ZEROVILLE (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this age of comic book movies and remakes, creative and artistic filmmakers are to be commended for sticking to their vision, no matter how cloudy. James Franco has put together a most unusual career as both actor and director. Here he takes on both in this adaptation of Steve Erickson’s novel, with a screenplay by Paul Felten and Ian Olds. It’s a movie seemingly made for movie nerds, but this particular movie nerd, while enjoying some of the homages, mostly found this to be too messy to recommend.

James Franco plays Vikar, a socially inept loner with a shaved head and permanent scowl. On that head is a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from A PLACE IN THE SUN, the first movie the sheltered Vikar ever saw (11 months ago), and the one that initiated his obsession with movies. Vikar finagles his way into the industry – first as a set builder, and then under the tutelage of veteran film editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver) – reaching award winning status as a filmmaker. Along the way, the character of Vikar recalls Chauncey Gardner in BEING THERE. Is he a genius, or so simple-minded that his thoughts are accepted as brilliant?

It’s 1969, and in an early scene, Vikar is interrogated by police regarding the murder of Sharon Tate. This is our first indication that fact and fiction will be blended here to make whatever points the film is trying to make. Vikar befriends Viking Man on the set of LOVE STORY, and we soon realize John Ford wannabe Viking Man (played by Seth Rogen) is a stand-in for John Milius … a Hollywood legend worthy of his own film. The two new friends attend a beach house party where a group of up-and-coming filmmakers are brainstorming in the living room. Represented are Steven Spielberg, spit-balling a shark movie; George Lucas, yammering about robots; and a young Scorsese and Coppola.

Vikar is soon attracted to and dreaming of a beautiful actress named Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox). This shift of gears to romance from industry commentary does the film no favors. The film is at its best when Vikar is navigating the waters of a Hollywood in transition, including an old school power producer played by Will Ferrell. One of his scenes has him singing “Lum-de-lum-de-lai” in an odd show of power as he attempts to win the girl. Others making an appearance include Danny McBride, Dave Franco, and Craig Robinson – as a burglar who educates Vikar on the nuances of SUNSET BOULEVARD, Erich Von Stroheim, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Joey King has a key role as Soledad’s daughter Zazi, and she even sings on stage.

There are so many nods to Hollywood, that the film plays more like an experimental art project or trivia game than an actual story. The famed Roosevelt Hotel is featured, as is Frances Ford Coppola’s (played by Horatio Sanz) out-of-control film set of APOCALYPSE NOW. A quite colorful description of John Wayne is offered up, and the silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC takes center stage. We even get Iggy Pop and The Stooges at CBGB, and the first song we hear is “It’s My Life” by Eric Burdon and The Animals.

A key note here is that this was filmed in 2014, and has been caught up in a quagmire of bankrupt distributors ever since. That could explain the questionable flow and editing, but we can assume the wild camera angles were all part of Franco’s plan. It really plays like an experimental film and it covers a few years, though we are never really sure how many. The twist at the end is pretty easy to predict, and unfortunately, it leaves us wondering where an obsession with cinema is likely to lead us.

watch the trailer:

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TRUE STORY (2015)

April 17, 2015

true story Greetings again from the darkness. “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true”. These words are spoken by Christian Longo, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife and 3 kids in 2001. The line between truth and lies is at the core of this real life story directed by Rupert Goold and based on journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir and recollections of his conversations with Longo.

The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is introduced to us as he is researching the story which ultimately leads to his dismissal, after it’s discovered he played fast and loose with details in order to present a more impactful story. Soon he receives an odd phone call from an Oregon writer (Ethan Suplee) who informs Finkel that his name is being used by Longo (James Franco), the suspected murderer who was recently captured in Mexico. As a disgraced journalist, Finkel seizes the opportunity to connect with Longo, and soon enough the two morally-compromised men are locked in psychological warfare, where we as viewers aren’t sure just who is using who in this oddball “friendship”.

Hill and Franco are best known for their raunchy and raucous comedies, and both deliver much “quieter” performances than what we have come to expect from them. While it’s a bit of stretch to buy Jonah Hill as a renowned writer, Franco is absolutely chilling as a manipulative psychopath. Franco is so good in the role that he overpowers Hill, which undermines what was supposed to be an intricate game of cat and mouse.

Franco is a frightening figure on the courtroom witness stand as he tells his version of that fateful night, and he is equally unnerving to watch in general conversation with Finkel. However, the single best scene in the film comes when Felicity Jones unleashes the wrath of truth on Franco’s Longo. Ms. Jones is otherwise underutilized for most of the film, as her relationship with Finkel is never really explored.

Rather than provide any substantive background on what makes either Finkel or Longo tick, we are instead left to make our own assumptions based on the framed magazine covers and the spurts of flashbacks. And thus the film’s biggest flaw is cheating us out of the backstory that might help explain the otherwise fascinating conversations/showdowns between these two flawed gents … one significantly more flawed than the other.

It’s impossible not to compare this to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and the subsequent films based on his writing experience: Capote (2005), and Infamous (2006). Stretching and bending the truth are common themes, as are intriguing and disturbing insights from the writers and the accused.

There are times True Story comes off as little more than a made for TV movie, but the best moments more than make up for it, and Franco’s portrayal will stick with you long after Finkel finally understands who and what he is dealing with. It’s also a reminder that there are people who “want the truth so badly” they “will lie to get it”. Try saying that with a wink.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE COLOR OF TIME (2013)

December 11, 2014

 

color of time Greetings again from the darkness. It’s either a most unusual biopic on Pulitzer Prize winning poet CK Williams, an example of how director Terrence Malick has influenced the next wave of filmmakers, or a self-congratulatory exercise disguised as a class project. Regardless of your final take, most cinephiles will muster at least a modicum of interest in a film with 11 directors and 12 writers … each NYU film students during James Franco’s time on campus as an adjunct professor.

We see the life of CK Williams through the flashbacks and memories of James Franco (as an adult Williams prepping for a reading of “Tar”). Williams as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student (played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) offer a glimpse into the girls and events that helped shape his poetry. The sequence of Williams as a child is so similar to Malick’s Tree of Life, that we viewers experience our own flashbacks … right down to Jessica Chastain recreating her scenes from that movie (this time as Williams’ mother).

Mila Kunis plays Catherine, Williams’ second and current wife, and it’s clear – in a modern expressionist kind of way – that they are very happy together. There are a couple of disjointed sequences that come across as created simply to provide an outlet for Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. However, when dealing with poetry, rules don’t apply … at least that seems to be what this group of young filmmakers would have us believe. The washed out colors, fuzzy focus, shots of nature, and muted emotions dotted with monotone dialogue are all elements of artsy films. Whether these are the foundations of artsy films is a separate topic. Interspersed throughout are a couple of clips of CK Williams with his own readings.

Experimental filmmaking is always a risk and should not be discouraged. It’s given us every advance in the medium for a century. It is a bit worrisome, however, when experimental film appears so similar to the work of a current master. Let’s hope that’s just the first step in the process of developing filmmakers. This one also acts as a reminder that turning poetry into actual images often defeats the purpose of the written words.

watch the trailer:

 


THE ICEMAN (2013)

May 24, 2013

iceman1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatizations are at their best when actual footage of the subject or event doesn’t exist. They can be an effective way to highlight a particularly interesting story or person with details we might not otherwise access. Richard Kuklinski‘s story is fascinating and frightening. He is known as the mob’s most prolific hit-man/contract killer. Writer/director Arial Vromen has adapted Anthony Bruno‘s novel for the screen, and wisely cast Michael Shannon in the lead. It makes a nice companion piece to the chilling 1992 documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.

The movie is dominated by the hulking presence of Shannon as Richard Kuklinski. Shannon is no match for the physical size of Kuklinski, but his movements and the camera angles capture the powerful and imposing monster that he was. If iceman2you are unfamiliar with Kuklinski’s story, he killed somewhere between 100-250 people. His missions were carried forth in cold-blooded, heartless and widely disparate manners. Additionally, he often dismembered his victims and froze bodies and parts to prevent the actual time of death from being established. He was good at his job, though hardly a good guy. But wait! Not so fast …

Kuklinski was also a husband a father of two daughters who made up what appeared to be a lovely, normal family in suburban New Jersey. This guy had an internal switch he flipped from the street to the dining room table. When he was iceman6captured, his wife and daughter claimed they had no clue what he did for a living (he had told them he was in Finance). Sure, they admitted to his having a wild temper and even threatening his wife a few times, but they never once considered that he was a cold-blooded killer by day and neighborly barbecue dad on weekends.  The photo at left is an actual family photo of the real Kuklinski family.

Winona Ryder plays Deborah, Kuklinski’s wife. Before you snicker, you should know that Ryder is exceptional in the role. Her comeback tease in Black Swan gave us hope she had returned to form, and with this turn displays the talent we always knew was there. The always dependable and creepy Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Roy Demeo, the mobster for whom Kuklinski worked. The scenes with Shannon and Liotta together are bone-chillingly frightening. Chris Evans (light years from Captain America) plays fellow hit-man Robert Prongay aka “Mr Freezy”. Kuklinski credits Prongay with valuable insight into poison and disposal of bodies. It’s heart-warming to see that even contract killers have support groups. Other fine acting comes courtesy of David Schwimmer iceman4as smarmy Josh (Demeo’s right hand man), Robert Davi (as Leonard Marks. Demeo’s link to the family head), James Franco (as one of the hits), and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother Joey.

Childhood flashbacks give us the table-setting necessary to understand the balance of nature v nurture in the Kuklinski household. Still, no matter how much abuse or misery one has a child, it’s difficult to comprehend the stoic evil that possessed Kuklinski. And to be clear, Michael Shannon’s performance is his best yet … and that is saying a great deal. He has become one of the most interesting actors – one who can take the lead as he does here and in Take Shelter, or as a scene-stealing supporter in Revolutionary Road, Mud and the upcoming Man of Steel (as General Zod). iceman3He’s not a flashy actor, just an enormously talented one.

Vromen captures the gritty feel of the nearly three decades of “family” life in a manner that reminds of Kill the Irishmen … the Ray Stevenson take on Danny Greene. The atmosphere and inner turmoil are similar, but there is no comparison to the Kuklinski evil. Should you doubt this, I would highly recommend the documentary previously mentioned. Watching the actual dead eyes of the real Richard Kuklinski as he talks about his life is beyond horrifying.

*NOTE: the real Kuklinski claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa.  His story was unable to verified because … you got it … he was very good at his job.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by the power of “family” life and how the members handled problems OR you are familiar with Kuklinski and want a film that captures the essence of the monster and the times (bad clothes and facial hair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: violence, even when based on true stories, is not your cup of tea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aciNNjzyS20


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

August 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. As a young kid I saw the original Planet of the Apes at a drive-in with my parents. At the time, I mostly just thought the talking apes were cool and enjoyed the surprise ending, despite having no ability to really process the statement that Pierre Boulle (novel) and Rod Serling (screenplay) were making. Since then, I have had a soft spot for the series, including the Tim Burton version 10 years ago.

As you can tell by the title, this latest version is truly a prequel. It is meant to explain the beginnings of how the Apes gained intelligence and created a powerful society that would one day rule humans. It begins in a genetic engineering lab run by James Franco and his team. They are using chimps to test an experimental drug that will hopefully be used to treat and cure Alzheimer’s. In no small coincidence, Mr. Franco’s father is played by John Lithgow, a once renowned musician and teacher, who is now suffering the effects of this horrible disease.

 When things go wrong at the lab, Franco breaks most every known law and tests the drug on dear old dad. Of course, it works miracles. The accident in the lab, leads Franco to adopt a baby chimp born to one of the chimps used to test the drug. This chimp quickly becomes the smartest one in the house, neighborhood and city. Named Caesar, his learning curve is off the charts. And yes, after a couple of years, his strength and temper are as well.

After yet another accident, Caesar is put away in a chimp camp run by greedy Brian Cox and sadistic Tom Felton (Draco of Harry Potter fame). Caesar uses his intelligence and the unsuspecting and unobservant nature of the humans to organize a coup. This part is really something to behold.

 By far the best acting in the film is delivered by Andy Serkis. Don’t recognize the name? You might know him better as King Kong or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Mr. Serkis is a motion-capture actor-extraordinare. It is sometimes difficult to tell where these effects stop and the CGI begins, but overall the look of the chimps is pretty good and the action sequences are downright amazing.

What hurts the film is the weakness of the human stories. Franco as a genius scientist? Doesn’t work for me. Freida Pinto as a primate specialist? The script gives her nothing to work with. Lithgow and Cox are excellent actors, but mere pawns in this story.

 Director Rupert Wyatt tips a cap to the original film a few times: tribute names such as Bright Eyes and Dodge Landon, an orange orangutan named Maurice (in honor of Maurice Evans), a quick glimpse of a Statue of Liberty puzzle, horse-back riding, Charlton Heston on TV (as Moses), and a couple of classic lines including “stinking paws”.

In what was supposed to be a transition story, this one really belongs to the apes … and it’s teed up beautifully for a sequel.  The apes are planning it in a wooded area located at the sign post just ahead … across the Golden Gate.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Apes series that dates back 43 years OR you want to see how James Franco can screw up even worse than he did hosting the Oscars

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy off on the whole brilliant apes idea OR after a hard day at the office, the last thing you want is more talking apes!

watch the trailer:


127 HOURS (2010)

November 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Spoilers are strictly avoided in my comments. I completely understand that not everyone rushes out to see new releases the way that I do. For this movie, there can be no spoilers. We are all painfully aware of the real life ordeal suffered by Aron Ralston in 2003. This taut film succeeds at bringing to life the visuals our minds can only imagine.

Danny Boyle is a terrific director who has three (now four) outstanding and diverse movies to his name (Slumdog Millionaire, Millions, Trainspotting). Here he re-teams with Slumdog writer Simon Beaufoy to bring us the screen version of Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and Hard Place”. It’s the story of an adventurous young man who is forced to take drastic measures when his arm is pinned after a fall while rock climbing.

What the film really explores is Ralston’s personality and an individual’s will to live. Aron is a cocky, adventurous, fun-loving guy whose “oops” moment consisted of not telling anyone where he was headed. A cardinal sin of solo hiking. Five days later he stumbles back to life, minus one arm. Ralston faces one of those moments when he must decide just how important life is. His choice leads to life … through excruciating pain.

Boyle does an amazing job in capturing the moment and the inevitibility of the setting. In what could be a hopeless situation, Ralston clings to life. James Franco delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Ralston. His range here is remarkable. Watching his hallucinations, flashbacks and persistence makes this an extremely watchable and human film despite the topic.  An interesting note is that Ralston did have a video camera with him and had previously only shown the clips to his family and a few close friends.  He did allow Boyle and Franco to see the actual video, so what you see onscreen came directly from Ralston’s real emotions.

Support work is minimal but decent from Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Treat Williams, Kate Burton and Clemence Poesy. Franco and Boyle are the real stars as they capture Ralston’s spirit. As a viewer, this taps into our inner most fear. What if this were us? What if we were him? Could we do it? Would we do it?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t believe I mention James Franco and “Oscar” in the same sentence OR you get a charge out of watching the strong will to survive take over.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you get queasy when you break a fingernail