THE TOMORROW MAN (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting and original script. On top of that, he cast two premier veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship between these two oddballs.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life tends to. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age. Many of us have family members that comfortably fit into either Camp Ed or Camp Ronnie.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. I originally saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s always a pleasure to welcome a new talented story teller to the cinematic world. Additionally, watching two talented actors play off each other is usually worth the price of a ticket, and as an added bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.

watch the trailer:

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DIFF 2019 Day 5

April 17, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Day 5 means we are now past the halfway mark for this year’s festival. Originally I had 4 films scheduled for today, but I opted out of the late movie since it would have required more than a 90 minute wait after the end of the third movie. It’s that kind of situation that makes festival scheduling a bit frustrating. Despite that, all 3 movies were worth the time: a documentary profile of an Italian model, a low budget quirky comedy, and a masterclass from two veteran screen actors.

 

 

Here is my recap of Day 5 films:

 

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MY MOTHER (doc)

 Caution is usually the best policy when choosing a biographical documentary shot by the subject’s family member. Often objectivity is sacrificed in the pursuit of a worthy tribute film. Oddly enough, it’s the mother-son relationship that provides the necessary spark as cinematographer Beniamino Barrese turns the lense on his mother Benedetta Barzini, a fashion model icon in the 1960’s and feminist spokesperson in the 1970’s.

We see photographs and flashbacks that prove what a stunning beauty Benedetta Barzini was at the peak of her modeling days. We also see clips of her appearances as a feminist spokesperson, and it’s in these that we see the fiery personality that is so prevalent in the current day exchanges with her director-son as he coaxes her through the process. There are also segments where she is mentoring younger girls and a return to the catwalk during Fashion Week.

She’s now in her 70’s, and remains physically striking with a lithe body that defies her age. But it’s the words coming out of her mouth – many pushing this to an “R” rating – that define the woman of today. The title of the movie refers to her preference to ‘disappear’ rather than ‘appear’ in the images of photos, film or social media.  When discussing the obsession society has with youth, she explains that Youth equates to Life, while Old age is associated with Death. That philosophy is a bit of a downer, but is an example of the insight she brings. In describing today’s marketing, she says women are usually associated with nature, while men represent thought and reason. The outspoken and wise feminist lives on.

Home clips from 1999 and a visit with long-time friend Lauren Hutton offer up more bits of what makes the woman tick, as does her listening to Leonard Cohen and smoking cigs and vaping at an alarming rate. In her mid-70’s, whether she likes it or not, her smile still lights up the screen and any room she is in. Still, we understand she has earned her own liberation from the camera, even as she puts a cap on it. Fin.

 

ODE TO JOY

 You might be familiar with the disease narcolepsy, but unless you or someone close to you suffers from it, you’re likely unfamiliar with cataplexy – a symptom of narcolepsy that causes sudden and extreme muscle weakness typically brought on by severe emotions such as sadness, anger or excitement. For Charlie, the trigger is happiness, so he has learned to (mostly) cope by avoiding his triggers: puppies, weddings, random acts of kindness, kids playing, and relationships. What he couldn’t avoid was being a groomsman in his sister’s wedding, which is how director Jason Winer and co-writers Max Werner and Chris Higgins choose to begin the film. We see the full effects and fallout (no pun intended) of Charlie’s disease.

Charlie works a calm job (out of necessity) at the public library, and his co-workers have mastered the art of assisting in keeping Charlie thinking non-happy thoughts. As tends to happen, love finds a way. Charlie crosses paths with Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a lively woman who appears to be Charlie’s opposite in most ways … making the attraction even stronger. A first date to a community theatre where a one-man show titled “Great Depression” is playing, we get the full effect of the challenges Charlie faces.

Cooper (Jake Lacy), Charlie’s younger brother, has been his main support system for most of his life – which is even more remarkable when we get the story of how Cooper got his name. When things fizzle between Francesca and Charlie, Cooper swoops in to date her and they set up Charlie with Bethany (a wonderful Melissa Rauch). Bethany’s own quirks seem to be a good fit, even if Charlie’s torch for Francesca still flickers. Surely you’ve never seen an oboe sing-a-long to the Cranberries “Zombie”, and if somehow you have, it likely pales in comparison to the one Ms. Rauch performs.

The laughs are many, yet the script and Freeman’s performance remain respectful to the disease and those who suffer from it. Jane Curtin appears as Francesca’s Aunt who is cancer-stricken, and no, the purpose wasn’t to show a disease worse than cataplexy, but rather to show we all have challenges in life – and how we deal determines the type of person we are. The story was inspired by a story on Chicago TV’s “This American Life”, and it’s a nice little gem that hopefully will find distribution.

 

THE TOMORROW MAN

 Noble Jones worked as the second unit director on David Fincher’s award-winning film THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and he has made quite a name for himself in music videos and commercials. This is his first feature film as director and he also wrote this interesting script. On top of that, he cast two top-notch veteran actors to bring the story to life: John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At times it feels like we are watching a masterclass in acting and many of their scenes together have a live theatre feel.

Ed (Lithgow) and Ronnie (Danner) cross paths at the local grocery store where they each shop at an alarmingly frequent rate. It turns out Ed is preparing for doomsday and Ronnie is hoarder. As they spend time together, their fondness for each other grows, but we are never really sure if it’s loneliness or connection that inspires the relationship.

Despite both having a very serious approach to life, there are many moments of levity and sweetness, but also doses of reality that keep us off-balanced – just as life does. Ed proclaims the world would be such a disaster with ball bearings … of course his view is a bit skewed since he spent 17 years on the business. Ronnie is brave enough to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Ed at his son’s house, and the explosive family dynamics drive home the challenges of co-existing with others at any age.

Ed tells the new checkout clerk that it’s “good to know your neighbor. You never know when you’ll need them.” His preparations for doom and gloom … or as he calls it, SHTF … are offset by Ronnie’s sweetness, and a yard sale leads to the surprise ending. As a bonus, filmmaker Noble has finally found a good use for the song “Muskrat Love”.


DADDY’S HOME 2 (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s rare for a sequel to be a better film than the original, and we are entering unicorn territory when dealing with comedy sequels improving on the first film. So hearing that most of the original cast is back for material from the same creative team – director Sean Anders and his co-writers Brian Burns and John Morris – well, expectations would normally be pretty low. However, all of that changes when we learn of two cast/character additions: Mel Gibson and John Lithgow.

After the fierce daddy competition between Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) in the original two years ago, this film picks up with what looks to be a very healthy co-dad environment for all involved. In comedy-based cinema, the best way to disrupt a happy family synergy is to introduce the Christmas season and the sure-to-follow family turmoil. Enter Mel Gibson as Dusty’s estranged dad, and John Lithgow as Brad’s so-close-it’s-too-close dad … and let the holiday escapades begin.

At its core, this is an observational comedy about the contrast between old school and contemporary fatherhood – machismo vs emotionally open. Mel Gibson is key to the story working on multiple levels, and his performance is a reminder of his immense screen talent (in spite his personal life issues). His character’s idea of being a father has been around for many generations. Toughen up the kids and make sure they are strong and independent. Keep those emotions close to the vest. On the other side is John Lithgow and his over-hugging and blubbering true feelings approach.

The familiar supporting cast holds up their end admirably. Linda Cardellini and Alessandra Ambrosio are back as Brad’s and Dusty’s wives, respectively. Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, and Didi Costine are back as the kids – each with their own quirks and growing pains. Even John Cena returns as Adrianna’s biological father, and to deliver one of the film’s best punchlines, as well as a bit that might forever ruin Christmas caroling for you.

The trailer, as with most comedies these days, gives away too many of the funny moments, so don’t expect any additional spoilers here. There is some comedy brilliance mixed in with the cheesy, over-the-top slapstick (a snowblower scene that could have easily worked in CHRISTMAS VACATION almost 30 years ago). The brilliant moments are often the quieter ones, and they focus on parenting, family, and the challenges of childhood. There is a surprising and unusual cameo near the end, and the movie is well executed to satisfy its built-in audience, while also capitalizing on those who enjoy (and/or need) a good, clean comedy at Christmas time.

watch the trailer:


BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie industry frequently sources societal worries, concerns, issues and hot topics. It’s been less than 6 months, but here come the anti-Trump movies. Of course some will have clever disguises for their message, while others will slap us across the face. This re-teaming of The Good Girl director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White actually uses both approaches.

Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a masseuse and holistic healer, who comes awfully close to being an angel on earth … unless she’s guzzled a bit too much white wine at your dinner party. Beatriz fights southern California traffic in her clunky VW as she rushes from her gig at the cancer center to Cathy’s (Connie Britton) Orange County cliffside mansion. See, Cathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s (David Warshofsky) business associates and she simply must have her massage prior to such a stressful event – after all, she did plan the menu. When Beatriz’s car stalls in Cathy’s driveway, she is invited to stay for the dinner party.

Things get awkward once the actual guests arrive. Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) are the young, entitled types so enticed by the fancy house and global traveling lifestyles on which they are on the brink. It should be noted that Mr. Duplass cleans up nicely and Ms. Sevigny spends much of the movie smiling – a look for which she’s not normally associated. The real squirming occurs once Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his shallow third wife Jenna (Amy Landecker, “Transparent”) arrive.

Beatriz and Strutt are polar opposites with contrasting lifestyles and character. She is a mystical presence with a deep connection to Mother Earth and all living beings. He is the Trump-like figure – charismatic, manipulating and laser-focused on the brass ring. She coddles her pet goat in her bedroom to protect it from a crazy neighbor, while he ignores the rare birds nesting on the valuable land he wants scraped for his newest development.

It’s by no means a superhero movie, but Beatriz is presented as a Mexican-born working class (minimal make-up, functional clothing and shoes) Wonder Woman, while Strutt is the ultra villain out to destroy the planet, one rhinoceros at a time. She views him as “The Source” of Earth’s pain, while he tries to laugh her off as a novelty act. It’s Cathy and her husband who are most taken aback by the direct words of Beatriz, as they have considered her a “family friend” since she helped their daughter through a health scare. How dare she spoil their dinner party!

There is a beautiful aerial shot of the Orange County mega-mansions, but most of the uncomfortable moments are derived through the ongoing duel of angelic Beatriz vs. the poisonous topics of politics and profit. There is no subtlety in the message, but having two talented actors go head to head, does make it more palatable.

watch the trailer:

 


MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer: