MY DAYS OF MERCY (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. There have been some fine movies centered on death row. These include: THE GREEN MILE (1999), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003), and TRUE CRIME (1999). The only one I can remember that even comes close to also being a love story is MONSTER’S BALL (2001), and if you’ve seen it, you would likely agree that it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy story of romance. With this latest, however, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer and British writer Joe Barton combine for a romantic story where death row plays a vital part.

Ellen Page stars as Lucy. She travels around the country in a well-worn motorhome with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz, UPSTREAM COLOR) and their little brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), as they partake in the anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the prison gates as the next execution takes place. Across the parking lot, the pro-death penalty side hold their own signs and keep their own vigil. Lucy’s eyes lock on those of a striking young woman from the other side. When they meet, the ironically named Mercy (Kate Mara) aggressively flirts with the shy and confused Lucy, and the two sneak out for drinks at a bar.

Soon Lucy is anxiously awaiting the next protest so that she can meet up with Mercy. The sexual tension builds as they get to know each other, and their awkward friendship turns romantic. Their activism for different sides of an important topic doesn’t have any negative impact on their attraction to each other. Each woman has been personally affected by the death penalty, and as viewers we struggle with the idea that these two lovebirds part each time with what amounts to ‘see you at the next execution!’

Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990) plays Lucy’s death row dad, and Brian Geraghty (THE HURT LOCKER) plays the attorney who is simultaneously working on his case and on Lucy’s sister Martha. The acting here is top notch as Kate Mara balances the two sides of Mercy, and Ellen Page flashes her familiar JUNO snark – albeit with the heft of a wisened adult. Ms. Seimetz adds to her list of always-interesting characters, and has a couple of truly outstanding scenes.

Blending love and the death penalty makes for an unusual combination, and we do understand that folks choose their side based on personal belief and circumstances. For the film, the death penalty issue is a bit of a distraction to the story of these two people, though it’s admirable that Mr. Barton chose to give them a personal stake in two different cases, rather than the same – which we would expect in a lesser movie. The use of “last meals” is quite creative, as we see the actual food, as well as the name of the inmate, the crime, and the prison.

The fallout from executions is widespread. Perhaps no one wants a narrative film focused entirely on such a depressing and divisive topic. We do ask ourselves if a romantic relationship is even possible for two who are diametrically opposed on such an emotional topic. It’s an ending that lets no one off the hook easily. Life is hard. So is death. Make your choices wisely.

watch the trailer:

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MAN DOWN (2016)

December 3, 2016

man-down Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps this movie and story would have hit me harder had I not recently watched Michael King’s documentary When War Comes Home. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the focus of both films, but the reality of the three soldiers in King’s film simply packs a bigger emotional punch than the fictionalized version of one soldier in this latest from director Dito Montiel. That said, the dramatization offers a few worthy moments.

The story/stories revolve around a new Marine named Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf). We are bounced between three timeframes: a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world; the time Gabriel is serving on the frontlines of Afghanistan; the pre-Marines time when we see Gabriel as a loving father, husband and friend … he’s the kind of dad who surprises his son with a birthday puppy, and creates a secret phrase so he can tell his son he loves him without embarrassing him at school.

An interrogation sequence between Gabriel and the military counselor (played by the great Gary Oldman) provides the film’s best scenes … the two actors go head to head in what is really psychological warfare in a trailer office. There is an “incident” that occurred, and the counselor is attempting to figure out Gabriel’s mental state. Once we are provided the details of the incident, we fully understand why Gabriel is an emotional mess, and basically shut-down from conversation and life.

Kate Mara appears as Gabriel’s wife and Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) as his son. The film probably would have benefitted from more attention on the family foundation prior to Gabriel being shipped out. Jai Courtney stars as Gabriel’s close and lifelong friend, though when Gabriel asks his friend to “watch out for my family”, we know where things are headed. It’s here where the film just stretches too far. The effects of war provided plenty to make the point director Montiel is going for, and the cheap/clumsy gimmick only distracts.

LaBeouf is in fine form and in quite a different role than his quick-with-a-quip charmer in this year’s American Honey. This latest film probably has more in common with A Beautiful Mind than with Born on the Fourth of July, or any other film dealing with post-war challenges. The statistics posted prior to the closing credits make it obvious that Montiel meant this as a message movie – making the melodrama and extreme visuals all the more misplaced. Montiel made some festival noise with his 2006 debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and it seems he is destined to make a really good movie at some point.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

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HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE

March 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, that really is the title of the film.  If such a thing existed in Hollywood, I wouldn’t be surprised if Woody Allen brought a Trademark Infringement suit against writer/director Josh Radnor. There is even a clear reference to Mr. Allen, who must be one of Radnor’s idols. Of course, similar ideas and approaches happen frequently in movies, so really what we have is a snapshot in time of what it’s like to be a young (late 20’s to early 30’s) New Yorker trying to figure out life.

Radnor is one of the stars of “How I Met Your Mother” and this is his filmmaking debut. He does show some promise, despite some weakness in the script and too dang many close-ups – talking heads, as I call them. His goal was to take an intimate look at relationships and the road to maturity, which is often filled with potholes. This seems especially true for these artistic types who are convinced New York is the only land of opportunity in existence.

There are 4 stories going on: Sam (Josh Radnor) is a struggling writer who meets Mississippi (Kate Mara), a cabaret singer/waitress; Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) have their relationship tested by a proposed move to L.A.; Annie (Malin Akerman) suffers from a self-image problem and faces off against a true romantic in Sam #2 (Tony Hale); and an on-going interwoven story line involves Sam’s character making an asinine decision when a young boy gets separated from his family on the subway.

 The best of the stories is Annie’s. Suffering from an auto-immune disease which leaves her hairless, she has a real self-image problem in thinking that she is not worthy of love. On the ironic other hand, she is put off by the advances of nice guy Sam #2 because he isn’t the physical specimen she had dreamed of. Akerman and Hale make these characters believable and we actually pull for them to figure it out.

Kazan’s Mary Catherine just had me hoping Charlie would slap her and take off to LA on his own. Kazan (granddaughter of the great director Elia Kazan) actually does a nice job capturing the suffering that so many females put themselves through. Kate Mara’s Mississippi is the perky on the outside, defensive on the inside type who should probably never get mixed up with the self-centered mess that is Sam (Radnor). Still, Mara’s talent is on full display (she first leaped off the screen in Brokeback Mountain as Heath Ledger‘s 19 yr old daughter).

 One thing the script reminds us is that this generation still believes the world revolves around their every decision. They have been a bit slow on the uptake here, but it makes for easy pickings in script writing. My favorite line in the film is when Mara tells Radnor that he likes living his life like the short stories he writes, but she is ready for the novel.  There are some terrific individual scenes, but some of the larger plot lines are not treated fairly or completely. Maybe Radnor tackled a bit too much for his first outing. Still, a decent effort and I look forward to more from him

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy “little” films that focus on life intricacies

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: narcissistic, young New Yorkers make you want to run screaming from the theater


127 HOURS (2010)

November 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Spoilers are strictly avoided in my comments. I completely understand that not everyone rushes out to see new releases the way that I do. For this movie, there can be no spoilers. We are all painfully aware of the real life ordeal suffered by Aron Ralston in 2003. This taut film succeeds at bringing to life the visuals our minds can only imagine.

Danny Boyle is a terrific director who has three (now four) outstanding and diverse movies to his name (Slumdog Millionaire, Millions, Trainspotting). Here he re-teams with Slumdog writer Simon Beaufoy to bring us the screen version of Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and Hard Place”. It’s the story of an adventurous young man who is forced to take drastic measures when his arm is pinned after a fall while rock climbing.

What the film really explores is Ralston’s personality and an individual’s will to live. Aron is a cocky, adventurous, fun-loving guy whose “oops” moment consisted of not telling anyone where he was headed. A cardinal sin of solo hiking. Five days later he stumbles back to life, minus one arm. Ralston faces one of those moments when he must decide just how important life is. His choice leads to life … through excruciating pain.

Boyle does an amazing job in capturing the moment and the inevitibility of the setting. In what could be a hopeless situation, Ralston clings to life. James Franco delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Ralston. His range here is remarkable. Watching his hallucinations, flashbacks and persistence makes this an extremely watchable and human film despite the topic.  An interesting note is that Ralston did have a video camera with him and had previously only shown the clips to his family and a few close friends.  He did allow Boyle and Franco to see the actual video, so what you see onscreen came directly from Ralston’s real emotions.

Support work is minimal but decent from Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Treat Williams, Kate Burton and Clemence Poesy. Franco and Boyle are the real stars as they capture Ralston’s spirit. As a viewer, this taps into our inner most fear. What if this were us? What if we were him? Could we do it? Would we do it?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t believe I mention James Franco and “Oscar” in the same sentence OR you get a charge out of watching the strong will to survive take over.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you get queasy when you break a fingernail