THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a movie borrows its title from a great Simon and Garfunkel song, and then utilizes the song to emphasize a point during the story, we can’t help but have high expectations. This is often true even if it appears we are likely to be subjected to yet another movie featuring the all too familiar ground of New York intellectuals brewing and stewing their own problems. Director Marc Webb (500 DAYS OF SUMMER, GIFTED) delivers the type of film that critics tend to rip, and audiences like to watch.

Much of the story seems familiar, but the excellent cast prevents the clichés from being overly distracting. Callum Turner stars as Thomas, an aimless writer-wannabe and recent college graduate with daddy issues. Thomas spends his time dreaming about what he might be and pining for the beautiful, intelligent girl with whom he hangs out. It’s understandable why Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) has friend-zoned him, since she has ambitions and goals, while he mostly just talks and drifts through each day. One evening while enjoying their conversation over drinks, Thomas spots his dad getting beyond “friendly” with a beautiful young woman in a corner booth. This is upsetting because Thomas’ parents are still married, and his mother is at home working through clinical depression.

Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) is a well-known publisher and Judith (Cynthia Nixon) is an artist in a fragile state. As with most self-centered twenty-somethings, Thomas has just assumed the marriage was fine and their family fell into the “normal” range of dysfunction. It’s about this time when the movie assumes the tone of a Woody Allen movie. Thomas turns detective and begins following the mysterious beauty from the booth, and their first encounter is a bit awkward. He finds himself mesmerized by Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). She’s the stuff that dreams (and fantasies) are made of … for both fathers and sons.

Johanna is really the second spell that Thomas has fallen under. His neighbor W.F. has been providing sage advice on love and writing. It’s yet another terrific performance from Jeff Bridges, who plays the alcoholic mentor with secrets of his own. See, every character here carries the weight and burden of their own secrets and plays games in every relationship. In fact, much of the movie plays like group therapy – two characters at a time.

No superheroes exist in this world. There are no car chases or guns, and the only knife is used to slice strawberries in the kitchen. The movie could be described as a coming-of-age story; however, it’s not just Thomas that has growing up to do. A deeper message is on display for those who take notice. Every person and every family has secrets, and many people find an inability to be honest and open to be a much simpler way to go through life. We know that people aren’t always good – even when we really want them to be.

Of course, we do get the obligatory dinner party with a table full of New York intellectuals (including Wallace Shawn) reminiscing about what a great city it used to be. Actually, nostalgia is an underlying theme throughout. The dinner party does provide Thomas the opportunity to drop the best ‘Philadelphia’ line since W.C. Fields. The script provides some other quality lines, and though it’s certainly not at the level of Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach, it marks a step up for writer Allan Loeb, who is renowned for such lackluster efforts as COLLATERAL BEAUTY, THE SPACE BETWEEN US and JUST GO WITH IT. He likely owes director Webb and cast a debt of gratitude.

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LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016)

May 23, 2016

love & friendship Greetings again from the darkness. Jane Austen ROCKS! Sure, that might be a slightly exaggerated description of the writer who passed away almost two hundred years ago, and is known for such subtle and nuanced work as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Emma”. But it’s difficult to argue the fact that Ms. Austen’s 2016 is off to an impressive start. First came Burr Steers’ highly creative and entertaining Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and now Whit Stillman delivers a cracking version of her (apparently) unfinished novella “Lady Susan”.

Thanks to the standout performance from Kate Beckinsale, and the manner in which words from Austen and Stillman go zipping by (sometimes honestly, sometimes not), this is one fun and briskly-paced romp … more descriptions not typically associated with the prim Ms. Austen. Ms. Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon flashes spunk and comedic timing that we have not previously seen from her. She fits marvelously in the dress of the late 1700’s, while packing a diabolical and manipulative nature more often displayed in contemporary settings.

The supporting cast seems to be having a marvelous time. Chloe Sevigny is Alicia, Lady Susan’s confidant and gossip buddy … and one whose husband (Stephen Fry) continually threatens to ship back to Connecticut (as if it were the coal mines or outback). Emma Greenwell is Catherine DeCourcy Vernon, adversary and sister-in-law to Lady Susan, and Mofryd Clark plays Frederica, Susan’s somewhat mousy and inconvenient daughter.

Though the women are standouts here, the men hold their own. Xavier Samuel is Reginald DeCourcy, the somewhat naïve and susceptible-to-advances-from-Susan young man, and Tom Bennett manages to steal most every scene as the quite silly and funny (and wealthy) Sir James Martin. Adding their own special touches are James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave as Sir Reginald DeCourcy and Lady DeCourcy, respectively; and Jenn Murray as Lord Manwaring … one of three suitors to Lady Susan.

This spoof/parody will strike a chord for anyone accustomed to the uptight nature of most period pieces, as well as the importance of status, decorum and the corresponding insecurities (a weakness the cunning Lady Susan will most certainly seize upon). Mr. Stillman (Damsels in Distress, The Last Days of Disco) is an immensely talented writer, and certainly a welcome complement Ms. Austen’s posthumously published work.  It’s a deliciously funny and intricate story that features such quips of gold as “Facts are horrible things.” Welcome to the zany verbal barrages of Lady Susan, Whit Stillman and Jane Austen. Yep … zany and Jane Austen in the same sentence.  I told you she ROCKS!

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STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

October 23, 2014

stonehearst Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe” … no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy turn of the 20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel.It recalls the “B” movie feel of so many from the 40’s and 50’s that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably give this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast – also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack – it doesn’t manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.

Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted from the pre-psychoanalysis days brought on shortly thereafter by Freud. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane person in this film. Loosely based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, what the film lacks in tension and terror (it’s not Shutter Island), it mostly makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a throwback to the asylum movies of the 40’s and 50’s brings you a warm nostalgic feeling

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer not to see electro-shock therapy administered to Michael Caine

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