AN ACTOR PREPARES (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does a kid ever lose hope that what was once a horrible/absentee parent might magically evolve into a dependable, caring parent – even as an adult? Is it ever too late for that parent to make amends? Director Steve Clark co-wrote this story with Thomas Moffett about a narcissistic actor (is there any other type?) and his feeling-slighted grown son being forced to take a road trip that likely won’t lead to bonding, but could result in their better understanding each other.

The film opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the Hollywood sign and the glittering lights below. It’s fitting since a big part of the story is the level of entitlement and garish ego proliferating the industry that put the town on the map. Legendary actor Atticus Smith is being presented a lifetime achievement award. We see that his career has been widely diverse with project titles ranging from the legitimate sounding “The Language of Men” to those with significantly more shock value like “Throwdown at Bitch River”. His speech is quite awkward, but it serves well as our introduction to the character which Jeremy Irons makes his own.

Mr. Irons goes over-the-top to play Atticus. His blustery mannerisms, ever-present scarf, and center-of-attention-seeking personality dominate much of the film and allow us to understand why his grown son Adam (Jack Huston) carries such a grudge for the man who never really tried to be his father, and who readily admits that the younger daughter (Mamie Gummer) is his favorite. It’s really the only empathy we can muster for Adam, since he early on establishes himself as a pretty unlikeable and quite annoying professor of film. In his first scene, he actually tries to lecture a class of female students on the real meaning of feminism (the class is “Cinema through a Feminist Lens”). The next time we see him, he’s being rude to his father Atticus, who has just suffered a heart attack. You know the type.

It’s that heart attack that puts these men together on the road – initially in a luxury tour bus, and later in a classic Plymouth Barracuda. Their destination is the daughter’s wedding, and the trip includes stops at the Chateau Marmont and The Drake Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, we see a bit more of a post-shower Atticus than we would prefer, watch one of the worst baseball scenes in movie history, and witness Atticus sneaking booze and porn on the bus, and then finally drugging his son.

The title of the film comes from a book by acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski, which makes total sense once we realize these two men have been acting their way through life. Adam is terrified of becoming a parent like his father, keeps his own health issues a secret, and is apparently inept at documentary filmmaking, which he claims as his profession. On the trip, Atticus is prepping for his next role – he is to play God, which he seems to think is perfect casting … although the studio and his manager (Ben Schwartz) are quite concerned about his health.

Mr. Huston does finally bring his character along to the point where he seems more tolerable, and the film might surprise you on where it ends. There is some decent comedy and a yin and yang with father and son that adds enough entertainment value, as long as you can enjoy the flamboyant approach taken by the venerable Mr. Irons.

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HIGH-RISE (2016)

May 12, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

high rise Greetings again from the darkness. When a novel has been deemed “unfilmable” for forty years, perhaps the designation should be honored, rather than accepted as a challenge. That said, there is probably a cult-like movie lurking somewhere in and around director Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, 2011) personal spin on the 1975 novel from J.G. Ballard (who also penned “Crash” and “Empire of the Sun”).

Amy Jump adapted the screenplay from Ballard’s novel, and in the blink of an eye, the tone shifts from a microcosm of a decaying society and class warfare to all-out anarchy and hedonism. What’s fascinating is that the talented cast nearly rescues the film from the misguided script. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Laing, a physiologist who moves into the futuristic (for the 1970’s) monolith, seemingly naïve to the wicked ways of this insular community. Sienna Miller plays Charlotte, a fellow middle-class resident, who not only crushes on Laing, but also seems to know where the skeletons are buried. On the Terrace level, the always entertaining Jeremy Irons plays Royal, the building’s architect and overseer … a kind of great and powerful Oz. An unrecognizable Luke Evans (out of his usual pretty boy mode) is stellar as the aptly named Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who adds a dose of skepticism towards the building – in contrast to Laing’s innocent approach.

Beginning at the macabre ending, the film then flashes back to “3 months earlier” as Laing first moves into the building. This device is the only semblance of time provided throughout. We witness how quickly Laing takes to the sport of social climbing, buddying up to Royal, and joining in with the communal decadence.

Power outages, orgies, class warfare and enough cigarettes to qualify as a non-smoking PSA, the film seems intent on ensuring viewers remain disoriented as to the reasons for mass chaos. The building itself could be considered a character, and certainly the use of mirrors and a kaleidoscope makes a statement … even while we hear multiple versions of Abba’s “SOS”. Black comedies typically make the best cult movies, and though this one is filled with aberrant and deviant behavior, it’s somehow not quite twisted enough … or at least not properly twisted for viewer fun. Beyond that, it comes across as an expression of filmmaker anger rather than the commentary on British infrastructure that Ballard intended.

**NOTE: I’m sure the similarities of the movie poster to that of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is no coincidence, although that’s a pretty ambitious stretch for High-Rise.

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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2016)

April 30, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

man who knew infinity Greetings again from the darkness. When one imagines the most exciting topics for movies, mathematics tends to fall pretty far down the list. Heck, most students only take math classes because they have no choice, so why should anyone be interested in the story of a young Indian man who revolutionized the mathematics world at Trinity College in Cambridge in the early 20th century?  The reason is that Srinivasa Ramanujan’s personal story is about more than numbers … it’s about faith and passion and overcoming life’s obstacles.

The story also has an intriguing by-product of demonstrating the difference between intelligence and genius. Trinity College at Cambridge was staffed by some of the smartest, best-educated professors on the planet when this self-taught odd young man appeared with ideas and notebooks filled with equations and concepts that most couldn’t even fathom, much less accept.

Dev Patel plays Ramanujan, the spirited man from Madras India who accepted his remarkable talent as a gift from God. His initially difficult relationship with Trinity Professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) was a clash of two men whose passion for math far eclipsed their comfort in the real world. Hardy was a bit of an outcast at the university, while Ramanujan struggled to provide for his new wife, and had little patience for those who doubted his work.

Writer/director Matt Brown doesn’t seem to believe that the relationship between these two gentlemen is strong enough to hold a mainstream audience, so he commits what comes across as an excessive amount of time to the long-distance battles of the wife and mother of this genius. On the math side, Mr. Brown doesn’t allow us to get lost in minutiae of math equations, but also misses the mark on just how groundbreaking and extraordinary Ramanujan’s work was. There is little doubt that the story of genius, when combined with the abrasive mentorship, racism, elitism and health challenges provides more than enough material to keep us glued to the screen. The rest is merely distracting.

Strong support work is provided by Toby Jones (as Littlewood), Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam (as Bertrand Russell), but it’s Patel and Irons who carry the weight here. It’s especially rewarding to see Irons as a co-lead again. There have been other popular math movies like A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and Proof, but it’s The Theory of Everything that seems to have the most in common with the story of Ramanujan and Hardy. So give it a shot … and remember to show your work!

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THE WORDS (2012)

September 17, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Kids and dogs. They can get away with just being cute. Screenwriters don’t get to settle for cute. Their words must deliver a story that we care about. First time co-directors Brian Klugman (Jack’s nephew) and Lee Sternthal also co-wrote this script (and the story for Tron: Legacy). Their idea is cute. A movie featuring a story within a story within a story within a story. Unfortunately, the third level brings the film crashing down towards a conclusion that is so poorly presented, that the good parts of the film are quickly forgotten.

Rory Jansen (played by Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who is sitting on two unpublished novels. Dora, his extremely supportive girlfriend (a requirement for a struggling writer) is played by Zoe Saldana (showing much more range than Avatar allowed). They receive financial support from Rory’s good as gold dad played by JK Simmons. Rory takes a job in the mailroom at a publisher and tries to keep writing. It’s clear he’s going nowhere despite his dream of becoming the next great American novelist. And then … just like THAT … his life changes. He discovers a manuscript hidden in the secondhand leather portfolio that Dora bought him. Rory confronts the Faustian dilemma in a way that either changes who he is, or exposes who he is.

The manuscript is published and Rory becomes famous and rich. And they all live happily ever after. Well, until one day Rory is reading in the park when an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) strikes up a conversation. Soon, he is deep into the story about the events that motivated him to write the story some 60 years ago. It’s a fascinating love story that combines war, Paris, heart-breaking loss and true love. In other words, the kind of real life story that creates a story like the one Rory is getting credit for. Plagiarism is a horrible crime and intrusion made most humiliating once exposed.

The flashbacks during the re-telling of the Old Man’s story are extremely well done (featuring Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder) and make a terrific parallel to Rory and Dora’s story. Unfortunately, the bookend structure around these stories involves Dennis Quaid as an author at a reading of his most recent book. He has actually written the story that we have just seen. Yes, the one involving Rory and the Old Man. The film plays it coy as to what the real source is for Quaid’s book, but at this point, we just don’t care. If we aren’t disappointed enough, we get Olivia Wilde as a grad student plusting after Quaid and the story behind the story. Talk about letting the air out of the balloon! Their scenes together are excruciatingly bad.

In real life, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife really did leave the originals of his early writings on a train, lost to the world forever. That forms the basis for this film, but as is often the case, real life proves much more interesting than fiction. On the plus side, Bradley Cooper steps up from his lackluster string of performances to show he has more to offer than just being cute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Bradley Cooper flash some acting chops OR like me, you always give a shot to films about writers

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hope to protect yourself from the excruciatingly painful scenes featuring Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde OR you get really annoyed when screenwriters ruin a promising premise by trying to be too cute

watch the trailer:


MARGIN CALL

October 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It is absolutely understandable if you have reached your limit for dissecting and analyzing the 2008 financial crisis. However, if you can’t get enough, or are still trying to find someone to blame for looting half your retirement plan, this film offers a different perspective and one that proves more identifiable and personal. Wall Street is the new favorite bad guy in Hollywood these days and here we get faces for the targets.

Hopefully you saw Inside Job, a fine documentary that provided an overview of the collapse. HBO’s Too Big To Fail gave us a glimpse inside the Fed’s decision making process during the crisis. This movie narrows the focus down to a singular investment bank. Writer/Director JC Chandor serves up a dramatized story that begins with massive layoffs. We see the hatchet crew arriving replete with security escorts, as high paid executives are led out to the sidewalk. Stanley Tucci plays a middle manager in the Risk-Analysis department. As he is headed to the curb, he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to finish it and “be careful”.

 Flash forward a few hours and the surviving staff heads out for celebratory drinks while Quinto’s character starts churning away on Tucci’s formula. Once he realizes that the risk formulas on MBS (mortgage backed securities) show threatened stability of the firm, he places an emergency call. It is quite interesting to see how this emergency escalates as we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy within the firm … Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker. This culminates in a late night conference room meeting when the CEO (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter.

 There are so many facets to this story. We see how some are in the game for money. Penn Badgley says it’s all he ever wanted to do, but his obsessive behavior over the income of each manager shows us why. Paul Bettany is a middle manager who realizes the “killers” such as Simon Baker have passed him by. Demi Moore plays the type who doesn’t mind finding a fall guy, as long as it’s not her. Kevin Spacey is 30+ year career man who has survived many crisis by being loyal to the firm, while also doing right by the client. Jeremy Irons is the charming, powerful CEO who laughs about being as smart as a Golden Retriever, but laser-focused on keeping the firm viable.

 What you can’t help but notice is the number of managers who point out that they don’t understand the charts and graphs and numbers, and just need someone to explain it to them in “plain English”. We also see self-preservation at its finest/worst and the struggle that some of the characters have in deciding what is the “right thing to do”. It is not surprising, yet frightening still, to see that the red flags were flying before anyone acknowledged their presence. No one wants to be the one to shut down a party.

When the CEO says the three ways to win are to: “be first, be smartest or cheat”, we realize huge decisions are made only in the best interest of the firm … not the economy, and certainly not an individual investor. Although this investment firm remains nameless through the film, I did find it interesting that Irons’ character name is John Tuld.  John Tuld … Dick Fuld … Just sayin’!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want as many perspectives as possible on what caused this latest financial meltdown OR you have any remaining doubts that corporations make decisions based on their own best not interest.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2008 is in your rearview mirror and you have no interest in looking back OR your blood pressure shoots up any time someone mentions Wall Street, investment bankers, etc.

watch the trailer: