A QUIET PASSION (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a young woman standing strong during a critical moment at seminary school. It’s kind of a clunky start in an overly-dramatic and stagey sense for the film, but Emma Bell sets the standard for the future behavior of Emily Dickinson. What follows is a period drama with minimal costuming effects, but rather a fitting onslaught of language and words – most of which comes courtesy of Ms. Dickinson and her mighty pen.

I’ve often viewed Emily Dickinson as an early feminist whose beliefs and intentions were stifled by the era in which lived, as well as the depression that seemed to cloak most of her days. She was definitely an odd/unusual person and clearly stood for women’s equality at a time when her own poems were published anonymously to avoid scandal and backlash for the paper. Writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, 2011) shows interest in glamorizing neither the times nor the writer, and Cynthia Nixon seizes the opportunity to capture the essence of a gifted woman who at best, could be described as a societal misfit and a genius.

The terrific cast also includes Keith Carradine as Emily’s proud father, Jennifer Ehle as her (yin-yang) sister Vinnie, and Duncan Duff as brother Austin. Emily’s rare forays beyond familial boundaries are mostly via garden strolls with her wise-cracking friend Miss Buffum, played with zeal by Catherine Bailey. There is also a tremendous 3:00am scene between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May), which provides the best possible self-analysis by Ms. Dickinson (outside of her writings). She confesses to her new family member, “You have a life, I have a routine.” This insightful line seems to carry no sadness for Emily.

The first third of the film features some low-key zingers that rival anything from Whit Stillman’s superb Love & Friendship, though the balance of the film takes a turn towards the serious and somber while focusing more on Faith and Death and Emily’s controversial stances. She embraces the label of “no-hoper” and continues on with her observations of a life she barely leads. While the language and words are the stars here (along with Ms. Nixon), there is a very cool effect as the characters seamlessly age before our eyes in a series of portrait poses, vaulting the timeline headfirst into Emily’s descent into self-imposed isolation. It’s a very well done biopic that requires your ears be in prime form.

Ms. Dickinson died in 1866 at the age of 55, and the film helps us understand that the contradictions and confusion associated with religion does not solely belong to our modern times. This might best be explained when Emily’s aunt wins an argument by proclaiming that “hymns aren’t music”. Mr. Davies delivers a small film that is large in thought and beautiful in look.

watch the trailer:

 

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DIFF 2017: Day Five

April 6, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9. 2017

 

It’s “Two For Tuesday” and I welcome the first of two straight evenings with only two films on my schedule. Addtionally, neither Tuesday nor Wednesday features a documentary, so my odds of re-gaining faith in humanity are increased a bit. The two movies I watched on Tuesday April 4 are recapped below:

 

A QUIET PASSION

We open with a young woman standing strong during a critical moment at seminary school. It’s kind of a clunky start in an overly-dramatic and stagey sense for the film, but Emma Bell sets the standard for the future behavior of Emily Dickinson. What follows is a period drama with minimal costuming effects, but rather a fitting onslaught of language and words – much of which comes courtesy of Ms. Dickinson’s mighty pen.

I’ve often viewed Emily Dickinson as an early feminist whose beliefs and intentions were stifled by the era in which lived, as well as the depression that seemed to cloak most of her days. She clearly stood for women’s equality at a time when her own poems were published anonymously to avoid scandal and backlash for the paper. Writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, 2011) has no interest in glamorizing either the times or the writer, and Cynthia Nixon seizes the opportunity to capture the essence of a gifted woman who at best, could be described as a societal misfit.

The terrific cast also includes Keith Carradine as Emily’s proud father, Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, and Duncan Duff as brother Austin. Emily’s rare forays beyond familial boundaries are mostly via garden strolls with her wise-cracking friend Miss Buffum, played with zeal by Catherine Bailey. There is also a tremendous 3:00am scene between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May), which provides the best possible self-analysis by Ms. Dickinson (outside of her writings). She confesses to her new family member, “You have a life, I have a routine.” This insightful line seems to carry no sadness for Emily.

The first third of the film features some low-key zingers that rival anything from Whit Stillman’s superb Love & Friendship, though the balance of the film takes a turn towards the serious and focuses more on Faith and Death and Emily’s controversial stances. She embraces the description of “no-hoper” and continues on with her observations of a life she barely leads. While the language and words are the stars here (along with Ms. Nixon), there is a very cool effect as the characters seamlessly age before our eyes in a series of portraits, vaulting the timeline headfirst into Emily’s descent into self-imposed isolation. It’s a very well done biopic that requires your ears be in prime form.

MR. ROOSEVELT

The most pleasant surprise of the festival so far comes courtesy of writer/director/actress Noel Wells (“Master of None”). It’s a wonderful little gem filmed in Austin, Texas and it somehow only gets better after an excellent and very funny opening sequence.

Ms. Wells plays Emily, a Los Angeles-based editor who receives an emergency call from her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) requiring her to return to Austin. Her lack of liquidity, and still-simmering flame for Eric, result in her accepting an invitation to stay at the home of Eric and his seemingly perfect and passive-aggressive girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower). Varying situations and interactions lead to some uncomfortable and awkward moments that deliver a new style of humor.

Support work and additional fun is provided by Andre Hyland and Bina Chauhan as Emily’s new friends and support system. Their hijinx include time at Hippie Hollow, a rowdy house party, and some sexual freelancing jumpstarted by the phrase “You’re funny” … Emily’s ultimate turn-on.

The film is shot on 16mm Kodak film (announced pre-credits) and it clearly establishes Ms. Noel as a filmmaker to watch, reminding a bit of the underrated Miranda July. Not only does she have skills as a director and actress, the line “You’re a good person with bad execution” proves she has a real knack as a comedic writer. Good stuff from an exciting new face.

 


LITTLE MEN (2016)

August 25, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

little men Greetings again from the darkness. There is a lot going on in this latest from writer/director Ira Sachs, and every bit of it provides some commentary on the basic everyday life struggles faced by normal folks. There is also a continuation of the ongoing NYC vs Brooklyn “friendly competition”, as well a reminder of the downside of gentrification.

Mr. Sachs and his frequent collaborator and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias kick off the story with Greg Kinnear’s Brian awkwardly exchanging greetings with Paulina Garcia’ s (so terrific in Gloria, 2013) Leonor while the son’s of these two share an equally awkward meeting. Leonor is the long-time tenant in the dress shop located below the apartment where Brian’s recently deceased father resided.

Jake (Theo Tapitz) is an aspiring artist who doesn’t easily make friends. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a brash, fast-talking kid who is a bit more street wise and outgoing. The two boys quickly bond … while at the same time, the parents begin a quiet battle. Brian’s sister (played by Talia Balsam) demands her fair share of their father’s estate through higher rent on Leonor’s dress shop. It turns out their dad never raised the rent despite the number of years and the developing neighborhood. Kinnear’s wife Kathy (the underrated Jennifer Ehle) tries to play peace-keeping negotiator so that the boys’ friendship is not affected. As is often the case, the kids handle the situation better than the adults.

The film’s best scenes feature the two young boys … a blossoming childhood friendship that is all too rare on the big screen. If the boys weren’t so severely impacted, the adult interactions could almost be white noise. Themes of money vs love, greed vs emotion, as well as recurring and various instances of rejection, all play a part in this multi-faceted story. Examples of rejection include a girl rejecting a boy, Brian’s rejection as an actor, and the multiple rejections in the negotiations for the shop. Mr. Sachs has a real knack for putting real people in real situations that result in difficult decisions.

All of the acting is top notch, including Alfred Molina in a small role as Leonor’s attorney and advisor. But it’s the boys – Tapitz and especially Barbieri – that elevate the film. Watching the boys grow closer despite the all-too-close conflicts reminds a bit of the friendships in Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. Young Mr. Tapitz already has a few short films under his belt as a director, and Mr. Barbieri is certain to get many more opportunities to flash his on screen talent.

watch the trailer:

 


ROBOCOP (2014)

February 14, 2014

robocop Greetings again from the darkness. The expected cringes and groans never fully surfaced as the modernized re-boot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic unfolded on the screen. Sure, I wish Peter Weller made even a cameo appearance, and yes, I missed the charm, humor and satire that has allowed the original to remain relevant; but, director Jose Padilha reimagines the story, sticks to PG-13 action, and incorporates the video game look favored by today’s filmgoers.  The result is an adequate action movie with a Dr Frankenstein twist, a dash of questionable technological morality, topped with the always evil corporate conglomerate.

The opening sequence takes place in Tehran and is extremely well done, setting the stage for incisive commentary on today’s foreign policies and drone usage. Unfortunately, THAT movie never materializes, but we do get the over-the-top conservative news host … played colorfully by Samuel L Jackson, who does manage to work in his iconic catchphrase (yes even a PG-13 movie is allowed one MF). His holographic studio reminds of Minority Report, and has the futuristic look required to distract us from any real message.

Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing“) adequately fills the part man/ part robot role (good guy and good cop Alex Murphy), but the script really lets him down when it comes to his wife (Abbie Cornish) and kid, his crime-fighting instincts, and the overlapping criminal elements – some poorly cast generic arms dealer and the ultimate villain known as mega corporation OmniCorp run by the great Michael Keaton. The movie’s best scenes involve the interaction between Keaton and the always terrific Gary Oldman, playing a conflicted doctor/robotics genius with a conscience (most of the time).

The supporting cast is stellar and features a nasty Jackie-Earle Haley, a properly proper Jennifer Ehle, a relatively straight-laced Jay Baruchel, a two-faced police captain played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Murphy’s partner Michael K Williams, and Oldman’s loyal assistant played by Aimee Garcia (“Dexter“). The biggest missed opportunities involve the cop partnership with Mr. Williams … such an integral part of the first movie (Nancy Allen), but here it seems most of this story was inexplicably left on the editing floor.  The story, the viewers and Mr. Williams deserved much better.

A bit too much shakycam in the first shootout left me disappointed, as did most of the action sequences. However, the effects for the robotic suit and Murphy’s “body” are fantastic.  Especially effective is the scene with Murphy first becomes aware of what remains of him and how much is robotic suit.  This is very much a tale of moralistic choices, and it could have been interesting to see Murphy go a bit deeper in his existential questioning of Man or Machine. Mostly, I was simply relieved it wasn’t terrible and didn’t tarnish the legacy.

**NOTE: the city of Detroit is the base, but the movie never really touches on the problems within the actual city.  In fact, very little crime solving is shown – but we do have the stats relayed to us.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wonder what Iron Man would be like with an evil billionaire calling the shots rather than a  brilliant billionaire wearing the suit OR you never miss the rare (these days) chance to see Michael Keaton on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are perfectly content to allow the 1987 film version to maintain its spot as THE Robocop movie.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

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

 


IDES OF MARCH

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political thrillers can be so juicy and filled with “gotcha” moments and “oh how could he/she” scenes. Inevitably, most come down to an “I believed in you” showdown and reckoning. This latest one based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, gives George Clooney an opportunity to play out his political aspirations without opening himself to the real thing.

Clooney also directs and the smartest move he made was assembling an ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today. Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, who is one of two still-standing Democratic Presidential contenders on the verge of the Ohio primary. His Campaign Manager is grizzled campaign veteran Paul, played with staunch principals and a black-and-white rule book by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their talented and idealistic Press Secretary Stephen is played by Ryan Gosling, who talks more in the first scene than he did in the entire movie Drive. Their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy is played by Paul Giamatti. Duffy oozes cynicism and seems to have misplaced the rule book that Paul holds so dearly.

 The film begins with the set-up so we get a feel for just how strong or weak of character each of these men are. Morris (Clooney) is obviously an Obama-type idealist who claims his religion is the US Consitution. He says this while gently poking fun at his opponent’s Christian beliefs. We see just how talented Stephen (Gosling) character is at handling the words that his candidate speaks and we see Paul (PSH) in full back room politico maneuvering.

 The film has two huge points where the mood swings. The first is a contrived, definite no-no meeting between the ambitious Stephen and the shrewd Duffy. The second is a sequence between Stephen and a 20 year old campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the DNC. These two events turn the film from political thriller to melodramatic Hollywood fare. That doesn’t make it less of a movie, it’s just different than it began.

 Cat and mouse games ensue and we see just who is the master manipulator amongst a group of professionals. This is one of those films where the individual pieces are actually more interesting than the whole pie. There are two really excellent exchanges between Gosling and Hoffman. Ms. Wood steals her scenes with ease. Jeffrey Wright nails his brief time as a desperate Senator negotiating the best deal possible. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is a work of art. The only thing missing is a confrontation between Giamatti and Hoffman. THAT alone would be worth the price of admission.  We also get a glimpse of the give-and-take gamesmanship between the campaign (Gosling) and the media (Marisa Tomei).

You might be surprised that Clooney actually minimizes the political meanderings, though he does get in a few jabs at the Republicans. This is more character drama … how far can your ideals and morals carry you. What is your breaking point? Where is the line between realist and idealist? Is it betrayal if you act for the right reason? The final shot of film is superb. Et tu, Brute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a mixture of political drama and traditional Hollywood melodrama, especially when performed by a group of top notch actors OR you are convinced that only Republicans do bad things

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you only want a full-fledged political expose’ around running for political office OR you still believe that politicians and idealists are above reproach.

watch the trailer:


CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer: