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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THE DRESSMAKER (2016, Australia)

September 29, 2016

dressmaker Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just have to give thanks (and credit) to a filmmaker for boldly stepping out of the Hollywood box and delivering a cinematic experience that is creative, interesting and downright unusual. Such is the case with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her first film since A Thousand Acres (1997).

We know immediately that we are in for something a bit different. A1950’s era bus rolls down the dusty road and stops in a desolate little Aussie town with only a handful of store fronts. Western-style music accompanies Kate Winslet as she steps off the bus brandishing a Singer sewing machine rather than a Winchester or Colt. She lights up a cigarette, squints out from under her hat, and utters one of the more memorable first lines of any movie. We are hooked. (You had me at “bastards”)

What follows is based on Rosalie Ham’s best-selling novel with a screenplay from the director and PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, 1997), and features a most remarkable blend of slapstick comedy, dark humor, tragedy, romance, mystery, and revenge. At times the film has a Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson feel, while at various other moments it recalls the Keystone Cops, Chocolat, a spaghetti western and a spoof of … well it’s difficult to say whether it’s a spoof or homage to numerous genres.

Ms. Winslet is in full lead mode as Tilly … the local girl who was accused of murder at age ten and banished from her mother and hometown. After 25 years, Tilly returns to Dungatar in an attempt to reconnect with her mom, gain a bit of revenge on the petty townfolks, and remember that fateful day that has been blocked from her memory. The tool of her trade is a sewing machine (and at times a golf club) and Tilly has the magic touch to transform the local ladies into more attractive and confident versions of themselves. She wields her Singer with every bit of danger as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) did with his revolver in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Judy Davis (A Passage to India) is fantastic (worthy of an Oscar nom) as Tilly’s mother “Mad” Molly. In a role that would have been pure caricature in different hands (Maggie Smith), Ms. Davis provides a depth and humanity to a role that is truly the heart of the film. Also excellent is Hugo Weaving as the local Police Sergeant who has his own secret quirks and guilty conscience, and is one of the first to appreciate the talents Tilly brings to the small town. Liam Hemsworth spends the movie grinning and gazing in the role of arm candy Teddy – one easily recognizable as the female role in most movies (those not directed by a woman). The deep cast always features Sarah Snook as Gertrude and Kerry Fox as the villainous school marm Beulah (replete with devilish hairdo).

While the story itself is relatively predictable, it’s the manner in which scenes are staged that makes this such a pleasure. The offbeat combination of desolate Aussie town and near cartoon characters are set against the colorful and textured world of highly fashionable clothes, wicked twists, twisted humor, reconciliation and tragedy – many scenes combining more than a couple of these.

Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson deserve special attention for costume design, as the costumes themselves play as characters to contrast the local atmosphere. It’s startling to realize that such a coherent story utilizes such topics as domestic violence, spousal rape, misogyny, cross-dressing, murder, perjury, blackmail, Billie Holliday, South Pacific, cannabis brownies, and Sunset Boulevard in such creative ways. Though many critics will not agree, Ms. Moorhouse has delivered an entertaining and accessible movie despite its complexity with multiple subplots and various undertones. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait 20 years for her next film project.

watch the trailer:

 


STEVE JOBS (2015)

November 5, 2015

steve jobs Greetings again from the darkness. Does it take the smartest guy in the room to write about the smartest guy in the room? Probably not, but as Aaron Sorkin shows in writing about Steve Jobs, it can’t hurt. It’s an impressive filmmaking team that, in addition to Sorkin, includes director Danny Boyle, and a cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, John Ortiz and Perla Haney-Jardine … that’s a lot of talent, prestige, and award-winners.

The film is based on the terrific authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson (which I recommend). Rather than tackle the entirety of the book or Jobs’ life, a theatrical approach is taken with three distinct acts covering 16 years centered on product roll-outs: Macintosh, 1984; NeXT, 1988; and iMac, 1998. You might notice that two of those products are considered major flops, but the focus is on the persona of Jobs, not the performance of the products. Director Boyle makes his presence felt by filming appropriately in each of the segments: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998. He also brings a sweeping beauty to the visuals … whether it’s Jobs storming through a hallway, or the maze of activity backstage at each roll-out.

In today’s world, it’s humorous to witness the cult-like atmosphere that develops around Apple products, and it’s equally comical to see the small-minded types who refuse to credit Jobs or Apple for catapulting consumer technology ahead by decades, and for achieving levels of financial success never before reached. Although it’s difficult to separate Jobs from Apple, Sorkin and Boyle are very clear in their focus on the man. In fact, the movie could be viewed as a kind of dysfunctional family – both genetic family and work family.

Rogen plays Steve Wozniak and Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, both part of the original Apple team with Jobs. There are some pointed exchanges between these three characters, with the most eye-raising being when Woz asks Jobs, “What do you do?” It’s the best display of what makes Jobs different than others, and his answer is one of the most disheartening compliments ever heard. There are multiple extended sequences with Jobs and his quasi-father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). These two rip through Sorkin dialogue the way Michael Jordan once sliced through defenses. Most cruel are the exchanges between Jobs and Chrisann Brennan (Ms. Waterston) – the mother of his daughter Lisa (though he refused to acknowledge being her father).

For those familiar with the role of Joanna Hoffman in Jobs’ career, you will be duly impressed with the performance of Kate Winslet … playing the only one who could consistently stand up to the relentless pressure and lofty expectations.

There are soft references to (future) iPods and iPads, and Jobs’ break-up with Apple is dramatized, but it’s the individual scenes of interaction with others that makes this entertaining and challenging to watch. There is nothing likable about Steve Jobs the man, but Fassbender’s fine performance does allow glimpses of humanity beneath the God-like aura Jobs presented. Was Jobs a genius? Was he an extreme social misfit?  Was he a cruel family man due to his botched adoption as a kid? Regardless of where you place him in the realm of technology development, it’s difficult to argue with Woz’s proclamation that one can be “decent AND gifted”. It’s not binary.

watch the trailer:

 


TITANIC (1997, 3D-2012)

April 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Of course I saw this one a couple of times when it was first released in 1997. Having only watched it once since, I was happy to hear it would get a re-release on its 15th anniversary … even if the marketing hook was the post-production 3D. My thought was with James Cameron working his technical magic, the 3D would be fine, and maybe even add to the spectacle of the sinking ship. After all, he was the mastermind behind Avatar, which with Hugo, are the only two films (in my opinion) that haven’t been weakened with 3D technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t overstate my disappointment in the 3D for Titanic. The colors and lighting are destroyed. When we first see young Rose (Kate Winslet) arrive to board the majestic ocean liner, her lavender hat appears almost gray through the 3D glasses. And later, the stunning crimson Renault, where Rose and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) get to “know” each other, appears dull and darkened. Additionally, so many face shots are darkened, rather than illuminated by the beautiful fixtures that adorn Titanic. I was so saddened to see such dullness on top of such greatness. Sure, there were a couple of times where the 3D gave a boost to a special effect, but the film is so beautifully made and such a technical marvel, that the impact is minimal to the positive.

What I will say is that despite my frustration with the technology, I do hope a new generation is introduced to the film. Personally, I am no fan of the love story between Jack and Rose. However, it is such a delight to see the young, eager versions of Little Leo and Kate as they go about their antics. They were 22 and 21 respectively during filming, and we now know them as mature actors and major movie stars. That wasn’t the case when Titanic first premiered.

The real genius of this film is two fold: the story-telling and the technical achievement. Gloria Stuart stars as 101 yr old Rose and she is used to perfection in telling the personal story of Titanic. Her love story with Jack allows director Cameron to show off the amazing ship from all angles … first class, third class, dining rooms and engine rooms. She also allows the viewer to connect with the characters on a personal level. The technical aspect is even more astounding. Sets, models, CGI, and documentary footage are all blended to form a cohesive presentation of one of the most dramatic events of the past 100 years.

Here are a few notes of interest regarding the movie and those involved. The movie was number one at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks and grossed more than $1.8 billion … a record that stood until Cameron’s Avatar eclipsed it. Cameron was already an established sci-fi director with Terminator I & II and Aliens, but he almost had the plug pulled by the production company due to cost overruns. Matthew McConaughey was the producer’s first choice for Jack, but (fortunately) Cameron held firm for DiCaprio. The elderly couple hugging each other in bed as the ship sinks were based on the Strauss’ who owned the Macy’s department store chain. And yes, there were Astor’s and Guggenheim’s onboard when it went down.  Kate Winslet (Best Actress) and Gloria Stuart (Best Supporting Actress) received nominations for playing the same character (Rose). If you have seen the movie before, pay particular attention to the secondary characters … the wardrobes and acting are tremendous: Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Kathy Bates as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Billy Zane as the fiancé, David Warner as his henchman, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the architect, and Jonathan Hyde as the sleazy ship owner. Also catch Suzy Amis in one of her last acting jobs before becoming Mrs. James Cameron … she plays the granddaughter to “old” Rose.

This is an historic film version of an historic event and should be seen by all movie lovers. Some of it is a bit hokey, but if you doubt the technical achievement, compare it to A Night to Remember, the 1958 version of the Titanic story.  And depending on your taste, crank up the closing credits and listen to Celine Dion belt out the Oscar winning Best Song.  She is, after all, “the greatest singer in the world” (an SNL gag).

watch the trailer for “the ship of dreams”:

 


CARNAGE

January 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four strong actors in one upper crust Manhattan condo for 79 minutes is a good first step. A script adapted by the director Roman Polanski and the original playwright Yasmina Reza makes for a strong second step. So why isn’t this film more effective? The belief here is that this one simply works better as a play. That’s not to say the dialogue and flow aren’t impressive, it’s just that as a viewer, we are distracted by the look and feel of a play being presented on screen rather than live on stage.

The story opens with four well-groomed adults huddled around a computer putting the finishing touches on a joint statement regarding a playground incident between their two 11 year old sons. The Longstreet’s (Jodie Foster, John C Reilly) son ended up getting whacked in the face with a stick by the Cowan’s (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) son. We witness the incident from a distance over the opening credits, totally oblivious to the spoken words from the boys involved.

 After one minor compromise on wording, the statement is complete and the Cowan’s move to make a graceful exit from the Longstreet’s home. Instead, we get the first of four or five “almost” escapes as one after another particularly irksome claim or accusation is made by one of the participants, and the war of words moves back inside. The genius of the story comes from watching the gradual dismantling of social graces as these four people work through the full spectrum of human emotions related to, not just their son’s actions, but also the words and actions of each other. Think of it as an updated yuppie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

We see homemade cobbler transition to coffee and finally to whiskey. Each change coincides with personality changes and a constant shifting of alliances within the group. These are four normally civilized people play-acting like this emotional topic can be handled without emotion. One particular occurrence is quite off-putting for both the viewer and our on screen party of four. It creates quite a mess on the coffee table, and immediately intensifies the level of apologizing and philosophizing.

 There are at least three interesting social commentaries being made here. First, parents tend to defend their own children no matter the situation. Second, today’s parents mistakenly believe that 11 year olds should behave like mature adults. They have forgotten that social and coping skills are learned through playground disputes. Third, no matter how educated or well-mannered we show on the outside, we all have the need and desire to be respected and deemed correct in our judgments.

You may not learn a great deal from this one, but I bet you find yourself paying particular attention to your own debate strategy the next time you are in a social environment. It is certainly a treat to watch four standout actors having such a good time with words.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see adults arguing like teenagers while pretending to be acting like adults.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a harsh dose of human nature is not why you head to the movies.

watch the trailer:


CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer: