THE AFTERMATH (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1945 on the heels of the Allied forces victory in WWII. British officer Lewis Morgan is charged with overseeing the military’s role in beginning the process of returning a sense of normalcy back to Hamburg (and assisting with hunting Nazi loyalists). He is joined there by his wife Rachel, and they are to occupy a beautiful mansion that has been “requisitioned” from a German architect and his daughter. Captain Morgan makes the unusual offer of having the man and his daughter remain in the house, rather than relocate to one of the dreadful camps, where food and privacy is scarce. Here’s a tip gentlemen: never invite Alexander Skarsgard to live in the same house as your significant other.

Captain Morgan is played by Jason Clarke, and his wife Rachel by Keira Knightley. The aforementioned Skarsgard is Stephen Lubert, and Flora Thieman plays Freda, his rebellious teenage daughter. On her train ride in, Rachel hears a young girl discussing the rule of “no fraternizing” with the German people. Of course, we know (even if Rachel doesn’t know yet) that it’s not the little girl who is going to break this rule. An awkward reunion for Morgan and his wife indicates something is amiss. We soon learn that their young son was killed 4 years prior in a bombing – a hardship they share with Mr. Lubert, whose wife was also killed during the war. Clearly the loss of her son still impacts Rachel to the point that she rarely finds a moment of happiness.

If this was a “Seinfeld” episode, this is where ‘yada, yada, yada’ would be inserted, letting us know that a tryst between Lubert and Rachel occurs while husband Morgan is out on duty, and that romp brings her instantly back to life … with smiles and piano playing. This little lovefest is contrasted with the rubble of Hamburg. The city is literally in ruins. The visuals are impressive, but we never get a feel for the challenge of rebuilding infrastructure and lives. Instead, we get more forbidden love.

Director James Kent is known mostly for his TV work, and the film is based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It would be a mistake to assume, given the outstanding three lead actors, that this is a prestigious WWII drama. An accurate description would be ‘soap opera.’ The set design, costumes, and cast are first rate, but the direction, script, and editing scream soap opera. I believe my final count was 12. That’s 12 shots of someone gazing out of a window … train windows, car windows, house windows, bus windows … every window gets its shot of winsome gazing. It’s best you know going in to expect a soap opera … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

watch the trailer:


SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

watch the trailer:

 


FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

watch the trailer:


MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer:

 


ALL I SEE IS YOU (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Marc Forster has crafted a career of making movies that are readily watchable, though for the most part, not especially memorable. These include: FINDING NEVERLAND, STRANGER THAN FICTION, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, WORLD WAR Z, and his best film, MONSTER’S BALL (2001). His latest falls short of those, but thanks to Blake Lively and some creative visuals, we remain interested enough.

This is Ms. Lively’s follow up to last year’s surprise summer hit THE SHALLOWS, her nearly one-woman sea-based spectacle. This time out she does an admirable job of carrying the film in spite of script flaws. It’s co-written by Sean Conway and director Forster, and despite teasing some fascinating psychological aspects, we find ourselves constantly waiting for the movie to show us what we already know is about to happen. Predictability is rarely an asset for a film, and here it acts as a ball and chain to the pacing.

The first third of the film works to establish two things: what Gina’s (Lively) daily life is like as a blind person, and the type of relationship she and her husband (Jason Clarke) have. We get an abundance of distorted light flashes to simulate what she has lived with since the car accident that took away her parents and her vision during childhood. Her marriage finds her very dependent on her husband and Clarke’s character thrives on this … even giving brief glimpses of his demented personality that will eventually take over the film in the final act.

Gina’s doctor (Danny Huston) performs a transplant which successfully restores her vision. The bulk of the story revolves around the changes that vision brings to her life and how the marriage begins disintegrating. The best message here is what happens to a relationship as the individuals change and evolve. Specifically in this case, the wife gains an entirely new perspective, while the husband longs for the days where she was dependent on him.

At times it feels as if director Forster is working hard to create the look and feel of an experimental movie, rather than focusing on the story. There are some interesting visuals provided by locations and camera angles, although the moody atmosphere never really clicks. Ms. Lively singing “Double Dutch” provides an ending that is both odd and mesmerizing in a strange way. We are reminded that evil and self-centeredness can take on many forms, though this film never quite packs the dramatic punch it might have.

watch the trailer:


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

July 14, 2014

planet Greetings again from the darkness. Admitting a weakness is the first step. Yes, I am a proud, long-time fan of this series. My soft spot for these films began when I was a kid – mesmerized by the 1968 original, while watching from the back seat of the car, as the clunky metal speaker hung on the window and my parents sat in the front. Oh, and yes, I was wearing my pajamas!

It’s pretty much impossible to describe the technological advances in movies since Charleston Heston stumbled into one of the biggest shocker endings the movies have ever provided (and that was 46 years ago!). Heck, the advances since the 2011 movie with James Franco are staggering to see. The combination of real actors, CGI and fantastic motion capture technology make for a realistic look that is unsettling at times.

Many know the work of Andy Serkis (Gollam, King Kong) who is considered the master of motion capture acting, and here he returns as Caeser, the leader of the apes. Only this time, he has real competition, especially from Toby Kebbell as Koba, his friend who was previously mistreated in the lab by humans … thereby explaining their opposite view of the few remaining humans.

This entry from director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) picks up 10 years after the 2011 movie. The apes have established a very cool community in the forest, while only a few immune humans survived the lab-born simian virus that was leaked. The apes have continued to get smarter and even have their own culture and code (apes don’t kill apes). The surviving humans have fought amongst themselves and only recently organized a faction with Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus as their leader. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) takes a small group over the Golden Gate Bridge to see if they can reignite a dam which could produce the energy so desperately needed in human town.

Almost immediately, humans and apes meet. The big philosophical chess match begins with Malcolm and Caeser negotiating for cooperation and peace, while Koda and Drefus see war as the only solution. Alliances are drawn, fragile accords made, loyalties are questioned, and hierarchies crumble. See, it turns out the apes are like us, and we are like the apes.

There is a terrific battle scene, but the real joy here is the personalities and look of the apes. It is fascinating to watch the interactions … and that final shot is startling! The only downside is the caricature of Carver played by Kirk Acevedo. He is the token human d-bag but his character is so over the top it ruins most of his scenes. Luckily, he has very few … and they are offset by the really cool horse dismount displayed by Caesar. If you buy into this, it’s a tension-filled jolly good time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the series and want to be awed by the evolution of the apes – both in the story and on the screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy into the apes thing OR you miss Roddy McDowell and his rubber mask too much to ever give the nod to CGI.

watch the trailer: