ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

watch the trailer:

 


PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

January 12, 2017

patriots-day Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too soon? If not, is it too painful to revisit? Even if the time is right, is injecting a fictitious supercop into the horrific events an acceptable approach? Every viewer of the film will have their own answers to these questions, but clearly writer/director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) and Boston area native Mark Wahlberg believed now is the time and that this is the best way to re-create this catastrophe and its fallout.

Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a Boston detective kicked back to uniform duty as penance for a run-in with another cop. His character is evidently a composite of multiple cops and first responders, and though he is the center of the film, the character is the weak link. He’s some type of supercop who never sleeps and manages to be literally everywhere something is happening … either the Boston Marathon finish line, FBI control center, the hospital interviewing survivors, or cruising the streets with his spotlight tracking down the bad guys.

Beyond Wahlberg’s character, the film does a remarkable job at re-creating the tragic events, the emotional and physical fallout, and the urgent law enforcement manhunt. Since it’s been less than 4 years, most every piece of this is fresh in our minds. We follow along from when the street cameras are used to identify the suspects all the way through the final capture from the backyard boat.

Another thing the film does well is tell the stories of certain individuals who were impacted. We experience the emotions of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), the preparedness and cool of Watertown Police Chief Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons), the highs and lows of MIT Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the terror and courage of captive Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang), and the focus and conflicts of Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). There is also the story of survivors Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Christopher O’Shea (Patrick Downes), and a few others who we get to know a little bit.

The bombers/terrorists/brothers are played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, and no effort is made to sympathize or explain their actions. The closest we get is an argument in the apartment with the wife (played by Melissa Benoist) over the wrong type of milk. I will not use the real names here as I don’t believe in providing any publicity for such creators of evil.

The film successfully establishes the “normal” start to what seemed to be a “normal” day. Of course, April 13 2013 turned out to be anything but. We hear the Newtown tribute at the opening of the race, and we see David Ortiz with his color proclamation at Fenway Park. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is always spot on with the mood, and the last 10 minutes are by far the most emotional … we hear from the real life survivors, first responders and others so crucial to that time. I may believe that this story would best be told in documentary form, but there is no denying that it’s a reminder of the power of love, and the spirit of Boston and America.

NOTE: why does it seem Michelle Monaghan is underutilized in almost every movie she appears? She is such a fine actress, but she rarely seems to get the screen time she should

watch the trailer:

 


TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

watch the trailer:

 


THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

February 11, 2014

monuments Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on real life are often some of my favorites, but that doesn’t let them off the hook in needing to be well made. The real life story of the Monuments Men provides both pride and heartbreak. The Allied group tracked down and rescued so much Nazi-stolen artwork, while at the same time being so short-staffed that they resorted to picking and choosing what parts of history and culture to save.

For much of 2013, this movie was mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. When the release date was delayed and director George Clooney admitted he was struggling with the film’s “tone” – a balance of comedic and dramatic and historic elements – all the warning flags shot up. This final version would certainly have benefited from script improvement, though the cast is so strong and the mission so true, that the film is still enjoyable enough. Director  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have adapted the source material from Robert M Edsel, but Clooney can’t resist stamping the movie with his smirk appeal, despite capturing the look of the era.

The actual Monument Men spend very little time together, so it’s tough to call this an ensemble piece. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have their own subtle comedy routine going, while John Goodman and Jean Dujardin enjoy a jeep ride. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett add a dose of gratuitous love interest where it’s not needed, and Hugh Bonneville strikes the heroic pose of redemption. Director Clooney ensures that actor Clooney and his buddy Damon get the most screen time and close-ups, detracting from what the real story should be … the men who saved art and culture.

Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece are supposedly the centerpieces of this group’s mission, but the film really is just an amalgam of individual scenes that leave the viewer working frantically to tie all the pieces together. Shouldn’t that be the filmmaker’s job? The question gets asked a couple of times, “Is art worth a human life?”. That critical theme could have been the core of a far superior movie … one not in such desperate need of suspense rather than more punchlines.

Very few war projects have successfully blended comedy and drama. A few that come to mind are Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes“. It’s a tricky line to walk, even with a great cast. So while this one has sufficient entertainment value for a February release, I would rather recommend two others that deal with this same subject matter: The Rape of Europa (2007, documentary) and The Train (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster).

**NOTE: the phrase “women love a man in uniform” was well established prior to anyone seeing John Goodman don the Army green.

**NOTE: the actor playing an elderly Frank Stokes (Clooney’s character) viewing the Madonna near the end of the movie is actually George Clooney’s real life father.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s February and you just need a pleasant movie break

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking for an in-depth look at the fascinating folks behind this fascinating story

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

December 15, 2013

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).

llewyn6 The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.

The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.

llewyn5 We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).

As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.

llewyn3 Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.

If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.

**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013.  Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc