THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE (2019)

July 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This special screening included a simulcast of the Red Carpet arrivals at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse hosted by Eric Davis of Fandango, and the broadcast went to many cities around the U.S. What immediately struck me from the interviews with writer-director Riley Stearns and co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola was how carefully they chose their words in describing the story and their characters. It was clear what we were about to watch was not just another acting gig, and certainly not some mainstream mush. According to those involved, this was something altogether different.

Casey Davies (Eisenberg) is a corporate accountant. He’s a meek guy. Casey is an outsider at work, and has no social life beyond his TV and devoted dachshund (because a poodle would be too obvious). To put it bluntly, he’s a lonely guy. One evening, whilst walking back from the grocery store to buy dog food, Casey is mugged and brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang. This leaves Casey not only alone and battered, but also afraid. His decision to buy a gun gets sidetracked when a local dojo catches his eye. He’s drawn to the whispered guidance of the Sensei (Nivola), and the confidence and power derived from the self-defense skills being taught.

Filmmaker Stearns takes on toxic masculinity in a subversive and satirical manner. His dark comedy is played straight by the participants, putting viewers in a state of awkward laughter and uncertain reactions to what we are witnessing. It’s both exaggerated and nuanced, as there are informative subtleties in both the dialogue and the mannerisms of the characters. Imogen Poots plays Anna, perhaps the most interesting character in the film. She’s a talented brown belt frustrated by her Sensei’s unwillingness to award her with a much-deserved black belt. Instead, she is relegated to teaching kids’ classes, and only gets to shine in the mysterious night classes. It’s a shame this role wasn’t expanded to take advantage of Ms. Poots’ talent.

Ah yes, the night classes. Participants must be personally invited by Sensei, and it’s here where Casey finally begins to understand the dark forces at work. Henry, played by David Zellner (co-producer with his brother Nathan) is so desperate for Sensei’s stamp of approval that he makes the tragic mistake of attending night class without being invited. The violence in the film elevates quickly.

We witness the changes in Casey as he gains confidence, and the many transitions in his life take the form of shifting colors, foreign language and music. Misogyny and toxic masculinity were also addressed in the recent action-comedy STUBER, but here, Mr. Stearns’ voice challenges us to analyze what we are laughing at. Nivola’s Sensei is simultaneously funny and frightening, and demented and enlightened. The insecurities that accompany the male ego are contrasted with the extra hurdles women must clear to be accepted as equals. These people could possibly be caricatures, but possibly not. There is much confusion over how to be a man in today’s world – what it means, how to act, how to control sparks of aggression, how to prevent the misuse of power. We watch as Casey becomes so similar to those he so despised. We also learn that the Alpha male may not be male after all. These are some serious topics buried within the lesson of “kick with your hands and punch with your feet.” It’s an offbeat film presented in a way that makes us sit up and take note.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (2019)

March 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. More. Better. Faster. Most industries have those goals, and this story from French-Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen focuses on high-frequency stock traders … particularly a race between two competitive firms to cut one millisecond off the processing time. We learn that one millisecond is roughly one flap of a hummingbird wing (hence the film’s title).

We also learn that one millisecond can translate into hundreds of millions in profits, which is why cousins Vincent and Anton walk away from their jobs at the Eva Torres brokerage firm to pursue their dream of shaving that single millisecond. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking visionary and deal-maker, while Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the computer programming whiz. Yes, you read that correctly. Sex symbol Skarsgard (“True Blood”, “Big Little Lies”) plays a paunchy, balding, computer nerd with zero social skills. He also delivers the film’s most enjoyable dance moves … it’s a moment to which any programmer can relate.

If any of the above (other than Anton’s dance) seems the least bit exciting or enticing, you should know that the bulk of the film deals with the digging and drilling (there’s even a montage) required to lay the fiber optic cable that will allow this extra-quick data delivery. Their plan is to tunnel from Kansas City to New Jersey in a perfectly straight line. Because of this, we get conversations with homeowners, conversations with Amish, conversations with drilling experts, and conversations with those who want this to happen, and those who don’t. Have you ever thought about drilling through a granite mountain that is located in the middle of a park? Neither have I, and I wouldn’t have thought of it again if not for writing this review.

To clarify, this is a story that seems like it could be true, but isn’t. Most of the screen time is devoted to either underground drilling, computer programming, or intellectual property. And while I’m sure each of these categories have their fans, most will agree the transfer to cinema does not come off especially entertaining. In fact, it’s so dry that the filmmaker felt the need to include a cancer sub-plot in hopes that we might find Vincent a bit more appealing as a character. It should be noted that since his Oscar nomination for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mr. Eisenberg has displayed a remarkable lack of variation in the roles he’s chosen and characters he’s played. At this point, we mostly just find him annoying, rather than brilliant or even mildly interesting.

Salma Hayek plays Eva Torres, former boss of the cousins, and now laser-focused in not letting the boys win. Ms. Hayek is given relatively little screen time, and is portrayed as the villain … although her goals are no different than Vincent’s and Anton’s. Michael Mando plays Mark Vega, the partner and drilling expert the boys choose to project manage this undertaking. Mr. Mando is best known as Nacho from both “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”. Ayisha Issa brings a momentary jolt to the proceedings as a mountain driller, but the film simply drags when neither Mr. Skarsgard nor Ms. Hayek are on screen.

Technology is a very difficult topic to make visually entertaining. I’m not talking about the high-tech special effects that go into making the wildly successful superhero movies that are so popular these days. No, I’m referring to actual technology … programming and data analysis. The list of technology-focused films includes: SNEAKERS, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, OFFICE SPACE, HACKERS, WAR GAMES, SWORDFISH, and THE IMITATION GAME. The best of these understood that the story around the technology was more vital than the actual programming being done. And all of them were wise enough to avoid drilling and digging. Then again, none of the others featured a dancing Skarsgard.

watch the trailer:

 


CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

watch the trailer:

 


LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016)

April 29, 2016

louder than bombs Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just can’t “get over it”. Three years after a war photographer dies in a suspicious car accident, her husband and two sons find themselves in various states of emotional distress. Everyone deals with guilt in their own way, but these three seem to be doing anything and everything to avoid actually dealing with the emotional fallout.

Writer/director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31) delivers his first English-speaking film with an assist from co-writer Eskil Vogt and a terrific cast. As we would expect from Mr. Trier, it’s a visually stylish film with some stunning images … and the timeline is anything but simple as we bounce from past to present, and from the perspective of different characters (sometimes with the same scene).

The creativity involved with the story telling and technical aspects have no impact whatsoever on the pacing. To say that the film is meticulously paced would be a kind way of saying many viewers may actually get restless/bored with how slowly things move at times. Trier uses this pacing to help us experience some of the frustration and discomfort that each of the characters feel.

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother/wife in some wonderful flashback and dream-like sequences, while Gabriel Byrne plays her surviving husband. Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, and Devin Druid as Conrad are the sons, and as brothers they struggle to connect with each other … just as the father struggles to connect with each of them. In fact, it’s a film filled with characters who lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to others. It’s no mystery why they are each miserable in their own way. The suppressed emotions are at times overwhelming, and it’s especially difficult to see the youngest son struggle with social aspects of high school … it’s a spellbinding performance from Devin Druid (“Olive Kitteridge”).

Jesse Eisenberg manages to tone down his usual hyper-obnoxious mannerisms, yet still create the most unlikable character in the film … and that’s saying a lot. Mr. Byrne delivers a solid performance as the Dad who is quite flawed, and other supporting work is provided by David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The shadow cast by this woman is enormous and deep … and for nearly two hours we watch the family she left behind come to grips with her death and each other. It’s a film done well, but only you can decide if it sounds like a good way to spend two hours.

watch the trailer:

 

 


NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

June 4, 2013

now you see1 Greetings again from the darkness. Come on … who wouldn’t get excited about a movie that mixes magic with the heist genre, and fills the cast with stars old and new? Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) is clearly engaged with the material, and maybe his vision of “just one more twist” is what keeps it from reaching the next level.

Magic is inherently a very difficult subject for movies. Why? Because with magic, human nature is such that we are always trying to “catch” the sleight of hand. With movies, we have come to accept the fact that any special effect is possible. We rarely ask “how”. That kind of takes away the mystique, eh? Maybe the best magic movie to date is The Prestige, but even that movie was made stronger by the story of its characters … something this latest lacks.

now you see2 Heist movies, on the other hand, have historically produced some of the most fun and thrilling times on screen. Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job are just two examples of clever, almost light-hearted heist films that are also thrillers.  Everyone loves a clever caper … so long as we aren’t on the wrong end. What doesn’t work in either genre, and especially when they are blended, is a story that defies logic. We don’t mind being tricked. In fact, it’s kind of fun getting to the end and realizing you are part of the “gotcha”. What we don’t like is being cheated.

This premise is terrific. An unknown benefactor secretly assembles The Four Horsemen – a hand-picked (by a hoodie dude) group consisting of Jessie Eisenberg, the smug super-illusionist; Woody Harrelson, the wise-cracking mentalist; tart escape artist now you see4(think Houdini with piranha) Isla Fisher; and street-hustler pickpocket (Artful Dodger type) Dave Franco. The group is bank rolled by industrial tycoon Michael Caine, and is soon enough headlining a giant Las Vegas extravaganza. Their first trick is to rob a French bank vault by transporting an audience member, video streaming the job, and showering the audience with the stolen cash. They do this under the watchful eye of magic naysayer Morgan Freeman, a huckster who earns a buck exposing the tricks of magicians.

Soon enough, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent, so stunning as the theatre owner in Inglourious Basterds) are working together trying to stop the next job, which Morgan Freeman has warned them is really a set-now you see3up for a huge finale. The movie has some really fun moments, but with all of Morgan Freeman’s warnings that we (and Ruffalo) are always a step behind, we can’t help but think ahead … and there is only one super twist that makes all of this click.

In fact, I would argue that there are too many twists here. The basic story was enough and the movie would have benefited from us getting to better know the main characters. Instead, they are merely chess pieces who spout one-liners in order. In particular, the characters of Woody Harrelson and Melanie Laurent could have gone much deeper. But that clashes with what the filmmakers were after … big, fast, wild, glitzy, cute, clever, and twisty. Just don’t be tricked into thinking. Turn off your brain and take in the wild, twisty ride … even if it does defy logic, and remember … “it’s all part of the show”.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a wild cinematic ride without thinking too much OR you’ve always wanted to see Common play air-violin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy solving the movie mysteries before the solutions are revealed OR in these tough economic times, you are looking for real bank heist tips (sorry to disappoint)

watch the trailer:

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


TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)

July 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I certainly consider myself a fan of Woody Allen‘s films and am in awe of his prolific ability to write and direct a new movie most every year since 1969. With so many films to his credit, it’s expected that a few will be clunkers. After a pretty nice run of non-New York based films, his love letter to Rome falls short … not from lack of ambition, but rather from a feeling that these stories have been on his “to do” list for too many years. They feel mostly stale and dated.

With one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities as a backdrop, Mr. Allen delivers four stories – none of which intersect with the others. There are some similar shared themes, but mostly what the four stories have in common is mass overacting by all involved. Surprisingly, the one exception might be Alec Baldwin, whose wise-cracking lines are played pretty close to the vest. Unfortunately, all of the other key actors seem to think they are onstage at a dinner theatre and that hyper-activity and bellowing one’s lines are required.

In one story, Woody Allen (his first acting gig since Scoop) and Judy Davis head to Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) fiancé (Flavio Parenti). Allen overhears the mortician father singing in the shower and works out a scheme to get him an audition that could lead to a career. The father is played by famed Opera tenor Fabio Armiliato and this story is so goofy, it could easily fit into Allen’s “early funny ones”.

Another story has newlyweds played by Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandro Mastronardi in a series of innocent happenstance that leads to some not so innocent events that include her favorite actor (Antonio Albanes) and high-priced call girl (Penelope Cruz). Most of this has the feel of a Benny Hill skit.

Jesse Eisenberg and his girlfriend Greta Gerwig share time with her visiting friend played by Ellen Page. This is the Alec Baldwin sequence, and he is a near-ghost-like entity who pops in to provide obvious advice or warning to the players so they don’t make the same mistakes he made as a younger man. This sequence had potential, but never amounted to much.

The fourth story is just an absurd commentary on reality TV and instant fame. Roberto Begnini plays a normal Italian citizen and family man who one day gets thrust into the world of celebrity for no apparent reason. See, that’s the joke. Probably ten years past the time when this was relevant.

Bashing Woody Allen is not my intent here. Simply pointing out that there are four stories and numerous actors and none of it struck a chord with me. Not to say there weren’t a few well written lines and a couple of terrific shots of Rome … just not enough to keep me going for two hours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need your annual Woody Allen fix, even if it’s not up to the level of last year’s Midnight in Paris OR you just want to see Penelope Cruz in a red dress that’s probably two sizes too small for her.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: catching a few glimpses of the amazing sites in Rome is not enough reason for you to sit through some of Woody Allen’s worst written dialogue in years.

watch the trailer:


THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

October 2, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a film with good genes. It’s based on Ben Mezrich‘s novel “The Accidental Billionaires”, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) and directed by one of the best directors working today, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac). The film is dialogue driven and my advice is to shift your ears into turbo-mode to keep up. These Harvard types never stammer and are quite speedy in making their oh-so-clever points.

This film is not so much the history of Facebook as it is a glimpse into the individuals behind the idea. Foremost, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg (played with rapid-fire tunnel vision by Jesse Eisenberg). The programming guru behind the code, Zuckerberg is depicted as a guy who is not just socially inept, but also unaware of social mores and code. I am not sure if he is best described as a prodigy, genius or even (possibly) a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome. Whatever he is/was, he became a billionaire in his early 20’s by proving he could put together the world’s dominant social network while having no redeeming social or relationship skills of his own. Fascinating.

Zuckerberg’s best and only friend (and business partner) is Eduardo Saverin (played by the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield). Saverin fronted the money to get Facebook started and was one of the parties who brought suit against Zuckerberg, claiming he was cheated out his place in the company.

The third key player is the infamous Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake). Founder of Napster and Plaxo, Parker manages to get his hooks into Zuckerberg and apparently was behind the snubbing of Saverin. This is the most charismatic role in the film (and real life), yet also the role that may have the most dramatic license taken in the film.

The story is told in non-linear form, weaving multiple depositions from different lawsuits. One includes the Winklevoss twins from Harvard who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. They later settled for millions.

As I said, this is not so much a history of Facebook as it is a display of the characters involved. These are all brilliant people who are also ignorant to the ways of the world. It seems they all have significantly different goals, yet never really stop to agree on strategy. Instead, the site growth is non-stop, as is the back-stabbing.

Interestingly, the film uses a girl (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene as the single biggest influence on Zuckerberg’s brainstorm. Her rejection of his self-centered speed-talking kicks his creative wheels into motion and his relentless energy never slows for the rest of the story. One thing is clear, Zuckerberg did not single-handedly create Facebook and there is little doubt some key people were given short straws along the way. No way to discern what really happened as all that was battled out behind closed doors in sealed records and settlements. What we do know is that Facebook now has over 500 million users worldwide.

This is an extremely well crafted movie, though in my opinion, none of the acting is up to the script. It’s a film that provides enough insight into the players and enough entertainment for the ticket. That’s really sufficient. Some are proclaiming this as a Best Picture contender.  It may very well get enough momentum to be nominated, but here’s hoping this isn’t the year’s best.  Coming next … David Fincher is set to direct and Rooney Mara is cast as Lisbeth in the Americanized version of the fabulous Swedish hit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So enjoy this one and look forward to that!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the 500 million Facebook users OR you thrill to the challenge of high-voltage, college-genius dialogue that always instantaneously delivers the single best comeback possible.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think every person has redeeming value OR you have to ask “What is Facebook?”