HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018)

June 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film’s real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can’t treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals – the element that can’t just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He’s a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city’s carnage – though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we’ve previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe … missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It’s just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn’t at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven’t seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013’s ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, “California Dreamin’”) earns some bonus points, it’s really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.

watch the trailer:

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MONEY MONSTER (2016)

May 15, 2016

Money Monster Greetings again from the darkness. Adam McKay and Michael Lewis sought to educate us on the corruption and deceit within the marrow of the financial world in The Big Short. Director Jodie Foster and three writers (Jim Kouf, Alan DiFiore, Jamie Linden) scale things way back to show the effects on a single, working class man … and how Wall Street and the media conspire to make it hard on us little guys.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer type cable news financial guru … the kind of media star who makes an Apollo Creed style entrance (complete with “dancing”) for each segment. Julia Roberts plays Patty, the show’s ultra-talented producer, and the one who keeps Gates and the show from flying off the rails. It’s just another typically hectic day in the studio, when the show is abruptly interrupted by a man who charges the stage pointing a gun at Gates. Kyle (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) has a few things to get off his chest, and makes it clear that he blames Gates for a recent financial loss … and he expects some answers.

It turns out that Gates had presented a recent investment as a sure thing, and Kyle believed him. When that company lost $800 million overnight, Kyle’s loss was his $60,000 nest egg. Kyle represents the work-class folks who are simply fed up with the lies and manipulation for which the media and Wall Street seeming conspire on a regular basis.

It’s Jodie Foster’s first directorial outing since The Beaver (2011), and she seems at home with a straight-forward hostage-for-admission story. Created for a mass audience (no segment or issue goes too deep), there are snippets of Clooney and Roberts humor that will satisfy their fans. The three most interesting characters are the gun-wielding, end-of-the rope Kyle; his pissed-with-a-twist girlfriend played by Emily Meade (who provides the film a lift when it’s needed); and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the communications officer for the evil corporation at the heart of the swindle.

As with so many things these days, the hostage ordeal plays out on TV and captures the limited attention span of average Americans … heck, the film even references the OJ Simpson event. Of course, this film isn’t an instigator, but rather an exhibitor – a mirror of the times. Once the spectacle ends, everyone returns to their normal activities.

Since this thriller really only offers a few moments of real suspense, viewers might have more fun spotting and identifying the multitude of cable TV faces sprinkled throughout. The 1970’s were the era for extraordinary conspiracy movies, and this one is less Network or Chinatown, and more like Phone Booth or John Q. ‘Forget it Kyle. It’s Wall Street (and cable news).’

watch the trailer:

 

 


ELYSIUM (2013)

August 11, 2013

elysium1 Greetings again from the darkness. Social commentary does not automatically make a movie “smart”. In fact, commentary done poorly could be labeled the exact opposite. Writer/Director Neil Blomkamp‘s critically acclaimed sci-fi feature District 9 was creative in its approach to social issues. Unfortunately, his follow-up is a sloppy, big budget mess with too many writing shortcuts and what may be the worst performances of Jodie Foster‘s career.

Earth in the year 2154 is an over-populated, polluted, ecological disaster that looks like what we saw in Wall-E, only with people. Earth is so bad, it has been evacuated by the ultra-rich … an obvious statement on the “one percenters”. The poor and downtrodden earthlings spend their lives dreaming of getting to Elysium, the space station paradise that houses the elite and is only a 19 minute shuttle ride away. On Elysium, the houses are stunning and the elysium2lawns perfectly manicured. Oh, and technology has re-imagined tanning booths into a medical marvel that can cure anything from zits to cancer. This advancement is the main reason earthlings risk everything to reach Elysium. See those poor folks have only shoddy hospitals … an obvious statement on universal healthcare.

After an industrial accident, Max (Matt Damon) is desperate to reach Elysium so he can save his own life. As expected, his selfishness evolves into focused heroism after he runs into his childhood crush Frey (Alice Braga) and her leukemia-stricken daughter. Getting yourself to Elysium is not so easy thanks to the protective nature of Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). She is working with greedy businessman William Fichtner and earth-based mercenary Sharlto Copley to plot her political coup on Elysium … just in case you forgot that the rich are really bad people.  Copley is by far the most entertaining aspect of this movie.  Even though we can’t understand half his dialogue, it’s much easier to take elysium3than whatever the heck that accent is that Ms. Foster is throwing at us.

There is a data theft plot that, in the right hands, could open up the Elysium advantages to the entire population … an obvious statement on open immigration. In between all of the political statements Blomkamp does throw in plenty of explosions, gun fights, aggressive robots and enough CGI effects to keep any sci-fi fan entertained. There is even a battle of exoskeleton suits between Copley and Damon. Where Arnold once said “Get your a** to Mars“, I can’t in good faith say the same thing about Elysium.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are addicted to Sci-Fi and don’t even mind if it’s poorly imagined … fisticuffs in an era of immediate medical healings??

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Sci-Fi on the cerebral side rather than political

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha6zWw5saGY


CARNAGE

January 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four strong actors in one upper crust Manhattan condo for 79 minutes is a good first step. A script adapted by the director Roman Polanski and the original playwright Yasmina Reza makes for a strong second step. So why isn’t this film more effective? The belief here is that this one simply works better as a play. That’s not to say the dialogue and flow aren’t impressive, it’s just that as a viewer, we are distracted by the look and feel of a play being presented on screen rather than live on stage.

The story opens with four well-groomed adults huddled around a computer putting the finishing touches on a joint statement regarding a playground incident between their two 11 year old sons. The Longstreet’s (Jodie Foster, John C Reilly) son ended up getting whacked in the face with a stick by the Cowan’s (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) son. We witness the incident from a distance over the opening credits, totally oblivious to the spoken words from the boys involved.

 After one minor compromise on wording, the statement is complete and the Cowan’s move to make a graceful exit from the Longstreet’s home. Instead, we get the first of four or five “almost” escapes as one after another particularly irksome claim or accusation is made by one of the participants, and the war of words moves back inside. The genius of the story comes from watching the gradual dismantling of social graces as these four people work through the full spectrum of human emotions related to, not just their son’s actions, but also the words and actions of each other. Think of it as an updated yuppie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

We see homemade cobbler transition to coffee and finally to whiskey. Each change coincides with personality changes and a constant shifting of alliances within the group. These are four normally civilized people play-acting like this emotional topic can be handled without emotion. One particular occurrence is quite off-putting for both the viewer and our on screen party of four. It creates quite a mess on the coffee table, and immediately intensifies the level of apologizing and philosophizing.

 There are at least three interesting social commentaries being made here. First, parents tend to defend their own children no matter the situation. Second, today’s parents mistakenly believe that 11 year olds should behave like mature adults. They have forgotten that social and coping skills are learned through playground disputes. Third, no matter how educated or well-mannered we show on the outside, we all have the need and desire to be respected and deemed correct in our judgments.

You may not learn a great deal from this one, but I bet you find yourself paying particular attention to your own debate strategy the next time you are in a social environment. It is certainly a treat to watch four standout actors having such a good time with words.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see adults arguing like teenagers while pretending to be acting like adults.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a harsh dose of human nature is not why you head to the movies.

watch the trailer:


THE BEAVER

May 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Clearly, depression is no laughing matter for anyone who suffers from it, or their friends, family or co-workers. But a puppet? Speaking as someone who is not qualified to speak on the topic, I do see how the puppet thing might be good therapy for someone who is depressed and has lost their “voice”. But a movie about it?

The good news … IF I were going to make a movie about a depressed dude who talks through a puppet, I would cast Mel Gibson. If the premise is ever going to be believable or watchable, Mel is the man to make it happen. Director Jodie Foster fully understood this and was willing to take the financial risk of having PR-nightmare Gibson attached.

 The frustrating part is that he almost pulls it off, despite the fact that he is TALKING THROUGH A PUPPET most of the movie. We get to see a puppet co-star in a heavy-handed drama, not a comedy like what would come to your mind when you think of a puppet movie. This puppet shares family meals, board meetings, and love-making. Yep, really.

Mr. Gibson proves again what a terrific actor he can be, though at times, I had difficulty not thinking of his real life personal escapades as the on screen drama was playing out. The opening shot of a beleaguered Gibson adrift in a pool makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction. Plus I found Gibson’s choice of mimicking Ray Winstone‘s voice for the puppet to be quite distracting.

 I actually found the sub-plot with the oldest son, played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) to be far more interesting. His rogue business and pursuit of cheerleader/valedictorian Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) was very intriguing. Ms. Foster not only directs, but also plays the wife/mother who provides far more patience and trust than her husband probably deserved. 

Seeing this movie back-to-back with Everything Must Go just about sent me into depression overload. All the puppet movie really showed me was that Gibson can still act and that Foster is still a fine actress and director, despite the material … and a puppet.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fascinated by the train-wreck known as Mel Gibson OR you have a “thing” for puppets

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think the movie MUST be better than it looks in the trailer OR you can’t wait to see a puppet teach some manners to Mel.


TAXI DRIVER (1976) revisited

February 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  I was excited to hear Dallas Morning News film critic Chris Vognar  put together a monthly film series focusing on the 1970’s.  The first showing was last night and, of course, I attended … Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.  The biggest surprise of the evening came when Mr. Vognar asked for a show of hands from those who had not previously seen the film … approximately HALF admitted it was their first time. 

Now I have seen the film 12-15 times, and last night made the third time on the big screen – counting the first time which was at a Drive-In!  The surprising thing about the first timers was that they were somehow drawn to it 35 years after release, but had never felt strongly enough to rent the video or include on their NetFlix list.  Maybe it was the lure of the Q&A with a noted film critic or maybe they just wanted it in a theatre setting.  Either way, it was very interesting to hear crowd reactions from so many who were witnessing the Schrader/Scorcese work for the first time.

 Whether you have seen the film or not, chances are good that you are familiar with the “You talking to me?” scene.  Robert DeNiro improvised the scene including the key line “Well I’m the only one here.”  That line goes straight to the theme of isolation and alienation that runs throughout.  Another interesting aspect to consider is the similarity between this film and John Ford’s classic The Searchers.  Both include no-holds-barred rescue missions (by war veterans losing their grip) to save a girl who may or may not want to be rescued.  In The Searchers, it’s Natalie Wood with the Comanche Indians; and here it’s 12 year old Jodie Foster with her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel

Taxi Driver certainly takes on a different look today, than it did when it was first released.  It was surely not endorsed by the New York Chamber of Commerce as we spend two hours in the filthiest, most crime-addled areas of the city.  Of course, today, much of that same area is touristy and revenue-producing (in a legal way!).  The campaigning by the slick politician and his idealistic supporters (Albert Brooks, Cybill Shepherd) ring as true today as then … kind of sad more progress hasn’t been made.

 This is a very tough film about one man’s slow descent from sanity caused by a seemingly impossible dream of cleaning up the streets of the city and the morals of its inhabitants.  The isolation and alienation themes hold up well today, and though it may not be Scorcese’s absolute best, it could be DeNiro’s rawest performance.  For a chuckle (you’ll need it after watching it), imagine the film directed by Brian DePalma (Scarfaceand starring Dustin Hoffman … it almost happened!

Next month’s showing is the underrated Hal Ashby/Robert Towne 1973 film The Last Detail, which features a 35 year old Jack Nicholson in full scene-chewing glory … one of my all-time favorites!