SHOCK AND AWE (2018)

July 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film begins with a Bill Moyers quote about the importance of a free and open press, has a line about ‘reporting stories for families who send their kids to war’, and is directed by liberal activist Rob Reiner … who labels the film as a true story. So it’s no surprise that the approach is to paint the folks at Knight Ridder News Service as the sole saints on an island of integrity … even as it is blessed with perfect vision in hindsight.

Written by Joey Hartstone, who also collaborated with Mr. Reiner on LBJ (2016), which also starred Woody Harrelson, the film continues the recent cinematic trend of placing the media on a pedestal of righteousness and beacon of truth as it serves the role as a check on political process and power. In this case, the ‘spotlight’ is on the Bush administration and the questionable decisions that led to the war in Iraq. The film begins with a 2006 Veterans’ Affairs Senatorial committee hearing where a wheelchair bound soldier ends his statement by asking the committee members a fair and legitimate question, “What the hell went wrong?”

We then flashback to September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of the bombings. Patriotism, pride, activism, volunteerism, and charitable contributions all increased, as did the Bush administration’s focus on going to war. Was it a war to get those responsible for the bombings or was there another agenda? Knight Ridder reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) are dedicated to finding the truth, and are led down the path of discovery by D.C. Bureau Chief John Walcott (played by director Rob Reiner).

This is presented as a time more extreme than the mainstream media not often questioning the administration, but the film actually labels The New York Times as a shill or puppet of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Powell/Rice regime.  Only these two courageous Knight Ridder reporters (Strobel, Landay) were questioning the administration’s efforts to turn the focus from Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. My how times have changed since the most recent election. Though it could be argued that rather than questioning the current administration’s policies, it might better be described as written and verbal attacks.

The preaching here is relentless, especially by Reiner’s Walcott, who is posed as something of a truth guru. Missteps abound in the presentation, and the film is crushed under the weight of the obvious and necessary comparison to ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (an influential era noted by the characters). The banter between Strobel and Landry often seems forced like what we see in buddy flicks, and the needless and distracting romantic interlude plays like a meager attempt by director Reiner to humanize the message with a grinning Jessica Biel. The same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones’ curmudgeonly portrayal of respected military reporter Joe Galloway.

We really want to commend the filmmakers for bringing light to inexcusable government actions, but the manner in which it does this is so aggravating that kudos can’t be justified. The incessant patronizing wears thin quickly. The story deserves to be told without the sermonizing. Somehow we and the reporters are supposed to be stunned that political corruption, misleading statements from government officials and power struggles even exist. With this discovery, the reporters seem as ‘shocked’ as Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in CASABLANCA when he is told gambling is occurring (even as he pockets his winnings). With a stated emphasis on truth, we should never forget that politicians and the media are both selling something … and it’s still caveat emptor.

watch the trailer:

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WELCOME TO ME (2015)

May 8, 2015

welcome to me Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of films that feature some type of mental illness or disorder. Folks that don’t “fit in” make for characters that create unusual situations and generate cinema’s biggest friend – conflict.  Cast a talented performer who thrives in “off-center” roles, and the potential exists for some actual insight.

Kristen Wiig is obviously attracted to unusual characters, as well as stories that wobble between comedy and drama. Here she plays Alice Klieg, a woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Alice memorizes Oprah shows, spends hours watching infomercials, and attends state-mandated therapy with her psychologist (Tim Robbins). She also has many inappropriate social tendencies and is a consistent player in the California Lottery – a ritual that pays off nicely when she wins $86 million.

Once she collects her winnings, Alice decides to drop her meds cold and move herself into the spotlight. She relocates from her dank apartment into a suite at a local Indian Reservation Casino, and then buys airtime from a local infomercial studio run by brothers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden) in order to star in her own show, “Welcome to Me”.  With the help of a swan sled as a prop, Alice moves forward with a two hour TV block that is centered on her own thoughts and re-enactments of the most traumatic moments of her life. It’s about her personal pain, but also painful for the show’s producer played by Joan Cusack.

It’s difficult to tell what screenwriter Eliot Laurence and director Shira Piven (brother to actor Jeremy, and wife to director Adam McKay) are trying to accomplish here. Poking fun at mental illness is a delicate undertaking, but perhaps they meant this as more commentary on a society that is so quick to latch onto the troubles of others … whether as news or comedy. It could also be a statement on the narcissism that runs rampant these days, as Facebook is filled with selfies and photos of meals.

It could be argued that Alice’s TV show could be more accurately titled “TMI”, but it’s unfortunate there just doesn’t seem to be more substance here. Sure, there are some highly awkward and uncomfortable moments – some quite funny, but the movie really plays more like an extended comedy sketch, and whatever works seems due to the stellar cast: Wiig, Marsden, Bentley, Cusack, Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, and the underutilized Linda Cardellini. Just like “Perfect Polly” in the opening infomercial, what’s real and what’s real enough are in the eyes of the beholder, and perhaps this one could have used one more prepared statement.

watch the trailer:

 

 


UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015)

March 5, 2015

unfinished business Greetings again from the darkness. Just a little bit of creativity goes a long way in comedies these days, as it seems most just care about pushing the bounds of crude and raunchy humor. The premise of this latest from director Ken Scott (Delivery Man) and writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) teases us with the hope that it could be more Office Space than Neighbors, but the lure of cheap, bawdy laughs proves too great.

The story begins with Vince Vaughn’s Dan Trunkman having a Jerry Maguire moment in the middle of the office after being informed by his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) of a 5% paycut. Dan’s Napoleonic charge to the parking lot results in his new company being staffed by Tom Wilkinson (fired for being too old) and a much younger and less-experienced Dave Franco. We follow the boys from St Louis to Portland, Maine to Berlin as they chase the ever-elusive “handshake” to seal their first big deal.

Featuring a near-endless stream of potential comedic elements, the film touches on: parenting, bullying, ageism, the G8 summit and corresponding protest/riot, a Fetish Festival, the Berlin marathon, a gay bar, marital challenges, small business ownership, mentoring, the politics of business, a unisex spa, a youth hostel, excessive drugs and booze, “maids” for hire, challenges for chubby types, and an introduction to inhabited art. Some of these are underplayed, while others go way over-the-top.

Vaughn is the leader of this “three amigos” triumvirate of misfits and is on a mission to put the welfare of his employees above company profits – all the while he is skyping with his wife (the underutilized June Diane Raphael) on the due date for private school tuition. Mr. Wilkinson plays the older guy looking for new experiences (as his marriage dissolves) and Mr. Franco is the most confusing of all characters – we are unsure whether he is absurdly naïve or somewhat mentally handicapped. The upstart company is competing directly against Chuck and the old company in a very confusing transaction involving “swarf”, which is described as metal residue from giant projects like bridges and skyscrapers. Because of this, the business element is really wasted and all we get is generic-speak about spreadsheets and profit margins.

Other supporting work is provided by Britton Sear and Ella Anderson as Vaughn’s kids, James Marsden as the prospective client, and a scene-stealing Nick Frost as Marsden’s operational sidekick with a lonely/wild side. In addition to the shenanigans mentioned above, the movie periodically throws up the stop sign for laughter in an attempt to mix in some real world family emotions – parenting via Skype is a bit challenging.

As one would expect, there are many laughs throughout, although Vaughn is working hard at evolving from the “zinger” guy he has been for two decades. Unfortunately the structure of the film is simply too loose to work as anything more than a few laugh-inducing comedy set scenes. Still, there is much to be said for a film and actors that can make us laugh … even with an unfinished handshake.

watch the trailer:

 


ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (2013)

December 29, 2013

anchorman Greetings again from the darkness. Will Ferrell has been everywhere the past few weeks making promotional appearances as the golden voiced, perfectly coiffed Ron Burgandy. He clearly enjoys this character and is proud (deservedly so) of the franchise he created with business partner and director and co-writer Adam McKay. The first Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy was released in 2004 and nine years is an unusually long period to wait for a comedy sequel. But it’s not like either Ferrell or McKay need the money, and the golden rule of comedy … timing is everything.

The original movie has reached both classic comedy and cult status, and is one of the most frequently quoted movies from the past decade (“I’m kind of a big thing“). Having such a loyal following means guaranteed box office success for this sequel. So while I found this one somewhat lacking, the true Anchorman fans will embrace it … as proved by the loud laughter throughout the theatre.  And in a movie year strong on drama and somewhat lacking in comedies, it’s nice to hear laughter again.

The gag to get the doofus gang back together centers around the 1980 development of fictional Global News Network – the birth of 24 hour news (and a lightly veiled reference to CNN). The Ron Burgandy gang is all back: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, David Koechner as Champ, and Steve Carell as Brick. Christina Applegate also returns as Veronica Cartright, though sadly she has very few scenes. Newcomers include James Marsden as Ron Burgandy’s professional competition and Meagan Good as the station manager. Kristen Wiig weirds out as the soulmate for Brick, and the bus load of cameos arrives for the gang fight at the end … kind of a spoof of the 1979 cult favorite The Warriors.

I will never criticize a movie that makes so many people laugh. However, I will admit to finding only a few giggles in the two hours (including the Dan Issel reference). It did strike me that many of the best jokes and gags would be difficult for anyone under age 35 to “get”. Period humor abounds. The best jab at the news industry occurs when Ron Burgandy says “Why do we need to tell people what they NEED to know? Why can’t we tell them what they WANT to know?”. That kind of approach would have fit the cerebral humor I could appreciate.

**NOTE: if you are somehow unfamiliar with Anchorman humor, know that nothing is off limits.  There is plenty of humor based on racism, sexism, disabilities and most any other politically incorrect topic you can name.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the first movie and/or Will Ferrell OR you want to see the most star-studded gang fight in movie history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are confused by the laughter of others brought on by such movies as Step Brothers, Semi-Pro, or Blades of Glory

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VdGI5-z_hg


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc


STRAW DOGS (2011)

September 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen Sam Peckinpah‘s classic 1971 original with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, it is impossible to watch this remake without comparing the two films. Because of that, these comments will include some comparative notes. After all, it’s been 40 years and most people watching this new version have never seen the original, though I highly recommend it.

Director Rod Lurie follows the Peckinpah version pretty closely with the obvious changes being a move from the English countryside to the deep south (Mississippi), and the main characters are now a screenwriter and actress instead of mathematical whiz and … well, whatever Susan George’s character was in the original. Those are the obvious changes, but not the most significant. I really missed the subtlety and psychological trickery delivered by Peckinpah, especially in the relationship between David and Amy.

 Lurie chooses to take advantage of the physical screen presence of Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) as Charlie, the local stud and Amy’s ex. Charlie’s past exploits on the football field and his creepy leadership skills with his posse of thugs, provide the yin of physical strength to the yang of David’s intelligence. It’s interesting to note that this version spells out Sun-Tzu’s description of “straw dogs” while Peckinpah left his audience to fend for themselves. But, of course, what the story boils down to is just how far can a civilized person be pushed … and how far is the bully willing to go?

 James Woods is a welcome and terrifying addition to the new version. Since it is based in the small town south, high school football must play a role. Woods is the former high school coach who is now a violent drunk, and still leader of his former players. He is a sadistic type who picks on Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), the slow-witted brother of Daniel (Walton Goggins) and constantly accuses him of inappropriate behavior with his 15 year old cheerleader daughter.

 James Marsden (Hairspray) and Kate Bosworth (Remember the Titans) play David and Amy. They come back to Amy’s childhood home so she can rest and David can have some peace and quiet while writing his screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad. Well, we couldn’t really have him writing a rom-com, could we? From Day One, the peace and quiet is clearly missing and Lynyrd Skynyrd wins out over Bach in the battle of radio volume. Tension builds and David is tested daily over what it means to be a man … tested by the local hicks and doubted by his lovely wife.

Things turn from bad to worse when the locals invite David to go hunting with them. What happens with Charlie and Amy during this time changes everything. This sequence was the key to the controversy of the original and what caused it to be banned in many cities and countries. Lurie chooses to handle it in a very straightforward manner – plus, times and mores have changed quite a bit in the last 40 years.

For me, the Peckinpah original remains a classic film with brilliant psychological undertones which left me feeling very uncomfortable and questioning what I might do in this situation. Lurie’s new version offered little of that but does work fine as a straightforward suspenseful thriller.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to compare original vs. remake OR you want to see a very creative use of a bear trap OR you want a close up view up Kate Bosworth’s heterochromia (one brown eye and one blue)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are devotee to Peckinpah’s version OR you prefer your thrillers have little violence

watch the trailer: