THE JOURNEY (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Only the rarest of fiction can match the depth and intensity of historically crucial watershed moments. A list of such moments would certainly include the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that ended 40 years of violent civil war between the Unionist and Republican factions of Northern Ireland. Director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman team up to bring us a speculative dramatization of the conversation that ‘might’ have led to the treaty.

Timothy Spall plays Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Unionists and an anti-Catholic evangelical minister. Colm Meaney plays Martin McGuinness, the rebellious former IRA leader (“allegedly”, he clarifies) who leads the Irish Republicans (Sinn Fein). These two extremists have been at war for most of their lives, yet had never met until circumstances brought them together for negotiations.

One’s take on the film will likely be determined by the level of need for historical accuracy and any personal connection to long-lasting war in Northern Ireland. Either of these traits will likely have you scoffing at the backseat verbal sparring and the plot contrivances that allow the two mortal enemies to slowly break down the ideological barriers. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a mis-matched buddy movie featuring a game of witty one-upmanship with political and historical relevance.

Either way, the dueling actors are a pleasure to watch. Mr. Spall surely has the more theatrical role, and he revels in the buttoned-up judgmental nature of Paisley – a man loyal enough to be attending his 50th wedding anniversary party, and sufficiently devoted to his beliefs that his last visit to a movie theatre was in 1973 as he led the protests against The Exorcist. In contrast, Mr. Meaney plays McGuinness as both determined to find common ground and worn down by the years of fighting and lack of progress.

Toby Stephens plays Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Freddie Highmore is the young driver charged with surreptitiously igniting conversation between the two rivals. He is fed instructions through his ear-piece by an MI5 director played by John Hurt, in one of his final film appearances. Unfortunately, this bit of “narration” came across as condescending to this viewer who surely could have done without such elementary guidance. Still, the sight of Mr. Hurt on film is always welcome.

The infusion of humor is nearly non-stop. There’s a comical exchange about Samuel L. Jackson, a joke about the Titanic, and a Paisley diatribe at a gas station over a declined credit card that would easily fit in most any Hollywood buddy flick. However, these elements undermine one of the early on screen interviews we see when a citizen states bombs going off as you walk down the street is “part of life”. “You can almost taste the hatred” is a great line, but unfortunately doesn’t match the script of what we witness on screen. The two men re-hash some key events such as 1972’s Bloody Sunday, and it’s these moments that remind us just how important this new agreement was to the country. It’s understandable (and relevant today) how 40 years of hate can become a way of life and difficult to end, and it also shows us just how far actual communication can go in finding common ground between folks … even The Chuckles Brothers.

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JACKIE (2016)

December 10, 2016

jackie Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.

The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.

To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).

Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.

The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.

Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.

Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.

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SNOWPIERCER (2014)

July 5, 2014

snowpiercer Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to understand how frequent movie goers develop an affinity for certain directors, however, it’s important to not blindly praise based on a name. Korean auteur director Joon-ho Bong has previously delivered a couple of artistic and interesting genre movies with The Host and Mother. His first (mostly) English language film is a sci-fi, politically-oriented action thriller that is based on a French graphic novel, and utilizes well known actors from the U.S. and U.K. This is definitely “world cinema”.

The basic premise is that a man-made experiment to “fix” severe global warming change goes bad, leaving the earth as an uninhabitable frozen tundra … even worse than Green Bay. The only survivors are those aboard a perpetual motion train that circles the earth year after year. Onboard is a class-segregation system (ala The Hunger Games) with the richest 1% at the front (first class) of the train and the 99% lower class bringing up the rear (steerage). This case of haves vs have-nots leads to the expected rebellion by the oppressed lower class.

As the rebels make their way towards the front of the train, each car brings new obstacles … in fact, each car plays like a new level in a video game – each different and more challenging than the previous. In between are a wide variety of creative fight scenes that allow the director to show off his visual acumen in close-quarter battles – some quite violent.

Comic relief is provided by a near clown-like Tilda Swinton. Her appearance and delivery are hilarious and seem better fit for a Wes Anderson movie … well, if not for the fact that I found the entire movie works better as a comedy than the political commentary it’s meant to be. Each of the main characters provide a bit of interest on their own: Chris Evans as the main rabble-rouser, Jamie Bell as his right-hand man, John Hurt as the old-timer and Octavia Spencer as the wronged-mother. Actually the best story line involves Nam and Yono (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung respectively) as a father-daughter team with skills integral to the rebellion, as well as their own agenda.

While the fight scenes were well-staged, I couldn’t help but think of beer commercials every time the camera provided an exterior shot of the train. Luckily these shots and the abundance of posturing and lame dialogue kept me chuckling enough that it overshadowed the high number of ridiculous sequences … not the least of which is the final introduction to the Wizard of Oz-like train engineer in the front car.

Director Joon-ho Bong continues his technical advancements in visual and action effects, but he will need to deliver much tighter stories to capture a large U.S. audience. In fact, more drama was delivered by his real-life “final cut” battles with Harvey Weinstein than the on screen uprising.

***NOTE: I think having Ed Harris wear his beret from The Truman Show would have been a nice effect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true “world cinema” production featuring talent from Korea, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe class warfare (even with a stop off at a sushi bar) is a topic best suited for real life

watch the trailer:

 


TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

December 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the best-selling 1974 John LeCarre’ spy novel, opinions on this movie will cover the full spectrum. Many will find it painfully slow and frustrating, if not impossible to follow. Others will be thrilled with the subtle clues and reality-based exchanges between British spies in the early 70’s. This is no James Bond thriller with exploding yachts, world class fist fights and bikini-clad women. Rather, it’s a peek at what real life spies do … huddle in soundproof rooms and exchange information through stunted conversation where just shy of enough is said.

 John LeCarre’ actually worked for the British Secret Service prior to becoming an author (also wrote The Constant Gardener and The Russia House). He based this novel around the discovery of a traitor, which remains the biggest scandal in the history of British intelligence. This story covers some of that and even more. We see how trust and loyalty are so crucial, yet none of these men ever fully trusts the fellow agent sitting next to him. Very little is spoken, but much is communicated through a nod, raised eye brow, a slight cock of the head, or even the adjustment of one’s spectacles. Cigarettes and scotch are the common ground from which discussions spring.

 Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson delivered the exceptional vampire drama Let the Right One In a couple of years ago. Mr. Alfredson has a distinctive feel for the look of a film, and atmospheric is a word that fits this movie, as well as his earlier one. The tone, color and texture is key to this world, and we are immersed in blues and grays. His camera work is unique and wondrous as he massages the small, confined spaces and allow us to pick up the gestures of all involved.

 The cast is a group of wonderfully talented (mostly) men: Mark Strong, John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Tinker), Colin Firth (Tailor), Ciaran Hinds (Soldier), David Dencik (Poor Man)and Stephen Graham. Especially enjoyable are Tom Hardy as a rogue agent who breaks the “mole” theory wide open, Benedict Cumberbatch as the youngest agent, and of course, Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Oldman’s performance will awe many and bore a few. This is a man trained to say only what must be said. You can see the resolve in his eyes. These still waters run VERY deep. Some will compare him to the performance of Sir Alec Guiness in the BBC production, and both are terrific and strong (though different).

While a rousing recommendation would be nice, it’s just not in the cards. This movie will have a very specific audience … those who thrive on mental jigsaw puzzles and are inspired by juggling an endless stream of characters and possible plots. If that describes you, then get in line on opening day.

note: John LeCarre’ has a quick cameo during the Christmas party flashback

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are the type who likes to play six chess matches at a time OR your addiction to spy novels leans towards the most realistic of the genre, rather than the most action-packed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Bond movies are your preference in spy thrillers OR needing a scorecard to keep track of the players ruins a game for you

watch the trailer:


MELANCHOLIA

November 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who walks into this film having not seen the trailer or being unfamiliar with the previous works of writer/director Lars von Trier has my sincere sympathy. He is a unique and ambitious filmmaker with a touch of expressionism, abstractness and a unique visual style. His movies are seen by a small audience and appreciated by even fewer. And on top of that, he may be the least politically correct celeb working today.

The film begins with a most unusual prologue backed by an ominous Wagner composition and numerous visuals that play like slow moving paintings come to life. Clearly, the end of the world is at hand. After that, we get two parts: Part 1 Justine, and Part 2 Claire. Justine (Kristen Dunst) is first seen in her wedding gown heading towards the reception with her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Normally, this is one of the happiest times of anyone’s life, but here something is just not quite right. Once inside, we begin to understand. Justine’s family and friends are all a bit off-center, and she is the worst of all.

 I won’t go into the details because what really matters is that Melancholia, a large blue planet, is headed directly towards earth. Kiefer Sutherland plays Justine’s rich brother-in-law and he assures everyone that the “pass by” will be a special moment and no need to fear a collision. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) believes her husband and tries to comfort her sister Justine.

The supporting cast is outstanding and includes not only Alexander Skarsgard as the groom, but also his father Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s over-bearing employer; Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s beyond bitter mother; John Hurt as the take-no-responsibilty father; Jesper Christensen as the faithful caretaker; and creepy Udo Kier as the wedding planner. It’s quite a cast and the only real point of their existence seems to be having Justine and the viewer question if this existence is better than no existence … which could happen in 5 days.

 This year has provided quite a metaphysical buffet at the theater. We have had The Tree of Life, Another Earth, Take Shelter and now this entry from von Trier. This group will have you questioning many things in life, and beyond. The other similarity between the three is the artistic craftsmanship with which each is made. Clearly two famous paintings play a key role for von Trier, and his final shot is done with such a deft touch that only guys like Tony Scott and Michael Bay will feel let down.

I certainly can’t recommend this one to all. It is somewhat slow moving and filled with symbolism and characters bordering on depression. It is beautiful to look at, but tough to watch. My guess is you already know if this is one for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy risky, creative filmmaking designed to initiate thought in the viewer … even if that thought might be questioning how one would handle pending doom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to movies to be uplifting and funny – a way to take your mind off the heavy stuff

watch the trailer: