GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.

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LOVING (2016)

November 12, 2016

loving Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are sound asleep in bed with your significant other. It’s the middle of the night. Suddenly, the sheriff and his deputies crash through your bedroom door with pistols drawn and flashlights blinding you. You are both taken into custody. For most of us, this would be a terrible nightmare. For Mildred and Richard Loving, it was their reality in June of 1958. Their crime was not drug-dealing, child pornography, or treason. Their crime was marriage. Interracial marriage.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) proves again he has a distinct feel and sensitivity for the southern way. There is nothing showy about his style, and in fact, his storytelling is at its most effective in the small, intimate moments … he goes quiet where other filmmakers would go big. Rather than an overwrought political statement, Nichols keeps the focus on two people just trying to live their life together.

Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a bricklayer and man of few words. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, a quietly wise and observant woman. Both are outstanding in delivering understated and sincere performances (expect Oscar chatter for Ms. Negga). These are country folks caught up in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, though as Richard says, “we aren’t bothering anyone”. The counterpoint comes from the local Sheriff (an intimidating Martin Csokas) and the presiding Judge Bazile (David Jensen) who claim to be enforcing “God’s Law”.

Nichols never strays far from the 2011 documentary The Loving Story from Nancy Buirski, who is a producer on this film. When the ACLU-assigned young (and green) lawyer Bernard Cohen (played with a dose of goofiness by Nick Kroll) gets involved, we see how the case hinges on public perception and changing social mores. Michael Shannon appears as the Life Magazine photographer who shot the iconic images of the couple at home … a spread that presented the Lovings not as an interracial couple, but rather as simply a normal married couple raising their kids.

In 1967, the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, unanimously held Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” as unconstitutional, putting an end to all miscegenation laws (interracial marriage was still illegal in 15 states at the time). In keeping with the film’s direct approach, the Supreme Court case lacks any of the usual courtroom theatrics and is capped with a quietly received phone call to Mildred.

Beautiful camera work from cinematographer Adam Stone complements the spot on setting, costumes and cars which capture the look and feel of the era (over a 10 year period). Nichols forsakes the crowd-rallying moments or even the police brutality of today’s headlines, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of paranoia or constant concern. We feel the strain through these genuine people as though we are there with them. The simplicity of Richard and Mildred belies the complexity of the issue, and is summed up through the words of Mildred, “He took care of me.”

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

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LIFE (2015)

December 22, 2015

life Greetings again from the darkness. The film’s title has multiple meanings: “LifeMagazine as the source for the famous photographs we have seen so many times; the crossroads in “Life” of both rising star James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock; and a philosophical look at “Life” – how quickly things can change, and how we should appreciate the moments.

Director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, The American) and screenwriter Luke Davies offer up a snapshot of 1955 as the not-quite-yet-famous James Dean (Dane DeHaan) traveled cross-country with photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) from Los Angeles to New York to Indiana. Each man was searching for their true self as Stock’s professional ambition and personal stress are palpable, while 24 year old Dean’s ambivalence about his pending superstardom borders on self-destructive.

DeHaan and Pattinson both underplay their roles, and it’s certainly more than a little confusing to see Pattinson in a movie about James Dean where he is not the actor playing the icon. DeHaan captures the low key, soft-spoken side of Dean but only teases at the “rebel” studio head Jack Warner (Sir Ben Kingsley) wanted so badly to control. We get a feel for Dean’s vision of challenging roles in quality productions … a commitment to the art of acting he no doubt sharpened in his time with acting guru Lee Strasberg. The story leans more heavily to the tale of photographer Stock, which is unfortunate, because he is significantly more awkward than interesting. Pattinson plays him as a social misfit who broods nearly as much as the “moody” young actor he is stalking through the streets.

The period look is well appointed, and we are privy to some of the moments of Dean’s life just prior to the release of East of Eden and his being cast in Rebel Without a Cause. His relationship with Pier Angelli (Alessandra Mastronardi), friendship with Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary), and his bond to the family and farm of his childhood in Indiana are all captured. In fact, it’s the clumsy relationship with Stock that comes across as the least realistic portion … though it may very well have happened this way. Even the manner in which the famous photographs were taken is underplayed … although it makes for a terrific tie-in with the closing credits where the real Stock/Life Magazine photographs are displayed.

It’s now been 60 years that James Dean has exemplified Hollywood “cool”, a label that can never be removed due to his tragic death in 1955 after making only three films. Capturing the essence of what made Dean cool is unnecessary because it’s present in every scene of those three films, as well as the photographs taken by Dennis Stock. That’s all the legacy either man needs.

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BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

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THE GIFT (2015)

August 9, 2015

gift Greetings again from the darkness. Joel Edgerton has become one of the more interesting actors working today. His projects range from indies like Warrior and Animal Kingdom to award winners like Zero Dark Thirty and big budget releases like The Great Gatsby. He has written screenplays, and now comes his feature length directorial debut … and an impressive debut it is.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are seeking a fresh start as they relocate to Los Angeles from Chicago. A new house and new job are an attempt to put an unfortunate situation regarding an unborn child behind them. Things get off to a great start for them as they buy a beautiful house, and Simon is put up for a promotion. An encounter with Gordo (played by Edgerton) leads to some awkward social interactions and some downright creepy stalking.

The film will work best the less you know about it. The psychological thriller aspects never devolve into the slashfest we have come to expect. Instead the film blurs the lines between good guys and bad guys. In fact, it brings into debate what makes a good person … it even states “you may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with you”. Do our past misdeeds ever totally fade? What about high school bullies … do they mature?  Can the proverbial zebra change its stripes?  All of these questions and themes are touched.

While you may struggle to identify the protagonist and antagonist, the performances of both Edgerton and Bateman are fun to watch. And it’s Ms. Hall who is the grounding force who initially trusts both men, before questioning everything. There is also a very nice, understated performance from Allison Tolman as an understanding neighbor. Ms. Tolman was terrific in the first year of the “Fargo” series.

Don’t allow anyone to tell you much about this before you see it … just know that it will remind you of the importance of the Golden Rule. Treat others how you would like to be treated … or know that bygones are never bygones.

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EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

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