WONDER WHEEL (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s worth saying again – Woody Allen (age 82), regardless of what you think of him personally, is remarkable in his ability to create, write and direct a new movie each and every year. That being said, after watching his latest, it should be noted that he is the one filmmaker who really shouldn’t ever write a story with a step-daughter as a character … especially if romance is involved. Sometimes we just can’t separate the art from the artist, no matter how hard we try.

The setting is Coney Island in the 1950’s, and our narrator is a charming lifeguard recounting the ‘one summer’ story of a carousel operator, his beaten-down (and beaten-up) wife, and a surprise visit from the husband’s adult daughter. The lifeguard is Mickey, a dreamer and would-be writer played by Justin Timberlake. The carousel operator is known as Humpty and is an alcoholic lout played by Jim Belushi, while his wife Ginny, disillusioned that life has crushed her dreams, is played by Kate Winslet. Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) is on the run from her mobster husband, and seems to cause trouble without really trying. Ginny’s young son Richie (Jack Gore) also lives with them. He is a pyromaniac and movie fanatic – two pastimes effective at avoiding school.

Director Allen utilizes a beautiful color palette combined with nostalgic sounds and music to create a look that he then blends with a story and performances that seem to intentionally knock-off Tennessee Williams. Belushi, Timblerake and Winslet in particular come across as overly-theatrical in their approach to heavy dialogue – these characters are defined more by what they say than what they do.

Ginny plots to keep Humpty off the booze so he doesn’t hit her; all the while, she is sneaking off to enjoy the talents of the young lifeguard who lacks the fortitude to prevent her from falling too hard. Humpty is thrilled for a do-over with Carolina and reverts to treating her as his little girl … despite the mob contract lingering over her head. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the redheaded Richie and young Alvy from Mr. Allen’s classic ANNIE HALL (who described living under the Cyclone).

As Ginny half-efforts parenting her troubled young son, she also juggles the guilt she carries from cheating on her first husband. Simultaneously, Mickey the lifeguard starts falling for Carolina, as the mobsters close in. Periodically Woody flashes his writing brilliance, as in this exchange between Carolina and Mickey: She says, “You’ve been around the world”, and he responds, “Yeah, but you’ve been around the block.” So despite the look and feel of nostalgia, the themes are timeless … cheating and abusive spouse, disillusioned adults, and youngsters rebelling in hopes of attracting attention.

The too-often blustery dialogue syncs with the too-often over-acting, yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of 3 Oscars – APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS, THE LAST EMPEROR) keeps things visually appealing throughout. The only “quiet” moments occur as Richie is lighting yet another fire. Recurring issues of migraines, booze, stress, moodiness, and rain are prevalent, and perhaps the saving grace is that we are left singing Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me”.

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LEN AND COMPANY (2016)

June 10, 2016

Len Greetings again from the darkness. Mining a mid-life crisis for new film material often results in something we have seen on screen too many times in the past. However the first feature film for writer/director Tim Godsall and co-writer Katharine Knight draws inspiration from the 2008 Carly Mensch one-act play “Len, Asleep in Vinyl”, and what we get is a terrific little indie gem with multiple interesting characters.

Highly successful music producer Len Black has pretty much “dropped out” of society as evidenced by his quitting in the midst of an awards ceremony, and by his new hobby of floating in the algae-laden swimming pool at his country estate. His self-imposed exile seems designed to magically reveal the meaning of life and lead to a form of self-discovery. Soon his peaceful deep-in-thought zen is disrupted – first by the arrival of his estranged son Max, and then by the presence of his pop star protégé Zoe. Len is perturbed by the uninvited guests, and shows nothing approaching warmth or caring towards either.

What we really have is a 3 person collision of psychological crisis. Len is attempting to come of age (a bit late, given he’s in his mid-40’s); OCD Max has dropped out of school in hopes of making it with his band; and Zoe is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Three messes all intertwined with each other, as Max just wants Len to be a dad this one time, and Zoe wants him to show a little compassion and not treat her like the pop music ATM she has become. Despite the relentless attention she has from her public and fans, what she needs is a bit of attention from the guy that got her into this.

Rhys Ifans plays Len, and his outstanding performance makes the film work. He realizes he’s a jerk, but has no clue how to atone for the past. Jack Kilmer (Val’s son who is also the “projectionalist” in The Nice Guys) plays Max as a carefully considered young man who is never without his “to do” list. Juno Temple plays Zoe, and perfectly captures the two sides and delicacy of young fame. As an added bonus, the fourth wheel is local kid William (Keir Gilchrist, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), who ironically is a surrogate-son type to Len, and helps out with chores around the house. There is also a brief sequence featuring the always great Kathryn Hahn as Len’s ex and Max’s mom.

The heaviness of the emotional stuff is offset brilliantly by comedic moments … some small, others not so small. The scene with Len addressing William’s classroom (in a quasi-take-a-parent-to-school day) is both hilarious and insightful. Minus any decorum or good judgment, Len spills to the students what his life has been. It’s a turning point in the film as we finally see him as more than the dirtbag we originally thought. It also leads to Len’s rant – right in Max’s face – about the roots of rock and roll, and how a privileged, uptight young man couldn’t possibly have the soul and spirit required to make a go of it.

Lessons are learned by all, and much enlightenment has occurred by film’s end. Of course, those doing the teaching and those doing the learning are a bit unconventional, as it’s Len who finally figures out solitude and loneliness may not be a worthy goal. It’s a wonderful first feature from the filmmakers and a top notch performance from Mr. Ifans.

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BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)

May 8, 2015

far from Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel or seen director John Schlesinger’s 1967 (and far more energetic) screen adaption starring Julie Christie, or even if you are a High School Literature student with the novel on your summer reading list, you will probably be interested in this more modern-day thinking approach from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt). It’s more modern not in look, but rather in the feminist perspective of Bathsheba Everdene (one of my favorite literary character names).

Carey Mulligan plays Ms. Everdene, and she is exceedingly independent and ambitious for the time period, while simultaneously being attractive in a more timeless manner. This rare combination results in three quite different suitors. She first meets sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), who is smitten with her spunk, and he proposes by offering her way out of poverty. She declines and the next time they cross paths, the tables have turned as she has inherited a farm and he has lost everything due to an untrained sheep dog. Next up is a proposal from a socially awkward, but highly successful neighborhood farmer. Michael Sheen plays William Boldwood, who is clueless in his courting skills, but understands that combining their farms would be a make-sense partnership. The third gent is Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a master of seduction by sword. She is sucked in by Troy’s element of danger, unaware of his recent wedding gone awry to local gal Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple).

As with most literary classics … and in fact, most books … the screen adaptation loses the detail and character development that make the book version so enjoyable. Still, we understand the essence of the main characters, and the actors each bring their own flavor to these roles. The story has always been first and foremost a study in persistence, and now director Vinterberg and Mulligan explore the modern day challenges faced by women in selecting a mate: slow and steady, financially set, or exciting and on edge. In simpler language, should she follow her head, wallet or heart?

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HORNS (2014)

October 28, 2014

Horns Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in awhile a movie comes around that seems to have all the markings of a cult film that could become a midnight movie favorite. Since I can best describe this one as “a darkly comedic supernatural horror film”, its only real hope for staying power is that teens and young adults embrace the outlandish look at good and evil, and make it a regular on the midnight movie circuit.

Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) has long been part of the “splat pack” and this time his source material has good genes. The popular book was written by Joe Hill, son of the great Stephen King. It’s an oddly atmospheric and sometimes funny film with theological undertones, and Aja stays mostly under control until the ultra-violent ending sequence.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ig, a young man widely suspected by his fellow small town residents of murdering his true love (Juno Temple). After a visually creative opening that turns Ig’s world upside down and moves us from heaven to hell, we follow Ig’s attempt to solve the murder with the help of his attorney and long time friend (Max Minghella). And then one morning, things get really weird. Ig sprouts devil horns from his forehead. Things also get fun. This devilish look has the effect of causing people to confess their darkest inner thoughts … those thoughts we don’t even admit to ourselves!

Much of the movie plays as a basic whodunit, and the entire thing has a “Twin Peaks” feel to it … right down to the diner (Eve’s Diner with an apple logo). There are flashes of satire aimed at the news media, the drug culture, religion, and parenthood; and its core is a theme of “every devil used to be an angel“. With the satanic element, you can be sure Rock ‘n Roll comes into play (David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, The Pixies), and it’s actually kind of fun to watch Ig take advantage of his supernatural powers with a combination of evil and charm.

Radcliffe takes the role seriously and his approach adds some bite to the humorous elements. Juno Temple has limited screen time as his love interest, while Heather Graham goes full out nutso as the publicity seeking waitress, and Kelli Garner has the most frustrating role (her talents are wasted, except for a bizarre donut scene). Minghella doesn’t bring much to a role that had some potential, but Joe Anderson delivers as Ig’s drug addicted trumpet playing brother. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan each have an extended scene as Ig’s parents, and David Morse delivers as the angry dad who has lost a daughter.

Mr. Aja throws a mixture of style and elements as he takes full advantage of the gloomy and colorful Pacific Northwest setting. Numerous flashbacks are utilized, including some childhood events that impact the current situation. The pitchfork, horns and serpents are there to distinguish good versus evil, but mostly you better be prepared for a twisted hoot that reminds a bit of Bubba Ho-Tep in the outrageous blend of comedy and horror … yep, the makings of a midnight cult favorite.

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KILLER JOE (2012)

August 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every so often there’s a movie that just defies description and leaves me at a loss for analysis. Initially I thought maybe I could come up with a comparison, but that has proved futile. It also falls short (but does set the tone) to imagine if David Lynch, John Waters and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a film. And then it hit me that really the most likely legacy for this movie is as a midnight movie favorite. A cult film if you will. It has the twisted humor and borderline caricature characters and enough wild scenes and bizarre lines of dialogue, that I believe the midnight crowd will embrace it wholeheartedly.

 The first surprise is that it’s directed by 76 year old William Friedkin, who is best known for his 1970’s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. He even throws in a bit of a chase scene here just to remind of us of his timeless scene from the latter. The story is from playwright Tracy Letts who won a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” (a film version coming soon). Mr. Letts took the inspiration of the story from a real cop in Florida, moved the setting to Texas for obvious reasons and then filmed in Louisiana for economical ones.

 The next surprise is Matthew McConaughey, who has made a career of playing Him-bo’s in farcical rom-coms that seem only to exist so he can be filmed without a shirt. Here, he plays the titular Killer Joe Cooper as a fastidious, meticulous detective who runs a murder-for-hire “business on the side”. Killer Joe has a couple of rules and demands that the details be just right before he agrees to a job. But then he bends his rules when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal sister of Chris (Emile Hirsch) and daughter of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). She becomes the retainer when father and son can’t come up with actual money for the job.

The best way to describe these people, including and especially Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gena Gershon), is they are the epitome of trailer-park hicks who are not merely dysfunctional as a family, but even moreso as human beings. They barely have money to get by in life, but it’s spent on beer, cigarettes, fast food and horse racing. When a small drug deal goes bad, Chris (the scheming son) comes up with the idea of killing his mother (Ansel’s ex) to collect the insurance money. A touch of Double Indemnity thrown down by the Beverly Hillbillies.

 So hustler son and simpleton dad hire Killer Joe for the job. Think of the plan from Blood Simple, and now imagine it’s carried out by the cast of Dumb and Dumber. Things go awry when Joe meets Dottie. It brings out a side of him hidden by his smooth vocal manners and starched black exterior. A side best compared to the sadistic nature of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

No more details need be provided, just know that the story and the people are twisted and demented, and the violence and sexuality are the type that make a film tough to watch at times. That level of discomfort is assuaged by the laugh out loud moments offered by the dialogue, but merely leaves our brains desperately gasping for coherence.  Worth noting is the unique camera work is provided by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad).

Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” is fitting end punctuation for the film, and be warned that while I will never view canned pumpkin the same again, that pales in comparison to what Gena Gershon must now think of when someone offers her a piece of fried chicken.

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THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

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