VELVET BUZZSAW (2019)

February 9, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material … even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved “from anarchist to purveyor of good taste”. Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora’s competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora’s ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life’s work when he died … he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this “hot” artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over – often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it’s best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he’s immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It’s rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through – artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film’s faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.

available on Netflix

watch the trailer:

 

Advertisements

MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

watch the trailer:


WARM BODIES (2013)

February 3, 2013

warm2 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 45 years since George Romero introduced us to Night of the Living Dead, which he followed 10 years later with Dawn of the Dead. In 2004, humor was injected into the zombie genre by Shaun of the Dead, and then in 2009 Zombieland kept it alive, so to speak. Now, thanks to the success of “The Walking Dead”, zombies are the new vampires in Hollywood. Writer/director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) turns Isaac Marion’s young adult novel into the first true Zombie Rom-Com … or Zom-Com, if you will.

Many of us were introduced to Nicholas Hoult a decade ago when he was the youngster alongside Hugh Grant in About a Boy. In his latest, Mr. Hoult plays “R”, a self-admitted conflicted zombie in a post-apocalyptic society. In this new world order, there are three distinct groups: Humans, Corpses, and Bonies. Humans are the paranoid types who build a wall and aggressively hunt down the two non-human groups. Corpses are the traditional zombie types who sniff and slog their way through warm3while trying to avoid deadly shots to the head. Bonies are those corpses who have given up all hope and now are indiscriminate in their search for meals.

So all of that sounds quite typical and expected, but what gives this movie its charm is the manner in which we as the viewer connect with R the zombie. His narration provides insight into his ever-present optimism, despite his need to feed on humans. In the film’s turning point, he actually rescues Julie (Teresa Palmer) during a corpse-human battle. Taking her back to his jet liner-condo, they communicate through simple gestures and R’s vintage vinyl collection.

A romantic comedy through the POV of a zombie is a bit unusual, and so is the wit and humor displayed by R. There is minimal warm4actual gore in the film, though you should be prepared for R’s keeping a brain-snack in his pocket in a manner not unlike Napoleon Dynamite’s tot stash. The tip of the cap to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is obvious in the character names, and the similarities to Twilight are inescapable. Still, there is quite a bit new here and most of it is quite enjoyable.

Hoult and Palmer’s on screen dynamics are key to the story, and there is excellent support work from Rob Corddry, John Malkovich and Analeigh Tipton. It would be easy to give away too much here, but instead let’s say that it is surprisingly clever, funny, witty, sweet and entertaining … especially for a Zom-Com that features tunes from Springsteen and Dylan.

**NOTE: despite my surprisingly favorable reaction to this movie, I was a bit shocked by the poor CGI on the Bonies. It’s probably due to budget constraints, but special effects that look outmoded by two decades are tough to overlook.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a surprisingly entertaining romantic comedy half populated by zombies.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: suspension of disbelief is not your strong suit.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07s-cNFffDM

 


TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

July 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pride myself on being a fan of many different types of films – everything from World Cinema to Super Heroes.  However, it would be unfair to analyze, critique or compare a Transformers movie to any “normal” movie. Being somewhat limited in scope by the source material, director Michael Bay, delivers what the fan of the series want … full scale noise and all-out action.

While Mr. Bay admitted that part two of this trilogy was lacking much (an understatement), it appears his efforts to improve part three come not from a script doctor, but rather by tossing in some familiar Hollywood faces: John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and Ken Jeong. Oh, and we also get Bill O’Reilly, an odd sequence with legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon), and the best surprise – Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime.

 Most of the same key players are back: Shia LaBeouf as Sam (friend to Optimus Prime), John Turturro (having cashed in on his 10 min of fame), Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as soldiers, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents in a couple of throw away scenes that cost much less than the CGI that dominates the movie.

While I remain an avid opponent to 3-D, this film offers a few of the best uses since Avatar. Unfortunately the dimmed coloring offset the benefits and continue to annoy me. Just remove your glasses periodically and you can easily see how much brighter the colors are without the 3-D muting. Such a shame.

 Michael Bay knows explosions. And there is no shortage on display here. We get plenty of rock ’em sock ’em action and the military is on full display, especially with some pretty cool skydiving tactics. Heck, we even get Frances McDormand as a power-hungry bureaucrat. For those who know Chicago, the familiar sights abound. The Wrigley Building plays a vital role, though it still bothers me a bit to see a skyscraper destroyed. I will say the tilted office is not even close to the cool factor of the rotating hallway of Inception, though the effort is appreciated.

 The battle of the robots is what (lots of) people pay to see and the 40 plus minute final battle is something to behold, even if it drags on entirely too long. And I can’t fail to mention that the lack of presence of Megan Fox‘ character is explained a couple of times as having “dumped” Sam. Sam has rebounded nicely with Carly, played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks just fine in a $200,000 Mercedes, a slim white dress or conversing with an injured villainous robot. Yes, one must maintain a sense of humor during this movie.

The use of slo-motion, the ties to the space program, and the connection to Chernobyl are all a bit heavy-handed, but this is a Transformers movie, not a documentary. And the actual transformation of these guys is still one of the coolest on screen moments you can find … even if the story and dialogue will have you desperate for brain resuscitation when the movie finally ends.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Bay-splosions!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t believe the same guy (Peter Cullen) who voices Optimus Prime, also voice Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame


SECRETARIAT (2010)

September 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Secretariat is legendary in the world of thoroughbred racing. Being a sports fan, it is always fascinating to witness domination by a singular athlete – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer. Secretariat was the Michael Jordan of racing. In 1973, Big Red dominated racing like no other.

What makes this even more amazing is that Secretariat is actually the second most interesting story … his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (played here by Diane Lane), was his match in competitive spirit. This Disney movie actually spends as much time on Ms. Tweedy as it does the fabulous horse.

Disney does what Disney does best. This is an all out feel-good, rah-rah movie in the vein of Seabiscuit, The Rookie, Rudy and even Hoosiers. Don’t expect in-depth analysis of the racing world, horse training or even horse farm operations. This movie is made to deliver a warm fuzzy via the perseverance of a strong-willed lady and an incredibly majestic animal.

Expect some over-the-top touches such as John Malkovich‘s portrayal of trainer Lucen Laurin, horse-whispering by Ms. Lane, and plenty of heart-string tugging as is customary from the fine folks at Disney. Expect historical facts to be treated a bit lax in some scenes (no mention of 1972 Derby winner Riva Ridge, also from the Chenery stables). Expect none of that to matter as this is a crowd-pleaser, not a documentary.

In addition to Mr. Malkovich and Ms. Lane, there is some fine support work from (former Senator) Fred Thompson, James Cromwell and Nelsan Ellis (so great as Lafayette in True Blood). Directed by Randall Wallace, whose most recent directorial effort was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, this is entertainment for all ages and an easy introduction to the champion that was Secretariat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy strong, smart female characters (Diane Lane, not Secretariat) OR you thought Seabiscuit should have won an Oscar

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to John Malkovich for fashion tips OR you think pari-mutuel betting is allowed at the cineplex


JONAH HEX (2010)

June 21, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Had been looking forward to this one because of the unique source material with a twist on the traditional western revenge. Somehow Josh Brolin provided a brooding, deadpanning, interesting character despite being surrounded by ridiculous ideas, amateurish directing, a boring story and some atrocious supporting acting. This one simply falls flat.

While Brolin deserves the benefit of the doubt … I am sure his vision was better than director Jimmy Hayward’s … there is no logical explanation for the “super weapon” or the “love interest”. The background given for the super weapon is that it’s an Eli Whitney invention, and there is simply no excuse for Megan Fox and her cardboard performance as the hooker with a heart only for Hex.

The other thing that seems pretty basic is that a revenge story needs a strong basis for a burning need to get even. Here we get a weak, aloof bad guy played by John Malkovich, who kills Hex’s family AFTER Hex had killed Malkovich’s son. Oh yeah, almost forgot, Jonah Hex can communicate with the dead. Which is good, because there won’t be any live people in the audience once word spreads on how lousy this movie is. Such a shame.