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”.

watch the trailer:

 

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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

December 15, 2013

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).

llewyn6 The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.

The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.

llewyn5 We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).

As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.

llewyn3 Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.

If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.

**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013.  Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFphYRyH7wc

 

 

 

 


RUNNER RUNNER

October 13, 2013

runner1 Greetings again from the darkness. I can sit in a theater and watch a mediocre movie, but when it comes time to write about it, there is no motivation or appeal. The most positive comment I can make about this one is that it stars two very pretty men.

This one has “paycheck project” written all over it. Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake simply go through the motions as if someone is feeding them their lines through an ear piece. Gemma Arterton should never stoop to such a mundane and lifeless role … though her hair and make-up are terrific. Only John Heard and Anthony Mackie come across as professional actors, and their minor roles are so limited, they barely register.

runner2 Writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien co-wrote the excellent Rounders, but this one merely teases the dark underbelly of online gambling with one preposterous turn after another. It has neither the depth, plot or character development that we would expect from a movie with this premise and cast. Director Brad Furman showed promise with The Lincoln Lawyer, but his latest comes across as being rushed through production and dressed up with fake style.

The closest comparison I can come up with is last year’s Savages, directed by Oliver Stone … and even that was more enjoyable than this one. Rather than a MPAA warning for Language, I would prefer a heads-up whenever the filmmaking team really doesn’t care much for the project. At least I could spend my money and time watching a different movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: two pretty men and Arteton’s hairstyles are somehow interesting to you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe that the beauty of Costa Rica will overcome the weak story, acting and directing (SPOILER: very little of Costa Rica is shown)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFPqyNvNzvU

 

 


IN TIME

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now this is a terrific premise for a sci-fi story. You have surely heard the phrase: “Time is Money”. Well in this world, Time is not just money, it is Life itself. Time is everything … and it’s displayed for all to see via a glowing neon green counter on each person’s forearm.

The film has an odd look for a futuristic sci-fi film. Vehicles look like modernized versions of 1970’s classics, but fashion and other technology seem basically unchanged. Society is divided more severely than today, but the commentary is clear … there are haves and have-nots, whether the currency is money or time.

 All people live until age 25 at which time they stop aging and the clock starts. They are given ONE year and are free to earn, gamble or spend their time … heck, some even gamble. When your clock hits thirteen Zeroes, you drop dead immediately. So, the working class is isolated in time zones, running from place to place and taking extra shifts at the plant just to pay the rent. The rich live in Connecticut (some things never change) and try to find ways to leisurely spend their days that will never end.

 Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, one of the poor ones. In a scene that will have you scratching your head, Olivia Wilde plays his mom (remember, you stop aging at 25). Will has a chance meeting with Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has lived more than 100 years and still has more than a century left. After a deep, philosophical conversation, Will ends up with Henry’s time and becomes a murder suspect.

Will runs off to Connecticut and is pursued by the Timekeeper Police led by a creepy Cillian Murphy. Will ends up in the lavish home of Philippe Weiss (Vincent Katheiser from Mad Men) and falls for his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Will and Sylvia end up on the lam and turn into the ultimate Time Bandits … Robin Hood who steals time from the rich and distributes to the poor.

 While the premise is promising, some of the best stuff is left untouched. Henry Hamilton would have been a fascinating character to get a little more backstory on. Cillian Murphy’s character is obviously talented and a bit burned out. It’s a bit disconcerting to see most of the people in a movie look all about the same age, but that’s a very cool product of this society. As is the “big board” of time that looks eerily similar to the Stock Market boards we see that track movement every moment of the day. Time is precious and is of course watched over.  Also, I never figured out how the whole arm-based time counter began, so more history would have been welcome.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol also brought us Gattaca and Lord of War. I would have liked this one to go a bit deeper, but it’s fun to watch Timberlake and Seyfried playing Bonnie and Clyde. Thinking about this from a monetary standpoint is pretty interesting, but it also reminds us that there’s never enough time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always up for a sci-fi film that doubles as an editorial on the class system OR you want further proof that Justin Timberlake is on his way to being a legit movie star.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a real sci-fi lover and plot holes send you into a days-long funk OR you are apt to sprain an ankle just watching Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried sprint in high heels throughout the film

watch the trailer:

 


THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

October 2, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a film with good genes. It’s based on Ben Mezrich‘s novel “The Accidental Billionaires”, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) and directed by one of the best directors working today, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac). The film is dialogue driven and my advice is to shift your ears into turbo-mode to keep up. These Harvard types never stammer and are quite speedy in making their oh-so-clever points.

This film is not so much the history of Facebook as it is a glimpse into the individuals behind the idea. Foremost, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg (played with rapid-fire tunnel vision by Jesse Eisenberg). The programming guru behind the code, Zuckerberg is depicted as a guy who is not just socially inept, but also unaware of social mores and code. I am not sure if he is best described as a prodigy, genius or even (possibly) a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome. Whatever he is/was, he became a billionaire in his early 20’s by proving he could put together the world’s dominant social network while having no redeeming social or relationship skills of his own. Fascinating.

Zuckerberg’s best and only friend (and business partner) is Eduardo Saverin (played by the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield). Saverin fronted the money to get Facebook started and was one of the parties who brought suit against Zuckerberg, claiming he was cheated out his place in the company.

The third key player is the infamous Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake). Founder of Napster and Plaxo, Parker manages to get his hooks into Zuckerberg and apparently was behind the snubbing of Saverin. This is the most charismatic role in the film (and real life), yet also the role that may have the most dramatic license taken in the film.

The story is told in non-linear form, weaving multiple depositions from different lawsuits. One includes the Winklevoss twins from Harvard who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. They later settled for millions.

As I said, this is not so much a history of Facebook as it is a display of the characters involved. These are all brilliant people who are also ignorant to the ways of the world. It seems they all have significantly different goals, yet never really stop to agree on strategy. Instead, the site growth is non-stop, as is the back-stabbing.

Interestingly, the film uses a girl (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene as the single biggest influence on Zuckerberg’s brainstorm. Her rejection of his self-centered speed-talking kicks his creative wheels into motion and his relentless energy never slows for the rest of the story. One thing is clear, Zuckerberg did not single-handedly create Facebook and there is little doubt some key people were given short straws along the way. No way to discern what really happened as all that was battled out behind closed doors in sealed records and settlements. What we do know is that Facebook now has over 500 million users worldwide.

This is an extremely well crafted movie, though in my opinion, none of the acting is up to the script. It’s a film that provides enough insight into the players and enough entertainment for the ticket. That’s really sufficient. Some are proclaiming this as a Best Picture contender.  It may very well get enough momentum to be nominated, but here’s hoping this isn’t the year’s best.  Coming next … David Fincher is set to direct and Rooney Mara is cast as Lisbeth in the Americanized version of the fabulous Swedish hit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So enjoy this one and look forward to that!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the 500 million Facebook users OR you thrill to the challenge of high-voltage, college-genius dialogue that always instantaneously delivers the single best comeback possible.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think every person has redeeming value OR you have to ask “What is Facebook?”