DISTORTED (2018)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being startled awake by a nightmare is disconcerting for all of us. When that dream is strobe-like with flashes to a personal tragedy, the horrifying images carryover into daily life, impacting one’s mental stability.  Such is the new-norm for Lauren (played by Christina Ricci) as she attempts to recover from a disaster of which we are only provided glimpses and hints until later in the film (although it’s pretty obvious). Lauren admits to being scared to rejoin the world – she hasn’t even been able to resume putting her art on canvas.

Director Rob W King (HUNGRY HILLS, 2009) teams with writer Arne Olsen (whose work in the 1990’s included COP AND A ½, RED SCORPION, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE) in an attempt to deliver a high-tech psychological thriller … a sub-genre that has yet to be successfully conquered, cinematically speaking. Lauren and her husband, played by Brendan Fletcher, decide the best move for her sanity and their marriage is to move from the city to the suburbs. They choose The Pinnacle, a luxury condo with ultra high-tech and modern amenities so extreme it’s known as “the smart building”.

Typically having a building be the villain doesn’t work out so well from a story-telling perspective, so of course, paranoia and conspiracy theories are dwelled upon. An obvious choice of the “Beautiful Dreamer” song is repeatedly slipped into scenes to cause Lauren further queasiness. As she becomes increasingly suspicious, and convinced evil is afoot, she crosses paths with a mysterious dark web figure played by John Cusack – a character so predictable that he whispers in conversations, wears a black hoodie, and works in a secret computer lair. As others try to convince Lauren her medications for depression are either too much or too little, Cusack feeds her the age old line … you aren’t paranoid if they are watching you.

Christina Ricci has been acting since she was 10 years old, and here she performs admirably in a film that, bottom line, doesn’t deliver. The movie has the vibe of a cheesy TV show, kind of a rip-off of “Westworld” or “I, Robot”, though it does tease us with the possibilities of electronic hypnosis and manipulation through subliminal images. Our ever-increasingly digital world, and the dangers that come with such power, are a real world problem that, for whatever reason, just hasn’t transferred well to the big screen yet.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2015 – Day 10

April 24, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 10 – Sunday April 19

The festival comes to an end on a high note, and once again, I recommend DIFF for any movie lover who wants to overdose on independent films and documentaries without fighting the crowds of Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, etc.  It’s a very well run festival and, with 160 films on the schedule., likely holds multiple films for you – regardless of your movie tastes.  My final three movies of this year’s festival:

LOVE & MERCY (2015)

love and mercy Greetings again from the darkness. Beach Boys fans may struggle a bit with this one since the light-hearted, airy feel to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” music of the band is mostly absent. Instead, director Bill Pohlad pulls back the curtain on the emotional and mental struggles of visionary songwriter Brian Wilson … the band’s creative force.

In an unusual artistic approach, Paul Dano plays Brian from the 1960’s period that resulted in the revolutionary Pet Sounds album and the ongoing battle with his domineering father; while John Cusack plays Brian from the late 1980’s – his most creatively bankrupt period and the subsequent debilitating influence of quackster psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

The two periods are blended together as we (and Brian) bounce back and forth between the struggle of a budding musical genius working to release the sounds in his head, and a middle aged man so heavily medicated that speaking, eating and even getting out of bed are such overwhelming obstacles that music rarely registers. It’s during the latter period that Brian is truly at the mercy of Dr. Eugene Landy. Giamatti sports a floppy wig and proceeds to rage at Brian while trying to charm Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), Brian’s new romantic interest. Knowing this disgusting period was part of Brian’s life only adds to the anger and frustration we feel … not just as fans, but as human beings.

What sets this biopic apart is actually the performance of Dano and the peek inside the process of Brian’s genius. Watching Brian work the musicians and mold the music on the fly is breath-taking, even though we see the challenges of his early mental issues.  It’s a joy to see a tribute to the studio session players known as “The Wrecking Crew” … themselves the subject of a recent stellar documentary. It’s during this period that the Wilson brothers’ father (played by Bill Camp) constantly derides Brian and his “new” music.  There is also some insight into the Brian vs Mike Love battles – Brian exploring his creative music, while Mike just wants to keep cashing in with their expected “fun” style.

Some may find the two-headed approach to be distracting, but it drives home the point of what a different man he was in comparing the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Mostly, I found the 1960’s portion to be an insight into what we hear from so many geniuses, regardless of their specialty. Brian says it’s like “Someone is inside me. Not me.” His struggles are non-relatable to others – even his brothers, and especially his dad. What is mostly a look at the darkness behind the “sunny” music, does come with real life redemption courtesy of Melinda’s strength … and witnessed in the video shown over the closing credits.

