10-15 minutes of detail towards the Turkish military strategies, and both the Armenian resistance and slaughter. It’s a part of history that should be neither ignored nor glossed over.
Greetings again from the darkness. Remember the last silent film that received this much adoration, acclaim and publicity? Of course you don’t. It was 1927 and Clara Bow starred in Wings, the most recent silent film to be nominated for Best Picture (it won). My guess is, that streak is about to end thanks to French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius.
No doubt many will avoid this one since it is a Black & White silent film. What a mistake that would be. It offers a wonderfully entertaining and captivating story, and two outstanding and expressive lead performances. Jean Dujardin is remarkable as George Valentin, one of the biggest movie stars in 1927 (when this story begins). It’s around this time when the “talkies” begin taking over. Valentin is a very likable character, but foolishly believes talking movies are a fad and his fans will remain loyal to him and his traditional silent films. Not only do talkies take off, but the Great Depression also hits. Valentin finds himself out of work and broke.
The most fun in the film occurs when Valentin and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) are on screen together. Their characters have a chance meeting and there is an instant spark. Valentin gets her the first break of her career and before long, she is on the rise as fast as he free falls. Only Valentin’s dog and driver (James Cromwell) remain loyal to him during the tough times, but Peppy works behind the scenes to ensure their bond doesn’t die.
It’s impossible to watch this film and not notice the influence of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Blvd. Also, Dujardin’s Valentin looks to be a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, replete with the electric matinee idol smile. Both Dujrardin and Ms. Bejo (who is the director’s real life girlfriend) have the elastic face and bright eyes necessary for silent film stardom. They really allow us as viewers to forget the silence and enjoy the characters.
Unless you are a film historian or a real movie buff, your only exposure to silent films may be from short clips or Mel Brooks‘ Silent Movie. This one will change that and offer you glimpse at just how powerful film images can be. Another thing that will jump out is how crucial complimentary music is. It will guide you through the scene. Ludovic Bource is responsible for the terrific original score, and other pieces of music are also used … particularly Bernard Herrmann‘s piece from Vertigo.
This is a fully realized story with excellent character development. You might wonder how this is possible with no dialogue, but that’s why this is a must see film garnering an abundance of critical acclaim. It’s very easy to access and is purely entertaining … with moments of both happiness and sadness. It has everything a really good movie should have … just with fewer lines of dialogue and a really smart dog!
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see one of the best movies of the year OR you don’t believe a silent movie can hold your attention (this one will prove you wrong)
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just don’t like movies … sorry, I can’t think of another reason.
Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Secretariat is legendary in the world of thoroughbred racing. Being a sports fan, it is always fascinating to witness domination by a singular athlete – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer. Secretariat was the Michael Jordan of racing. In 1973, Big Red dominated racing like no other.
What makes this even more amazing is that Secretariat is actually the second most interesting story … his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (played here by Diane Lane), was his match in competitive spirit. This Disney movie actually spends as much time on Ms. Tweedy as it does the fabulous horse.
Disney does what Disney does best. This is an all out feel-good, rah-rah movie in the vein of Seabiscuit, The Rookie, Rudy and even Hoosiers. Don’t expect in-depth analysis of the racing world, horse training or even horse farm operations. This movie is made to deliver a warm fuzzy via the perseverance of a strong-willed lady and an incredibly majestic animal.
Expect some over-the-top touches such as John Malkovich‘s portrayal of trainer Lucen Laurin, horse-whispering by Ms. Lane, and plenty of heart-string tugging as is customary from the fine folks at Disney. Expect historical facts to be treated a bit lax in some scenes (no mention of 1972 Derby winner Riva Ridge, also from the Chenery stables). Expect none of that to matter as this is a crowd-pleaser, not a documentary.
In addition to Mr. Malkovich and Ms. Lane, there is some fine support work from (former Senator) Fred Thompson, James Cromwell and Nelsan Ellis (so great as Lafayette in True Blood). Directed by Randall Wallace, whose most recent directorial effort was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, this is entertainment for all ages and an easy introduction to the champion that was Secretariat.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy strong, smart female characters (Diane Lane, not Secretariat) OR you thought Seabiscuit should have won an Oscar
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to John Malkovich for fashion tips OR you think pari-mutuel betting is allowed at the cineplex