THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news – bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it’s announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.

This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy – although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama.

A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It’s beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father’s footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can’t imagine not doing what they do.

The brothers have been contracted by ‘The Commodore’, a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways – remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.

This is kind of a road trip film … only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy film … only it’s two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.

It’s such an unusual film, and it’s presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he’s done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.

watch the trailer:

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TALE OF TALES (Italy, 2016)

April 20, 2016

tale of tales Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy tales have long been a fruitful source for movie material. Some, like Disney productions, land gently on the family/children end of the scale; while others like the Brothers Grimm material are much darker and adult in nature. And now, along comes director Matteo Garrone and his blending of three stories loosely based on the 17th century tales published by Giambattista Basile … and “black comedy” falls short as a description.

Mr. Garrone is best known for his chilling look at an Italian crime family in the award winning Gomorrah (2008), so a trilogy of demented monarchial fantasies may seem a bit outside his comfort zone … but grab ahold of your crown jewels and be ready for just about anything.

A very strong opening leads us into the first story about a King (John C Reilly) and Queen (Salma Hayek) who are by no one’s definition, the perfect couple. The Queen’s inability to have children leads her to strike a deal with a Faustian seer who promises a baby to the royal couple. The only catch is that the King must kill a sea monster, and the Queen must eat its heart after it’s properly prepared by a virgin. Yep, it’s pretty dark and pretty odd. Of course, as with all actions, there are consequences (albino twins of different mothers) … some of which are not so wonderful.

The second story involves a lecherous King (Vincent Cassel) who falls in love with a local woman based solely on her singing voice. Much deceit follows and the actions of two sisters (played by 3 actresses – Hayley Carmichael, Stacy Martin, Shirley Henderson) and some supernatural aging products lead to a twisty story of romance that can’t possibly end well for anyone involved.

The third of our 3-headed story is the strangest of all, as a King (Toby Jones) nurtures a pet flea until it grows to behemoth size. Yes, a pet flea would be considered unusual, but eclipsing even that in uniqueness is the King’s willingness to offer the hand of his daughter (Bebe Cave) in marriage to a frightening ogre who lives a solitary life in the mountains.

These three stories are interwoven so that we are bounced from one to another with little warning … which seems only fitting given the material. Knowing the theme of the three stories does not prepare one for the details – neither the comedy, nor the dramatic turns. All actors approach the material with deadpan seriousness which adds to the feeling of a Grimm Brothers and Monty Python mash-up.

Alexandre Desplat provides the perfect score for this oddity, though the audience may be limited to those who can appreciate grotesque sequences assembled with the darkest of comedy. The moral to these stories may be difficult to quantify; however, it’s a reminder that actions beget consequences no matter the time period.

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THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

watch the trailer:

 


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:


TERRI

July 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Indie films are at a disadvantage on many fronts, not the least of which is budget. That usually limits the indie scene to personal, poignant stories of relationships and self-discovery. Quirky, yet believable characters are often the difference between ho-hum and worth-seeing. Writer Patrick Dewitt and Director Azazel Jacobs definitely provide some curious characters of interest in this Official Selection of Sundance Film Festival.

Jacob Wysocki portrays Terri, an overweight outcast who is often humiliated and bullied at high school. Terri seems to have given up on ever fitting in. The proof is in the pajamas that he has begun wearing to class every day. But as usual with “troubled” teens, there is more to the story. We see his home life which consists of constant care for his Uncle James, who is apparently suffering from dementia. We get no backstory on the missing parents, but it’s clear that Terri’s responsibility at home outweigh his concerns for a missing social life at school.

 Enter Assistant Principal, Mr. Fitgerald. Played by John C Reilly, Mr. Fitzgerald takes a special interest in the ‘monsters and misfits’. The reason is pretty obvious … he was one himself. His goal, rather his life’s calling, is to encourage these kids to understand that life gets better and that NO ONE really has it figured out. We are just doing the best we can.  Even this well-intentioned man struggles to maintain his relationship with his wife.

 Terri’s world collides with a couple other students. Chad (Bridger Sadina) is so angry at the world that he pulls his hair right out from his scalp – and is quick with a cutting remark, though he clearly just seeks attention and love. Heather (Olivia Crociacchia) is saved from expulsion after a very generous move by Terri. Her world of popularity comes crashing down, but Terri is the presence that gets her through. Watching these characters interact with Mr. Fitzgerald emphasizes how much we all need someone to care … someone to believe in us.

 The film moves at a pace realistic to life. That means it is very slow compared to most movies. The characters are allowed to develop, as are most of the scenes. Jacob Wysocki’s performance can be compared to Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. They are large youngsters who don’t use their size to comedic effect. Instead, they both display humanity and real emotions in a less-than-perfect world.  Uncle James is played very well by Creed Bratton (“The Office”).  If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Bratton, he is not only a fine actor, but also was a member of the late 60’s/early 70’s band The Grass Roots.  He continues to compose music to this day.

Certainly not a movie for everyone, but if you enjoy intimate stories about people just trying to get through life … no special effects, explosions or asinine punchlines … then Terri is worth a look.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy attention to detail afforded by indie film story-telling OR you are intrigued by the similarities to Precious (only not as harsh or intense)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you believe summer time movies should be light-hearted and filled with crashes, booms and robots/superheroes

Watch the trailer:


CEDAR RAPIDS

February 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have said many times that comedies are the most difficult of all film genres since no two people have the same sense of humor, and everyone considers themselves to be funny. While many people laughed til they cried during The Hangover, others walked out of the theatre or simply had no interest at all. The same can be said for just about any Mel Brooks movie, as well as his contemporary, Judd Apatow. What we do know, is that a comedy’s chance for success comes down to its characters, and in this area, Cedar Rapids works like a charm.

Ed Helms (Andy in “The Office”) stars as Tim Lippe, the most sheltered, naive mid-western insurance agent ever captured on film. Lippe lives and works in Brown Valley, Wisconsin … the most sheltered, naive mid-western town ever captured on film. He truly believes insurance salesmen serve a higher cause.  His only real excitement is found through his “pre-engagement” to his 7th grade teacher played  well by Sigourney Weaver (probably the most worldly person in Brown Valley). When an embarrassing accident claims the life of their hot shot agent, the agency owner (Stephen Root) sends Lippe to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids. His mission: to win the coveted 2-Diamond Award presented by industry legend Orin Helgesson (a pious Kurtwood Smith).

 Since a lone character can’t generate many laughs, circumstances at the convention cause Lippe to find himself roommates with a very noble Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr from “The Wire”) and fast-talking poacher Dean Ziegler (John C Reilly). These 3 are joined together by Nebraska agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Lippe is quickly introduced to the “real world” (heavy drinking, sexual inneuendo, pranks, etc) by his new friends and after the first 20 minutes of set-up, the lines and settings get funnier and funnier.

As with most comedies these days, the trailer gives away much more than it should; but, unlike most, it leaves plenty of laughs and situations for the film. What really makes this work is that all characters are actually very nice people … they are just a bit exaggerated in their traits. Lippe is a bit too naive. Wilkes is a bit too uptight. Ziegler is a bit too obnoxious, and Fox is just a little too lonely and adventurous. Still, their earnestness is what keeps the film grounded.  One of the best parts of the gag is that somehow Cedar Rapids, Iowa is cast as sin city!  We aren’t talking Vegas, NYC or Paris … but CEDAR RAPIDS!

Mr. Helms is really a comic force. He has the extraordinary ability to never hold back or worry that he might not look cool. Even as the lead character, he knows when scene-stealer John C Reilly should have the spotlight. This is a tremendous asset for a comic.  Mr. Whitlock spouts some funny lines in homage to “The Wire” and Ms. Heche refuses to overplay the lonely wife out for a good time.

I won’t give away much, but will warn that some of the humor is crude … especially most of Riley’s rapid-fire zingers. If you appreciate a balance of outlandish one-liners with humorous real people, then you might want to check this one out. I have only previously known this director, Miguel Arteta, as the guy responsible for Jennifer Aniston‘s best screen performance (The Good Girl). Now I look forward to his next project.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you could use a few good laughs here in the middle of winter

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedies to be a bit more highbrow


CYRUS (2010)

July 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Trying to come up with the best way to describe this one. It seems to be billed and marketed as a comedy, but it’s very dark and only funny in a few places. The drama is pretty weak at times and uncomfortable all of the time. The comedy really stems from the mano y mano of John C Reilly and Jonah Hill. Marisa Tomei is a not so innocent bystander.  The film just doesn’t lend itself to a particular label.

If you have seen the preview, you know the basic story. John C Reilly is a socially inept oaf who gets dragged to a party and makes a fool of himself. Marisa Tomei views him as something of a lost puppy and takes him under her wing. The big reveal occurs when Tomei’s grown son (Hill) shows up at an inopportune time. Yes, he lives with her and they have a very unique and close relationship.

Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (writer and director) are known as part of the mumblecore movement – they subscribe to the less rehearsal and minimal script school of film-making. Luckily for them, Hill and Reilly take to this beautifully. Their scenes together are very good at creating an inner turmoil and utter frustration. Luckily for the audience, Reilly’s character has two scenes where he can unleash the lines that the viewers are all thinking! It makes for a nice release of tension.

Hill creates Cyrus as the epitome of a “sneaky little devil”. OK, he’s not so little, but the rest fits. His acts of subversion are well thought out and pure acts of passive aggressiveness. These three characters make for quite the odd little group, but there is surely some insight into single parenthood, loneliness and over-protective parenting. Don’t expect a slapstick comedy in the Judd Apatow mold … this one is a bit creepy and dark.  John Malkovich played the role in Con Air, but Jonah Hill is the real Cyrus the Virus.