MANGLEHORN (2015)

manglehorn Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who grew up with 1970’s cinema, it’s been painful to watch Al Pacino’s career over the last two decades … with only a couple of exceptions. We have longed for the actor who became Michael Corleone, and cringed with each outing that seemed to parody his Oscar winning performance in A Scent of a Woman (1983). Along comes the latest from director David Gordon Green and with it a reappearance of that actor so worshipped by John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

A.J. Manglehorn is an elderly locksmith who lives each day under his self-designed cloud of despair. His droopy eyes, droopy shoulders and droopy social skills are eclipsed only by his love for Fanny the cat, and his daily letters to Clara – the long lost love of his life. The only other signs of life in Mr. Manglehorn are displayed when he is telling a customer that it’s time to wash their car, when he is hanging out with his granddaughter, or when he is exchanging Friday flirtations with bank teller Dawn (a sparkling Holly Hunter).

Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008), The Sitter (2011), and TV’s “Eastbound & Down”, and while this one (filmed in Austin, Texas) has some awkward and offbeat comedic moments, it would have to be categorized as a drama. Symbolism is everywhere as Manglehorn keeps his emotions “locked” away from his snooty yuppie son (Chris Messina) and retreats into his imaginary relationship with Clara, rather than embracing Dawn’s brave come-on.

There are a couple of extraordinary scenes … Pacino and Messina talking around, rather than about, their relationship and the type of men they are; and the excruciatingly awkward and heart-breaking first date between Pacino and Hunter. The forlorn Manglehorn remains behind the locked door and allows the shadow of his dream girl to cast a pall, despite having a real life dream girl sitting across the table.

Pacino recaptures his mastery of the close-up. Such emotion from so little apparent movement is the work of a once great master who proves he still has it. Some may be put off by the lack of big action, but these are people living life and trying to make the best of it. There is a line from the movie, “When you choose this life, there is no one”. It’s a line that tells us so much about Manglehorn’s daily approach. Whether he finds the right key matters to us for one reason … Pacino makes us care.

SLOW WEST (2015)

slow west Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then a movie catches us off guard as the tone shifts during the story progression. The first feature film from writer/director John Maclean is an example of this, and even more impressive in the manner that it delivers contradicting and overlapping tones through much of its run time. Balancing life and death tension with laugh out loud comedic elements requires a deft touch, and Maclean proves his mettle.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In) stars as Jay Cavendish a young Irish man traveling westward across the old west Colorado frontier to find his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay’s babyface, naïve approach and trusting nature make his survival dubious at best … at least until he hires a grizzled gunslinger named Silas (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and protector.  There is vital information about Rose known to all but Jay, which leads us to not be so trusting of Silas’ motives in sticking with the young man.

The trail provides the expected hardships and a reluctant bond between the two opposites. Some of the tension is created by crossing paths with a couple of bounty hunters … one a long range dead-eye who sports a priest collar, and the other a nasty sort played by the always dangerous Ben Mendelsohn who leads the gang Silas once rode with.

Jay’s mission to find Rose is quite a romantic quest, but the effective use of flashbacks and dreams tells us more of the story, and in particular, why Rose and her dad (Rory McCann) are on the run. So as this tension builds, the startling and abrupt use of off-the-wall humor takes us viewers out of our comfort zone and into the unusual place of utter surprise at the back and forth between violence, romantic notions and laughter.

Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are both excellent in their roles, and relative newcomer Pistorius oozes with potential. Jed Kurzel’s (The Babadook) music effectively adds to both the drama and comedy, and the script is smart and funny – a rare combination these days. It’s likely that viewers will feel guilty for some of the laughs, but that just adds to the ingenuity of Mr. Maclean. Even the body count tally forces one additional guilty laugh from us before leaving the theatre. Very well done.

 

 


Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013)

August 22, 2013

butler1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not a film about multiple personalities.  Rather it is a film WITH multiple personalities! Yes, there are a staggering number of characters played by a who’s who of actors, but it’s the movie itself that flashes the most personalities. It is quite a mixture of historical events, the Civil Rights movement, family drama, generational differences, Presidential evolution, emotional wrangling, and Oscar posturing.

Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the man who worked his way up from being a child slave on a Georgia plantation  to the highest level of butler within The White House … a gig that spanned 34 years and eight Presidents. The story is based on the real life story of Eugene Allen, who had a front row seat to dramatic historical events and major social changes … all while wearing white gloves and tuxedo. The movie bears a resemblance to the popular movie The Help, but while that one focused on individual racism, this one is more concerned with systematic or institutional racism.

butler2 While the movie has plenty of emotional moments, in my opinion it could have been even stronger had it committed more time to either Cecil’s long run in The White House or the father-son generational struggles between Cecil and his desperate-for-change son played with fire by David Oyelowo (from Freedom Rider to Black Panther). Instead there is much wasted time on superficial Presidential interactions and a needless side story of adultery involving Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) and his friend (Terrence Howard).

Director Lee Daniels obviously has many friends who wanted to be part of this one. The incredible cast includes Mariah Carey (still seeking redemption for Glitter), Alex Pettyfer (as a brutal slave owner), Vanessa Redgrave (Cecil’s first serving trainer), Clarence Williams III (Cecil’s ultra cool mentor), Nelson Ellis as Martin Luther King, and Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz (as fellow White House butlers). The most blatant slap in the face of Conservatives comes from the casting of extreme Democrat John Cusack playing Richard Nixon and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Other Presidents are played by Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhauer), James Marsden (John F Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan). The constant game of “spot the star” is a bit distracting at times, but not as much as one might guess. It’s just a shame that most get very little story or screen time.

butler3 As for Oprah Winfrey, she is getting much love for her performance, including some Oscar chatter. What I saw was a performance that was solid, yet distracting due to the lack of aging in comparison to her husband (Whitaker). She changes very little (except for costumes) from the beginning until the very end when she definitely goes into heavy make-up for the Obama election. On a personal note, watching 1970’s era Oprah shaking her booty to “Soul Train” was an image I neither needed nor enjoyed.

Again, my favorite scenes were the ones between father and son … Whitaker and Oyelowo. Seeing these two generations struggle so much to understand each other and interpret the world in such different ways proved quite powerful. It’s always painful and embarrassing to re-live the horrible manner in which African-Americans were treated, but even moreso when it’s tied to a father-son relationship.

**NOTE: the ridiculous movie title is the resulting settlement brought on by Warner Bros who was concerned that a title of “The Butler” would cause confusion and conflict with their own 1916 short film of that title.  Yes, 1916.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an entertaining movie loaded with stars and a story that delivers some emotional tugs.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting insight into the inner-workings of The White House OR watching Oprah get her groove on could possibly burn your eyeballs as it did mine.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ4xDTz8Avc


BASEBALL MOVIES: Readers Poll Results

October 26, 2011

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” —Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

Thanks to all of you who particpated in the Readers Poll for Favorite Baseball Movies. Although I sensed a minor conspiracy amongst women voters, the final results were pretty close to other published baseball movie lists.  I won’t name names, but the most creative write-in votes were for The Untouchables – noting the scene where Al Capone makes use of a Louisville Slugger, and Touching Home – a vote based, I believe, solely on the blue eyes of Ed Harris.

FINAL RESULTS

1. THE NATURAL

2. FIELD OF DREAMS

 

 

 

 

3. (tie) BULL DURHAM

 

 

 

 

  (tie) A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. MAJOR LEAGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t go wrong with any of the Top 5 as they are all quite entertaining. On the list are a few laugh out loud moments, some high baseball drama, a touch of historical significance, and a heavy shot (or two) of melodrama.

One of the frustrating things about baseball (and most sports) movies is that no matter how talented an actor might be, it’s very difficult to look like you can play the game if you really can’t.  Still, it’s the game, and the memories it creates that have such a grip on us.  Whether playing a pick-up game with our buddies (The Sandlot), watching our team play that magical season (Angels in the Outfield) or simply playing catch with dad (Field of Dreams), most of us carry a connection to the game of baseball and a corresponding special memory. That’s why there are more movies about baseball than football, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis combined.  It truly is the great game.

If you are interested in going a little deeper into the baseball vault, allow me to recommend a few that often get overlooked.

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING (1949) – comedy about a scientist who discovers a substance that makes baseballs repel wood. It stars Ray Milland and Jean Peters (who became Mrs. Howard Hughes)

THE WINNING TEAM (1952) – the comeback story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, starring Doris Day and Ronald Reagan.  Yes, the same Mr. Reagan who would go on to become Governor of California and President of the United States.

THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS and MOTOR KINGS (1976) – comedy about a barnstorming Negro League team from the 1930’s featuring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones and directed by John Badham

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) – the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (Black Sox) scandal. It features a couple of then 22 year-olds named Charlie Sheen and John Cusack, and is directed by the great John Sayles.

THE SANDLOT (1993) – a story about kids being kids and the role baseball can play in family, friendship and growing up

KEN BURNS’ BASEBALL (1994) – if you have seen Mr. Burns’ documentary work on The Civil War or Jazz, then you have some sense of the detail and level of research that went into his multi-volume history of baseball

SUGAR (2008) – following the story of a talented Dominican minor league pitcher who dreams of the major leagues.

Thanks again to all who voted.  Pass this along to any baseball and/or movie lovers you know.  The final pitch is two more quotes:

It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”Ernie Banks

I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” — Annie (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham