WAKEFIELD (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for her screenplay to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Robin Swicord’s directorial debut of The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) was not particularly impressive. However, she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle and one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that’s ever hit the silver screen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold?” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing the world unnoticed through the small window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while clinging to his previous life in a voyeuristic way.

Ms. Swicord’s screenplay is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story and it’s sneaky in the way that it questions how we go about our daily life, and how one can “snap” emotionally if feeling unappreciated. It’s a showcase for the other side of upper middle class white privilege, as well as suburban alienation that is so prevalent (and ignored) today. By dropping out but staying close, Cranston’s character actually pays more attention to his family than he usually would if sitting next to them at the dinner table.

We are accustomed to a mid-life crisis involving a sports car, marital affair or sudden career change. It’s highly unusual for someone to actually “disappear”. It’s at that point where the narration really shines … it’s insightful, observational and thought-provoking. Beyond that, the comedic edge is laden with sadness. The story humanizes this pretty despicable guy – or at least a guy who does a pretty despicable thing. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience. This is one to see for Cranston’s performance, as well as for Ms. Swicord’s commentary on today’s way of life.

watch the trailer:

 


DIFF 2017: Day One

April 2, 2017

The 2017 Dallas International Film Festival runs March 30-April 9

 The usual excitement of festival Day One was tempered somewhat by this incessant cough that I can’t seem to shake, and the realization that I will be a nuisance to others in the theatre. However, my goal of 30 movies in 10 days will not be stopped so I loaded up on Robitussin, cough drops and a giant bottled water, and headed off to my first scheduled movie. Of course, it was Friday afternoon so Dallas traffic forced me to into a fall-back plan before I had even seen one movie. Pulling off to the Angelika rather than continue creeping on Central expressway towards the Magnolia ended up as a fortuitous turn of events. The three movies I watched are recapped below.

WAKEFIELD

While I wasn’t a big fan of Robin Swicord’s directorial debut (The Jane Austen Book Club, 2007), she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle with one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that I’ve ever seen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Most everyone has had the impulse to put their life on hold.” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing unnoticed through the stained glass window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while staying close to his previous life in a voyeuristic way. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience.

 

TOMMY ‘S HONOUR

Jason Connery (Sean’s son) directs this story about old Tom Morris and his son Tommy written by Pamela Martin from the book by Kevin Cook. It’s a bit surprising that the story focuses as much or more on the melodrama and personal story of the younger Tommy than the historical influences, but there is links action to give us a feel for the times.

Jack Lowden and his dimples portray Tommy, while Ophelia Lovibond plays his love interest Meg. Their relationship drives the story, and we are reminded that small-minded people were every bit as prevalent 140 years ago as they are now. Tommy’s mother, their community, and even the minister of the Church pass harsh judgment on Meg and her unfortunate past. Combine that with the element of “Gentlemen”, which are anything but, and we get an understanding of how Tommy’s actions changed not just the game of golf, but also influenced the softening of the class difference. His push to bring respect and fairness to professional golfers erased the similarities with how race horses and golfers were treated the same from a wagering perspective.

This was the time of the original “13 Rules of Golf”, and when rowdy crowd hovered right next to the golfers as they played. Other than the closing credit graphics, Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) isn’t really given his due as a course designer, but this is really the story of his son, and though the film is a bit too long, it’s a story that deserves to be told.

 

CITY OF GHOSTS (documentary)

Oscar nominated director Matthew Heineman delivered the stunning documentary Cartel Land in 2015, and here he once again proves his expertise as the messenger of important stories that need to be told.

The film begins in the Syrian city of Ragga in 2012, and we see the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. The sayings “Death is Death” and “Danger has a special taste” come into play, and by the end of the film, there is a clarity that is devastating.

The courageous and dedicated Citizen Journalists are divided into two groups: the internal who risk their lives in Ragga uploading news stories and videos of ISIS actions and, the external who are based in Turkey and Germany and post regularly to social media outlets. Their combined efforts and risk taking allow the real story to be told from their home city mostly cut-off from the outside world – as evidenced by the satellite graveyard.

RBSS (Ragga is Being Silently Slaughtered) is the movement spreading the truth about ISIS atrocities – including public beheadings, shootings, and bombings. It’s a terrifying story, never more so than during the professionally produced recruiting ISIS videos featuring young children. These brave folks have had friends, family and neighbors slaughtered which inspires them to continue fighting the guns and bombs with the power of words. It’s breathtaking.


DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

watch the trailer:

 


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

November 11, 2013

dallas1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for an actor or actress to alter their physical appearance for a movie role. Sometimes those changes become the story: Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist and Charlize Theron in Monster are a few that come to mind. Regardless of the transformation or make-up, what really matters is the performance and the character. Just ask Eddie Murphy (Norbit) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Shallow Hal). In Dallas Buyers Club, we actually get two incredible transformations that lead to two stunning performances.

dallas2 Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto each lost approximately 40 pounds for their respective roles as Ron Woodroof, the redneck, three-way loving, alcoholic, drug-addicted electrician/rodeo cowboy; and Rayon, the sensitive, street-savvy, would-be transsexual so desperate for a kind word. Their physical appearance will startle you more than once, but is quite effective in getting across the struggles of those infected with HIV virus in the 1980’s. The number of victims impacted exploded and the medical profession was ill-equipped to properly treat the patients.

This is based on a true story and a real life guy (Woodroof) who became a most unlikely beacon of hope for AIDS patients. Woodroof fought the medical industry, Pharmaceutical companies and the government (FDA, DEA, IRS). It’s impossible to miss the message and accusations that most of these had a single goal of increasing profits, rather than dallas3curing the disease. And that’s where the story lags a bit. Michael O’Neill and Dennis O’Hare are the faces of greed and bureaucracy, while Jennifer Garner, Leto, and Griffin Dunne represent the side with a heart (though Ms. Garner is clearly out of her class here). Woodroof seems to be a guy who just doesn’t want to die, sees a business opportunity, and even learns a little bit about humanity along the way.

There have been numerous other projects that deal with AIDS, including: Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. This may be the first with a protagonist who is distinctly unlikeable, despite his passion and strong survival instincts. McConaughey doesn’t shy away from the homophobic personality and cruel manner of speech that Woodroof possesses. We never doubt his frustration at those controlling the big picture, but we never really see him connect with those his brash tactics help.

dallas4 McConaughey is on a dream run as an actor right now, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see him garner an Oscar nomination. But it would be a mistake to chalk that up to his losing so much weight – he really delivers a character that we won’t soon forget. And let’s not overlook Mr. Leto, who has been away from acting for 4 years touring with his band. He is a remarkable talent and a true screen presence. Compare this role to his Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. It’s not just the range of weight, but moreso the range in acting that so impresses.

Also worth noting here is the outstanding cinematography of Yves Belanger. This movie is shot in a way that brings out the intimacy of the moment, while not losing the big picture. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and co-writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack work together for a solid foundation, but it’s McConaughey and Leto that we will most remember … and of course, the pics of the great Marc Bolan on the wall.

**NOTE: for you baseball fans, that is in fact slugger Adam Dunn as a bartender.  He was also an investor in the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two of the best and most startling acting performances of the year OR you want a glimpse at the confusion and panic that the AIDS epidemic brought to the mid 1980’s.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an elegant treatment of AIDS … this one will make your skin crawl.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvMPU0WaPcc


VALENTINE’S DAY (2010)

February 13, 2010

 (2-12-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Really no need to offer commentary on the story. If you have seen the preview (how could you have missed it?), you know it’s a major chick flick with a long list of Hollywood celebrities who come together and display the trials and tribulations that we have come to celebrate as Valentine’s Day – surely a concoction born of greeting card companies, florists and confectioneries.

For most of the movie, one song kept popping in my head – Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”. I have never seen so many beautiful people in one film. As you have noticed, the word “actor” has purposefully been avoided – celebrities and beautiful people are a more accurate description of what director Garry Marshall has delivered.

Thankfully, he tossed in Hector Elizonda, Shirley Maclaine and George Lopez or the movie might have done for plastic surgery what Urban Cowboy did for C&W dancing. On top of the beauty, we are subjected to an endless stream of downright SKINNY people! Everyone has noticed Taylor Swift is rail thin, but she doesn’t even stand out here. Jessica Biel, who once had a real-life body, looks cadaverous. Even her character exists on candy and treadmills. Throw in Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba, and one can make the argument that the cost for this cast was offset by the lack of necessity for an on-set lunch buffet.

Look, I realize this is just a chick flick comedy that is designed to poke a bit of fun at our need to love and be loved … or rather just not be alone. But a touch of reality could have helped. Raise your hand if you believe Julia Roberts might be miscast as the soldier returning home on leave from the front lines of war. Or that a brilliant doctor (Patrick Dempsey) might be a little more careful in covering his tracks of indiscretion? Or that Anne Hathaway couldn’t find a slightly more rewarding way to earn a living than her “phone entertainer” job?

Couldn’t help but notice the Pretty Woman connections with Garry Marshall, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizando and Larry Miller. Ms. Roberts even gets in a funny little jab over the closing credits. Some attempt was made to interconnect the multiple story lines and I do appreciate the struggle to show intimacy in the mess of Los Angeles … just too many obvious skits and stereotypes to make this anything more than a half-hearted effort by all involved.  And by “all”, I am including the 10-12 other “stars” that I have not named here.