Mid90s (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a shame that many will immediately write off this as just another ‘skateboard movie’.  While it’s true that the characters spend a good deal of each day skating, talking about skating, or hanging out in a local skate shop, a more accurate description would be: life lessons presented from a street level view. Remarkably, this is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. We all know Mr. Hill and his raunchy sense of humor from his acting in such movies as KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and here he flashes an intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be an outsider … those on the fringes of mainstream society.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic from THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) is a junior high kid (slightly built for his age) who gets regularly pounded by his older brother (yet another excellent turn from Lucas Hedges). Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is more concerned with her own life and mostly clueless as to what goes on with her boys, both inside the house and out.

As one who doesn’t really fit in at school, Stevie happens to notice a group of skaters trash-talking and seemingly having a good old time. He quietly starts hanging around the group, absorbing the nuances of their (mostly) good natured put-downs, and gazing in awe at their skating abilities. Stevie begins the painful and slow process of teaching himself how to skate – one fall at a time. A montage of nasty spills in the driveway make the point that bruises, blood and frustrations are just part of the process.

This group of older boys consists of the leader Ray (Na-Kel Smith, a professional skateboarder and musician), party animal and aptly nicknamed F**KS**T (Olan Prenatt), filmmaker wannabe and also aptly nicknamed Fourth Grader (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest who is only a year or two older than Stevie. We quickly learn the personality type of each. Ray is working towards skating professionally and escaping the hood. F**KS**T simply loves having fun chasing girls, partying, and hanging with friends. Fourth Grader always has his camera and has enough vision to know he wants to make a movie, while young Ruben is insecure and confused about what makes a man – probably the most tragic of all.

As Stevie learns the ropes, we see he is constantly smiling – just happy to finally be a part of something. His fearlessness and ability to absorb pain (thanks to his brother) allow him to be quickly accepted and guided by the guys … some of it good, some of it a bit questionable. The language throughout is more realistic than what we’ve become accustomed to. There are plenty of slurs and profanity-laced trash-talking that wouldn’t pass today’s PC auditors, but director Hill pulls no punches.

One of the downsides is that Lucas Hedges isn’t given much to do here – though he is spot on with the type of bully we all recognize. Instead, the story is a skate movie only to the extent that the sub-culture can be a haven where outsiders come together. Although the film is set 20 years ago, it’s quite interesting to see how these outsiders are so similar regardless of the era. Everyone needs to connect with others, whether they be band members, athletes, or skaters.

Hill has created a spontaneous, quasi-documentary feel thanks to his filming techniques and by using only 3 real actors (young Suljic is outstanding). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a terrific score, and there are a couple of beautiful shots of the boys freewheeling down the middle of a busy road with a colorful sky as backdrop. We can’t help but notice some similarities to SKATE KITCHEN, KIDS, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, and even CLERKS, and Hill’s debut is less a story, than a snapshot for those who tend to look past the fringes.

watch the trailer (CAUTION: NSFW):

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DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT (2018)

July 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being neither an alcoholic, an artist nor a quadriplegic, I found myself wondering if I would be able to connect at all with the real life story of John Callahan. At most, I figured another stellar, oddball performance from Joaquin Phoenix might keep me engaged. It turns out, director Gus Van Sant (GOOD WILL HUNTING, 1999) focuses more on the quite interesting road to sobriety … a road that also happens to lead directly to a reason to live.

Based on Mr. Callahan’s autobiography, the film stars the enigmatic Mr. Phoenix. First seen as a 21 year old (a bit of a stretch) slacker who constantly needs a “fix” of alcohol, no matter the time of day, the talented actor excels after the alcohol-induced car accident that robs Callahan completely of the use of his legs, leaving him only minimal function with arms and hands. Even this doesn’t inspire Callahan to give up the bottle. However, a vision of his mother does. Callahan’s mommy issues are a key element of the story, as she gave him up for infant adoption – leading to many years of drowning his self-pity in whatever type of alcohol was in the glass.

The film picks up some momentum once Callahan begins attending AA group therapy sessions conducted by Donnie (Jonah Hill). Donnie is part Zen sponsor and trust fund guru. It’s a wonderful performance from Mr. Hill, who makes the most of each of his scenes. Others in the group include a terrific (musician) Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame), (German icon) Udo Kier, Ronnie Adrian and Mark Webber. Individually they don’t have much to do, but they do make for a fascinating group. Also appearing are Tony Greenhand as Callahan’s attendant, the fabulously talented Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s physical therapist-turned-girlfriend. Ms. Mara is especially short-changed in the script.

It was 1972 and Callahan was 21 when the car accident left him a quadriplegic. Slowly, he discovered his talent as a cartoonist – albeit a controversial and darkly funny one. In today’s climate of political correctness, it’s likely Callahan would find no audience, but at the time, he developed a national following. This was the time of other single panel cartoonists like Gary Larson and Bill Watterson.

Attempting to avoid the traditional and familiar biopic structure, director Van Sant (who has a cameo) chops the movie into bits that work better individually than as a whole. At times it plays like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. But some of the bits are outstanding. The film is somehow both funny and sad, and includes a terrific scene near the end with Callahan and Jack Black’s Dexter reuniting for the first time since the accident. It’s a powerfully honest scene.

A destructive lifestyle doesn’t always lead to good things, and substance abuse is not very entertaining – though, the road to recovery can be. Getting of glimpse of the 12 step program, we see that not drinking is merely the beginning. It’s like a runner who must first lace up his shoes before beginning the actual run. Callahan died in 2010 at age 59, but his impact continues.

watch the trailer:


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUE STORY (2015)

April 17, 2015

true story Greetings again from the darkness. “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true”. These words are spoken by Christian Longo, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife and 3 kids in 2001. The line between truth and lies is at the core of this real life story directed by Rupert Goold and based on journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir and recollections of his conversations with Longo.

The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is introduced to us as he is researching the story which ultimately leads to his dismissal, after it’s discovered he played fast and loose with details in order to present a more impactful story. Soon he receives an odd phone call from an Oregon writer (Ethan Suplee) who informs Finkel that his name is being used by Longo (James Franco), the suspected murderer who was recently captured in Mexico. As a disgraced journalist, Finkel seizes the opportunity to connect with Longo, and soon enough the two morally-compromised men are locked in psychological warfare, where we as viewers aren’t sure just who is using who in this oddball “friendship”.

Hill and Franco are best known for their raunchy and raucous comedies, and both deliver much “quieter” performances than what we have come to expect from them. While it’s a bit of stretch to buy Jonah Hill as a renowned writer, Franco is absolutely chilling as a manipulative psychopath. Franco is so good in the role that he overpowers Hill, which undermines what was supposed to be an intricate game of cat and mouse.

Franco is a frightening figure on the courtroom witness stand as he tells his version of that fateful night, and he is equally unnerving to watch in general conversation with Finkel. However, the single best scene in the film comes when Felicity Jones unleashes the wrath of truth on Franco’s Longo. Ms. Jones is otherwise underutilized for most of the film, as her relationship with Finkel is never really explored.

Rather than provide any substantive background on what makes either Finkel or Longo tick, we are instead left to make our own assumptions based on the framed magazine covers and the spurts of flashbacks. And thus the film’s biggest flaw is cheating us out of the backstory that might help explain the otherwise fascinating conversations/showdowns between these two flawed gents … one significantly more flawed than the other.

It’s impossible not to compare this to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and the subsequent films based on his writing experience: Capote (2005), and Infamous (2006). Stretching and bending the truth are common themes, as are intriguing and disturbing insights from the writers and the accused.

There are times True Story comes off as little more than a made for TV movie, but the best moments more than make up for it, and Franco’s portrayal will stick with you long after Finkel finally understands who and what he is dealing with. It’s also a reminder that there are people who “want the truth so badly” they “will lie to get it”. Try saying that with a wink.

watch the trailer:

 

 


22 JUMP STREET (2014)

June 14, 2014

22 Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of 3 minute trailers that give away the best gags, if one can walk out of a comedy having laughed a few times, it must be deemed a success. Such is the case with this sequel to 21 Jump Street (2012), which was borne from the 1980’s hit TV show of the same name.

A couple of years ago, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) went undercover at a high school to bring down drug dealers. This time, they head to a local college for the same purpose. If that sounds like a re-tread, at least the film acknowledges such. In a scene with Nick Offerman, a few minutes of self-parody are devoted to the misgivings of re-do’s … even with double the budget! Co-directors (back from the first, and fresh off The Lego Movie) Phil Lord and Christopher Miller make this film the butt of its own joke, and for the most part, that approach works.

The best buddy comedies work because of two things: the script and the rapport of the leads. The pairing of Jonah and Tatum works very well, even when we get the predictable split into liberal arts and sports (take a stab which actor gets which assignment). There are a couple of actresses who play vital supporting roles – Amber Stevens as Schmidt’s love interest, and Jillian Bell in an offbeat and quite funny take as the nemesis. Oddly enough, Jenko’s relationship is a bro-mance on the football team with the QB played by Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son). One of the poor decisions was to quadruple the screen time for Ice Cube … his antics are funny in more limited doses. Very limited.

There are some terrific “old man” jokes, more than 25 songs, and references to Maya Angelou and Tracy Morgan … both who have been in the news for less-than-uplifting reasons lately. Most will find the best sequence to be after the movie ends and before the credits begin. The mock sequels (23 Jump Street, 24 …) appear in rapid fire mode with a couple of cameos and some creative “schools”. While the movie wobbles between spot on and over-the-top, it delivers what we expect … a funny enough sequel to a funny enough tribute movie.

**NOTE: this sequel offers up a Richard Grieco cameo rather than the Johnny Depp cameo from the first one

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: mindless comedy hits the spot during the summertime OR you enjoyed 21 immensely and have been anxiously awaiting 22

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting another Johnny Depp cameo OR Ice Cube yelling and scowling is an annoyance you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

December 28, 2013

wolf Greetings again from the darkness. A brilliant and expertly made film that is excruciatingly painful to watch, yet impossible to look away. That would be my one line review. Of course, that line could be followed by a 10 page essay, to which I won’t subject you. How to do justice to this extraordinary three hours of excess and debauchery? How to give due credit the craftsmanship of director Martin Scorcese? How to acknowledge the pure physicality and kinetic energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance? How to heap praise on a project so lacking in morality and decency? There are no easy answers to these four questions, but there is plenty to discuss.

Let’s be clear. This is a vulgar film telling the disgusting story of a crude and egotistical scam artist who defrauded many innocent people. Jordan Belfort’s autobiography serves as the source material for the screenplay from Terrence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire“). Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorcese) portrays Belfort as the talented stock broker who soaks up lessons from both his mentor and the real world stock market crash of 1987. That Black Monday led him right into the world of penny stocks and huge commissions. Those commissions and his stunning sales skills take him right into a world that rivals that of Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon. This is certainly DiCaprio’s most free and limitless performance to date … it’s also his most comedic.

wolf5 Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. Sorry, that’s not enough for Belfort. He is also driven by money, greed, power and the need to take advantage of the weak. I lost count, but surely Belfort displays more than seven deadly sins. Everything is extreme. Nothing in moderation. Belfort is both smart and stupid. He is the worst of human nature, and when combined with his charisma, becomes very dangerous. Watching him give his invigorating and over-the-top pep talks to the team recalls the cult evangelists we have seen over the years. His religion is money and winning … never accepting “no”. His followers eat it up.

While most of the movie is pedal to the metal, there are two exceptional scenes that really stood out. When a young, eager, new to Wall Street Belfort has lunch with his mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), we sense him soaking up the lessons … we see the wheels turning to a new way of thinking. McConaughey is in top form here. The other standout scene takes place aboard Belfort’s yacht as he interacts with the FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. This agent is the closest thing to a moral barometer the movie allows and their dance of dialogue and acting is pure cinematic magic.

wolf6 Jonah Hill as Belfort’s business partner is his physical opposite, and possibly even less morally-centered than Belfort. He is also extremely funny in a demented way. Three very talented film directors have supporting roles. Rob Reiner (in a rare acting gig) plays Belfort’s bombastic dad and firm accountant. Jon Favreau is the high priced attorney fighting off the SEC and FBI. Spike Jonze plays the boiler room manager who first schools Belfort on penny stocks, and sets the wheels in motion. There is also a very sexy, funny performance from Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife.

My words don’t do justice to the manic existence and frenzied scenes of sex, profanity and drug use. The black comedy mixed in prevents this from being the bleak portrayal that it could have been, but don’t underestimate the depths to which the characters will stoop to get what they want. This one makes a similarly themed American Hustle look like a Disney flick. Consider yourself warned … and don’t think you can just turn away from the screen.

**NOTE: the soundtrack is quite diverse and complements the pace of the film.  The musical director is Robbie Robertson, who was part of The Band when Martin Scorcese directed The Last Waltz

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

 


21 JUMP STREET (2012)

March 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The original 1987-91 TV series “jump” started Johnny Depp‘s mega-superstardom career, and yes, he is a generous enough to appear in a brief cameo in this updated film from co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The script from co-writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill makes little effort to stay true to the source material and that works in the film’s favor.

We first meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as polar opposites at the same high school. One of them is a pudgy, nerdy looking guy trying hard to throw down an Eminem look, while the other is the ultra-cool jock who is skating by academically. Guess which is which? Flash forward seven years and these two are still misfits … this time at the police academy where one aces the physical fitness tests and bombs academically and the other is just the opposite. Guess which is which? So these two decide to become buddies and help each other live the dream as badass cops.

 Cut to the next scene where they are patrolling a park on bicycles and visualizing their first big bust. When things go wrong … SURPRISE! … they are assigned to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), an angry man who runs the Jump Street undercover unit out of a Korean church. Since neither Hill nor Tatum look anything like high schoolers, the absurdity is written into the script. They become the most mis-matched brothers since Schwarzenegger and Devito in Twins.

Their mission is to discover the dealers and source for a new drug making its way through a local high school. The drug has already killed one student and it takes these two “brothers” about 5 minutes to uncover the dealers, a group of popular rich kids. The supplier is a bit slower to come and the process involves numerous comedy skits involving Tatum as a science geek and Hill as Peter Pan.

 The comedy skits involve nice work from Elle Kemper, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell. The cool kids are played by Dave Franco (James’ brother) and Brie Larson. Car chases, a keg party, science experiments and the prom all play a role, as do white tuxedos and one of the oddest shootouts ever filmed. What seems like 1200 rounds are fired in a hotel room before someone is actually hit.

In addition to Depp’s pretty cool cameo, there are also appearances from Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete, both of whom starred in the original TV series. Of course the story is ridiculous and the film never really takes itself seriously, but I was actually somewhat impressed with Channing Tatum’s ability to play deadpan to Jonah Hill’s slapstick. The two worked pretty well together and there are enough laughs to make this one worth seeing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Channing Tatum generate some laughs (purposefully this time) OR you just need some mindless giggles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a tribute to the original TV series OR you are a fan of realistic police dramas

watch the trailer: