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:

 

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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:

 

 

 

 


LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

August 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jay Roach seems to be the perfect guy to direct a political campaign parody during a Presidential election year. He has had plenty of low-brow comedy success with Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers. He then gained credibility with his political sharpness in Recount and Game Change, and he is co-founder of “Funny or Die”. Instead, the movie has the feel of being thrown together during a long weekend with his drinking buddies. Luckily for him, his buddies include Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

Revolving around a North Carolina Republican Congressional primary, we are first introduced to a smug Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four term incumbent who expects to run unopposed. Not long after, we learn local twit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is entering the race … even though he freezes in front of the camera and has no apparent platform or special issue to support. Of course, that is the one thing both candidates share – the issues aren’t the focus of the movie or their campaign. Rather, this is meant to poke fun at what political campaigning has devolved into, and how we as voters continue to fall for the dirty game of politics.

 We soon learn that the billionaire Motch brothers are financing Marty’s campaign. Their single interest is making more money and they need an indebted politician to help them buy up cheap district land and re-sell it to the Chinese so that cheap labor can be “insourced”. Clearly the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are meant to spoof the real life political power brokers, the Koch Brothers.

Clueless Marty gets help from intense campaign manager guru Tim Whattley (Dylan McDermott) who is there to make him not suck so much. First thing is to re-do Marty’s image … they remodel his house, right down to replacing the family pugs with two more popular breeds. As Marty gets caught up in the campaign fervor, we get the expected results: he drifts from his family, the dirty stuff includes real life political sojourns like drunk driving, sexting, infidelity, false accusations, religious hypocrisy and public embarrassment of the opponents.

The real statement here, if there is one, seems to be that we the voters have allowed political campaigning to turn into a contest of who connects with us and who seems to be like us, rather than a focus on issues present and future. Kissing our baby or attending our county fair shows the candidate is one of us, while in fact, gives no indication of whether the candidate has any true beliefs or understands the issues. There are plenty of laughs in the movie, though it’s not my particular favorite type of comedy (think Talladega Nights). I will especially tip my cap to Zach G for his willingness to do whatever is necessary for a laugh. He is a fearless comedian.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if a lightweight parody of political campaigning is just the kind of escapism you are looking for OR you never miss anything from Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis, two of the funnier people on the planet.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a biting expose’ of political campaigning.  It’s not even as deep as HBO’s “Veep”.

watch the trailer (all the funny parts):


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

August 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. As a young kid I saw the original Planet of the Apes at a drive-in with my parents. At the time, I mostly just thought the talking apes were cool and enjoyed the surprise ending, despite having no ability to really process the statement that Pierre Boulle (novel) and Rod Serling (screenplay) were making. Since then, I have had a soft spot for the series, including the Tim Burton version 10 years ago.

As you can tell by the title, this latest version is truly a prequel. It is meant to explain the beginnings of how the Apes gained intelligence and created a powerful society that would one day rule humans. It begins in a genetic engineering lab run by James Franco and his team. They are using chimps to test an experimental drug that will hopefully be used to treat and cure Alzheimer’s. In no small coincidence, Mr. Franco’s father is played by John Lithgow, a once renowned musician and teacher, who is now suffering the effects of this horrible disease.

 When things go wrong at the lab, Franco breaks most every known law and tests the drug on dear old dad. Of course, it works miracles. The accident in the lab, leads Franco to adopt a baby chimp born to one of the chimps used to test the drug. This chimp quickly becomes the smartest one in the house, neighborhood and city. Named Caesar, his learning curve is off the charts. And yes, after a couple of years, his strength and temper are as well.

After yet another accident, Caesar is put away in a chimp camp run by greedy Brian Cox and sadistic Tom Felton (Draco of Harry Potter fame). Caesar uses his intelligence and the unsuspecting and unobservant nature of the humans to organize a coup. This part is really something to behold.

 By far the best acting in the film is delivered by Andy Serkis. Don’t recognize the name? You might know him better as King Kong or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Mr. Serkis is a motion-capture actor-extraordinare. It is sometimes difficult to tell where these effects stop and the CGI begins, but overall the look of the chimps is pretty good and the action sequences are downright amazing.

What hurts the film is the weakness of the human stories. Franco as a genius scientist? Doesn’t work for me. Freida Pinto as a primate specialist? The script gives her nothing to work with. Lithgow and Cox are excellent actors, but mere pawns in this story.

 Director Rupert Wyatt tips a cap to the original film a few times: tribute names such as Bright Eyes and Dodge Landon, an orange orangutan named Maurice (in honor of Maurice Evans), a quick glimpse of a Statue of Liberty puzzle, horse-back riding, Charlton Heston on TV (as Moses), and a couple of classic lines including “stinking paws”.

In what was supposed to be a transition story, this one really belongs to the apes … and it’s teed up beautifully for a sequel.  The apes are planning it in a wooded area located at the sign post just ahead … across the Golden Gate.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Apes series that dates back 43 years OR you want to see how James Franco can screw up even worse than he did hosting the Oscars

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy off on the whole brilliant apes idea OR after a hard day at the office, the last thing you want is more talking apes!

watch the trailer: