THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)

October 10, 2019

North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF) 2019

 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.

watch the trailer:


THE GOLDFINCH (2019)

September 12, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The challenge after watching this movie is deciding whether it needed more time or less. With a run time of two-and-a-half hours, that may seem like a ludicrous question, but Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize (fiction) winning 2013 novel was almost 800 pages long, covering many characters and spanning more than a decade. What to include and what to omit surely generated many discussions between director John Crowley (the excellent BROOKLYN, 2015) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Oscar nominated for the fantastic TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011).

13 year old Theo (Oakes Fegley) is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a bomb explodes leaving Theo dazed in the rubble and his mother dead. An encounter with an injured stranger causes Theo to take a painting and flee the museum. Theo proceeds to hide the artwork as the family of one of his schoolmates takes him in. The painting is “The Goldfinch” by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius. In the first of many parallels separated by time, we learn Fabritius was killed (and most of his work destroyed) in an explosion. In fact, it’s these parallels and near-mirror-images are what make the story so unique and interesting … and so difficult to fit into a film.

When Theo’s long-lost drunken shyster father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his equally smarmy girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), they head to the recession-riddled suburbs of Las Vegas. It’s here where Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard, Richie from the two IT movies), a Ukranian emigrant living with his dad (yet another parallel). The two boys become friends, partaking in drugs, alcohol, and shoplifting. Another tragedy puts Theo on the run. He finds himself back in New York, where he takes up with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the partner of the stranger from the museum.

All of this is told from the perspective of young adult Theodore Decker, played by Ansel Elgort (BABY DRIVER). We see him bunkered in a hotel room contemplating suicide. The story we watch shows how his life unfolded and landed him in this particular situation. And it’s here where we find the core of the story. Circumstances in life guide our actions, and in doing so, reveal our true character. Theo carries incredible guilt over his mother, and his actions with Hobie, regardless of the reasons for doing so, lead him to a life that is not so dissimilar to that of adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard, DUNKIRK) when their paths cross again.

Other supporting work is provided by Ashleigh Cummings as Pippa, the object of Theo’s desire, Willa Fitzgerald (played young Claire in “House of Cards”) as Kitsey Barbour, Theo’s fiancé, as well as Denis O’Hare, Peter Jacobson, and Luke Kleintank. As a special treat, Oscar winner Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour in what feels like two different performances. When Theo is young, she is the cold, standoffish surrogate mother who takes him in; however when older Theo returns, her own personal tragedies have turned her into a warm bundle of emotions in need of pleasantry. It’s sterling work from an accomplished actress.

The segments of the film that resonate deepest are those featuring Oakes Fegley as young Theo. Fegley was so good in the criminally underseen WONDERSTRUCK (2017), and here he conveys so much emotion despite maintaining a stoic demeanor. It’s rare to see such a layered performance from a young actor. Of course the film is helped immensely by the unequaled work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mr. Deakins finally won his first Oscar last year in his 14th nomination. Trevor Gureckis provides the music to fit the various moods and the two time periods. All of these elements work to give the film the look of an Oscar contending project; however, we never seem to connect with the older Theo, which leaves a hollow feeling to a story that should be anything but. Instead we are left to play “spot the parallels” … a fun game … but not engaging like we would hope.

watch the trailer:


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

December 3, 2015

the good dinosaur Greetings again from the darkness. Two Pixar films in one year? Earlier this year, the brilliant Inside Out reminded us just what sets Pixar apart from other animation studios … the film was intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, funny and emotional enough to bring tears to the eyes of many parents. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow – even for Pixar!

Of course, 2015 was not intended to be a double-header for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur ran into serious production and story issues at the same time the studio was going through layoffs and reorganization. So the six year project turned into eight, as a new creative team was brought in (led by director Peter Sohn), and the story and characters were re-worked and re-imagined. The finished product is likely the most staggeringly beautiful animation to ever hit the big screen, while at the same time being some of the darkest and bleakest material ever presented by Pixar.

The premise is pretty interesting: What would Earth be like if THE asteroid had missed, and the dinosaurs survived? That’s about as sciency as the story gets, other than it does portray nature as a colossal adversary (what’s with the hallucinogenic berries?). We first meet Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus as they work their corn fields (huh?) and wait for their baby eggs to hatch. The runt of the litter is Arlo, who just can’t keep up with his more active siblings and who feels inadequate in comparison to his majestic father.

Arlo and nature are responsible for the tragedy that sends Arlo off on a journey that features the full spectrum: the importance of family, the sadness of loss, the strength of friendship, and the self-discovery that leads to independence. While there are quite a few laughs along the way, the fear and isolation that Arlo experiences takes up most of the movie, and could leave all but the strongest kids feeling anything but upbeat and happy.

There is a life lesson about making one’s mark, and an oddball friendship between Arlo and young boy (named Spot??) who is wise to nature. But this one lacks the charm of most Pixar outings, while at the same time reaching technical levels that are breathtaking to behold. It’s difficult to imagine many kids wanting to watch this one again and again, but for all you Pixar nerds, you can rest easy … John Ratzenberger does make a vocal appearance.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8

 

 


BROKEN CITY (2013)

January 20, 2013

broken Greetings again from the darkness. The best Political crime dramas are complex films with multiple intersecting sub-plots, filled with stylish mis-direction and intense wordplay and back-stabbing between good guys and bad. What doesn’t work is “obvious”. Especially obvious to the point where the audience is way ahead of the earnest, but clumsy protagonist. Luckily for director Allen Hughes (working solo without his twin brother Albert for the first time), he has stacked the film with a wonderful cast which makes it somewhat entertaining despite its major flaws.

Mark Wahlberg plays (what else?) a streetwise guy/cop/detective who tries to do the right thing but always seems to end up with the short straw. Russell Crowe is in fine form (though a bit too tan) as the megalomaniac NYC mayor who plays dirty, but knows how to sell his stuff to the people … even as he schemes to do great wrong. Their paths cross twice and broken3neither time turns out so great for Wahlberg.

As for the rest of the cast, Barry Pepper is miscast as Crowe’s mayoral opponent; Jeffrey Wright is intriguing as the Police Commissioner seemingly playing both sides against the middle; Catherine Zeta-Jones is Crowe’s most unhappy and disloyal wife; Kyle Chandler plays Pepper’s campaign manager (and evidently more); and Griffin Dunne is a rich Crowe supporter and knee deep in the evil scheme. Also interesting is Alona Tai as Wahlberg’s wise-cracking and bright-eyed assistant.

broken2 While no details will be spilled here, there is a fun exchange during the debate between Crowe and Pepper, and well, the movie is just at its best when Crowe is on screen. Wahlberg’s character is pretty much the same he has played a dozen times prior, but it seems the real issue is with first time screenwriter Brian Tucker. He is just overrun with ideas and because of that, most go undeveloped. A script clean-up from a screen veteran could have turned this one around. Still, if you have seen all the Oscar nominated films and are looking for a watchable January release, you could do worse. Just try not to think too much!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are caught up on the December rush on late 2012 releases OR you want to see another fine Russell Crowe performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a “smart” thriller isn’t so smart

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3HgYu1atOo

 


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

January 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ten years since the September 11 attack, and it’s still difficult to talk about, write about, or make a movie about … and certainly difficult to critique any of those attempts. Since I haven’t read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also wrote “Everything is Illuminated”), my comments will be related only to this film directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and the script by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Two positive things stand out for me in the film. Young Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell is an interesting and talented newcomer, and someone I enjoyed watching on screen for most of two hours. Approximately 70 years his senior, Max von Sydow is captivating as the speechless “Renter” from Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. The two are quite an entertaining pairing on their road-trip through NYC.

 The basic story is that Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) is one of the victims of the WTC attacks. Through flashbacks we see that he was a world-class father to Oskar, who may very well be inflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Either way, Oskar is intelligent way beyond his years and possesses quite a curious and analytical mind. When his father dies, Oskar is convinced he can make sense of things by finding the lock that fits a key he found in his father’s closet. He assumes it’s another puzzle his father laid out for him with the only clue being “Black” written on the envelope.

While it is interesting to see how Oskar organizes his mission of contacting the 472 Black’s noted in the NYC phone book, it seems mostly a writing trick to get this unusual youngster mingling with “normal” citizens. When he teams with von Sydow, the energy level picks up, but we can still feel the wheels turning on the machinery to create tear-inducing moments. These moments are EVERYWHERE and include Oskar being oblivious to his hurtful ways with his mom (Sandra Bullock).

 The support work is excellent and includes John Goodman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. Young Mr. Horn is best known for his winning Jeopardy during “Kid’s Week”, so he is obviously real-life smart as well as on screen talented. This story is just too preposterous to take seriously. How many parents would let their 11 year old wander the streets of NYC? What reaction would this kid receive as he confronts strangers while jingling his tambourine so as to calm his nerves? Just too much melodramatic storybook stretching to make this a story worth telling in regards to the September 11 events. However, if you are need of a few good cries, this one tees it up for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an exciting newcomer in Thomas Horn OR it’s just been too long since you had a good cry (or 3 or 4)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movie/story manipulations not be quite so obvious

watch the trailer: