THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Electricity. Bringing light and power to the world. Other than dependable food sources and clean water and air, nothing is more vital to our way of life today. However, going back in time only 125 years finds the sun and candlelight as the only forms of illumination. Oh, but behind the doors of laboratories for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, skilled engineers were working diligently to discover the breakthrough that would deliver light to the dark world.

Normally the making of a movie is not a story worth telling. The final work should speak for itself. But the story of this film’s road to the screen is not normal. This was the film Harvey Weinstein was working on when his sex abuse scandal broke. Weinstein went ahead with the screening of the film at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival despite pleas from the director that the film was not ready to be shown. Once the scandal hit, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (the excellent ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) was helpless – he couldn’t access the film for reshoots and final edit. Now, after two years of legal wranglings, he is finally able to present his finished project.

On one hand, it’s a feel good story for the director. On the other hand, the film falls short of being a top notch historical drama … despite it being a real life drama that changed the world. Most would agree there isn’t much entertainment value in watching the daily trial and error of engineers in a lab, so it makes perfect sense that director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick would turn their focus on the personal and professional rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as well as a portion of the story involving Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla – perhaps the most brilliant of them all.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, a true celebrity and renowned inventor. We see how Edison’s family life with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) takes a back seat to his work at his Menlo Park lab; a trait that becomes more extreme after a personal tragedy. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse, developer of railway air brakes, in a stoic and focused manner, and with a close relationship with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston). Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, he of brilliant mind contrasted with quirky and fastidious ways. The other two key players here are Matthew Macfadyen as JP Morgan, the banker who finances much of the work, and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison’s loyal assistant.

While difficult to imagine now, the big debate boiled down to what form of electricity was most practical for the masses. Edison believed it was direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and Tesla were all in for alternating current (AC), which they believed to be cheaper and more powerful. Edison, ever the media manipulator, created questions of public safety in regards to AC by pulling dramatic public stunts. An interesting note here is that despite Edison’s pledge to never invent military weapons or anything designed to take a life, it was his work that led to the use of the electric chair as a replacement for hangings in death penalty cases.

This rivalry between two titans of industry never seems to click, and sadly, Tesla’s story comes across as an add-on to the movie – though his work is worthy of its own movie. Westinghouse deals with his Civil War flashbacks, and Edison’s coarse nature is dulled somewhat here in an effort to make him a bit more appealing as a character. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair provides the “finish line” for this competition, with the winner lighting up the Fair and setting the stage for the rest of the country. There are flickers of a great movie here, and the performances reach the expected levels for such a strong cast, but overall the movie comes across a bit disjointed and trying much too hard to be regarded as a prestigious film.

watch the trailer:

 


FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been seven years since the final Harry Potter movie, and this is the second entry in the planned series of 5 prequels entitled FANTASTIC BEASTS, based on a (fictional) Hogwarts’ textbook written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Of course the characters and stories are from the pen of J.K. Rowling, and who better to bring us the war pitting pure-blood wizards against Muggles?

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM was released in 2016, and it was mostly an introduction to these characters and to some of the cutest and oddest creatures we’d ever encountered on screen. This second entry is much darker and more sinister, and tries to develop quite a few characters … perhaps too many. On top of the roster of players, romantic complications abound, and a search for one’s roots/identity is yet another sub-plot. And then there’s that whole Nazi element – leaving us all a bit bewildered at trying to keep up (although, it is fun trying).

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and now the first two Fantastic Beasts films. He kicks this one off with a spectacular action sequence featuring a black carriage being drawn by a team of majestic flying dragons during a driving rain storm … all part of a daring 1927 prison escape by the titular Grindewald (Johnny Depp with a bleach punk do). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and the best of many visual wonders throughout – including my favorite, a very cool statue effect and a fabulous kelp seahorse.

Most of the key players return from the first film, though, as previously mentioned, their stories are more elaborate. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt, our main guide through this universe. Katherine Waterston is back as auror and fringy love interest Tina, Alison Sudol returns as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie, and Dan Fogler resumes his comic relief duties as Jacob. Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore (yes, the first name is needed), and he is prevented from fighting Gindewald (Depp) due to some youthful “bonding” that occurred years prior. Zoe Kravitz is Leta Lestrange, Carmen Ejogo is Seraphina Picquery, and Ezra Miller is the lost soul Credence Barebone. Newly introduced characters include Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini, Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus, and Brontis Jodorowsky (son of renowned cult director Alejandro Jadorowsky, EL TOPO) as non-ghost Flamel. If that’s not enough characters to track, you should know the story skips from New York to London to Paris and back around again.

Expect some happy gasps from the audience as Hogwarts is revisited, but the darkness and similarities to Nazi beginnings may surprise those expecting two hours of cutesy creatures springing from Newt’s coat … although, those exist as well. We do learn that ‘salamander eyes’ are not to be used while flirting, and it will be quite interesting to see how these stories close in to the Harry Potter world over the next 3 prequel-sequels (scheduled through 2024). It should be a fun ride – though not as fun as riding that seahorse.

watch the trailer:


Mid90s (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a shame that many will immediately write off this as just another ‘skateboard movie’.  While it’s true that the characters spend a good deal of each day skating, talking about skating, or hanging out in a local skate shop, a more accurate description would be: life lessons presented from a street level view. Remarkably, this is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. We all know Mr. Hill and his raunchy sense of humor from his acting in such movies as KNOCKED UP, SUPERBAD, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and here he flashes an intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be an outsider … those on the fringes of mainstream society.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic from THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) is a junior high kid (slightly built for his age) who gets regularly pounded by his older brother (yet another excellent turn from Lucas Hedges). Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is more concerned with her own life and mostly clueless as to what goes on with her boys, both inside the house and out.

As one who doesn’t really fit in at school, Stevie happens to notice a group of skaters trash-talking and seemingly having a good old time. He quietly starts hanging around the group, absorbing the nuances of their (mostly) good natured put-downs, and gazing in awe at their skating abilities. Stevie begins the painful and slow process of teaching himself how to skate – one fall at a time. A montage of nasty spills in the driveway make the point that bruises, blood and frustrations are just part of the process.

This group of older boys consists of the leader Ray (Na-Kel Smith, a professional skateboarder and musician), party animal and aptly nicknamed F**KS**T (Olan Prenatt), filmmaker wannabe and also aptly nicknamed Fourth Grader (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest who is only a year or two older than Stevie. We quickly learn the personality type of each. Ray is working towards skating professionally and escaping the hood. F**KS**T simply loves having fun chasing girls, partying, and hanging with friends. Fourth Grader always has his camera and has enough vision to know he wants to make a movie, while young Ruben is insecure and confused about what makes a man – probably the most tragic of all.

As Stevie learns the ropes, we see he is constantly smiling – just happy to finally be a part of something. His fearlessness and ability to absorb pain (thanks to his brother) allow him to be quickly accepted and guided by the guys … some of it good, some of it a bit questionable. The language throughout is more realistic than what we’ve become accustomed to. There are plenty of slurs and profanity-laced trash-talking that wouldn’t pass today’s PC auditors, but director Hill pulls no punches.

One of the downsides is that Lucas Hedges isn’t given much to do here – though he is spot on with the type of bully we all recognize. Instead, the story is a skate movie only to the extent that the sub-culture can be a haven where outsiders come together. Although the film is set 20 years ago, it’s quite interesting to see how these outsiders are so similar regardless of the era. Everyone needs to connect with others, whether they be band members, athletes, or skaters.

Hill has created a spontaneous, quasi-documentary feel thanks to his filming techniques and by using only 3 real actors (young Suljic is outstanding). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a terrific score, and there are a couple of beautiful shots of the boys freewheeling down the middle of a busy road with a colorful sky as backdrop. We can’t help but notice some similarities to SKATE KITCHEN, KIDS, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, and even CLERKS, and Hill’s debut is less a story, than a snapshot for those who tend to look past the fringes.

watch the trailer (CAUTION: NSFW):


LOGAN LUCKY (2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of public figures retiring, we typically accept that athletes, politicians and entertainers will no longer be honing their craft or grinding in their profession. Perhaps they will write their memoirs, or even dodge TMZ completely by spending their days fishing or playing golf. When Oscar winning film director Steven Soderbergh announced he was “retiring” from making movies after his 2013 SIDE EFFECTS, he simply transitioned to television (excellence in “The Knick”). Most of us assumed it was only a matter of time until he returned to the medium that made him famous. This “retirement” lasted less than 4 years.

When a line in the film describes it as “Ocean’s 7-11”, we can assume this is Mr. Soderbergh admitting that his “Ocean’s” trilogy was the inspiration for this comedy-satire heist film focusing on a well-planned crime by a team of siblings, rednecks and convicts. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough star as the Logan clan – Jimmy, Clyde, and Mellie, respectively. With NASCAR as the target, the Logans are joined by the Bangs: Sam (Brian Gleeson), Fish (Jack Quaid), and Joe (a scene-stealing bleached blonde Daniel Craig).

Joining in the unconventional Hicksville fun are Katie Holmes and David Denman as Jimmy’s ex-wife and her new husband, a recently shorn Sebastian Stan as a race car driver, Seth MacFarlane as an obnoxiously rich blow-hard, Katherine Waterston in a too-brief role as a traveling medic, Hilary Swank as a determined FBI Agent, and Dwight Yoakum as a prison warden who rarely admits a problem. Also playing a key role is the music of John Denver … a move that teeters between tribute and punchline.

The set up and characters lend themselves to more laughter than we actually experience. There are more awkward moments than hilarious ones. As examples, brother Clyde’s (Driver) artificial hand is the center of focus on a few occasions, as are Joe Bang’s (Craig) expertise in science, and the small town West Virginia addiction to child beauty pageants. Their racetrack robbery plan is both ingenious and preposterous, which is also a fitting description of the film.

A writing credit goes to “Rebecca Blunt”, which in keeping with Soderbergh’s tradition, is a pseudonym (or nom de plume) for an unnamed writer (likely Soderbergh himself). The film mostly succeeds in delivering the opposite of the traditional Ocean’s slickness, and it’s entertaining to watch Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig (the credits list him as “introducing Daniel Craig) having such a good time on screen. While it doesn’t deliver the laughs of FREE FIRE or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, it is nice to have Soderbergh back where he belongs. Rather than an instant classic, it’s more likely to be remembered for Soderbergh’s attempt to change the movie distribution channels … Google can provide the details if you are interested.

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:

 


SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE (2015)

September 9, 2015

sleeping with other people Greetings again from the darkness. In 1989, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally hit theatres, and many described it as an updated/contemporary version of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.  It’s been 26 years since Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan debated whether guys and girls could be “just” friends, and now writer/director Leslye Headland shows us that same debate continues to this day.

Jason Sudekis (“Saturday Night Live”, Horrible Bosses) stars as Jake, and Alison Brie (“Mad Men”, “Community”) stars as Lainey. These two characters meet in college and promptly lose their virginity to each other. (It takes a little imagination to accept these two thirty-somethings as college kids) Twelve years later, they meet again by happenstance at a meeting for sex addicts. It turns out, Jake’s biggest phobia is related to commitment, and he’s a womanizer who has mastered the break-up (yep, he slept with your sister).  Lainey’s issue is commitment as well, only it’s her misplaced commitment to a married doctor (Adam Scott) instead of her boyfriend (Adam Brody) that causes problems.

Jake and Lainey quickly pick up their legendary (in their own mind) repartee, and it becomes a friendship comprised of rapid-fire one-liners. Yes, I used the F-word to describe their relationship. To protect their platonic bond, they go to the extreme of creating a safe word as an admission/warning if one is feeling overly amorous towards the other … it’s like a fire hose to extinguish any thoughts not related to being a good buddy.

While Sudekis and Brie are both talented and likeable, it’s the outdated pop culture references that create such an out-of-place feeling for the viewer. How many thirty-somethings these days reference Bobby Fischer, Anne Sullivan and Madame Butterfly during conversation? And the “Pontiac Aztec” line may be the best line in the movie, but how likely is it to resonate with most audience members?  There is certainly no shortage of dialogue committed to laughs, but so much of it seems out of step with the young adults it’s clearly targeting.

The obvious comparisons/tributes to When Harry Met Sally come in the form of the split screen during a text conversation (in contrast to Harry and Sally’s phone chats), and the uncomfortable scene featuring a glass tea bottle is the answer to Sally’s infamous diner scene. What’s lacking is the intellect and heart so prevalent in the 1989 film. It may be contemporary, but it’s missing any subtlety or nuance. Perhaps that’s the influence of Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, both who specialize in laughs over nuance.

Additional support work is provided by Amanda Peet, as Jake’s boss and love interest; and Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage, the married couple trying hard to help while delivering the film’s best and funniest scenes (the closing credits – wow!). Also contributing are Natasha Lyonne, Margarita Levieva, and Katherine Waterston (as the doctor’s wife).

Though they deliver some easy laughs (a good thing), if this movie and Amy Schumer’s recent Trainwreck are accurate social observations of the times, it’s difficult to have much hope for modern day relationships (not a good thing).

watch the trailer:

 

 


QUEEN OF EARTH (2015)

August 25, 2015

queen of earth Greetings again from the darkness. Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires constant maintenance along with give and take from both sides. When a long time friendship between Catherine and Virginia devolves into a passive-aggressive game of emotional “tag, you’re it”, the result is an unusual psychological expose’ on self-indulgence and grieving.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry follows up his critically acclaimed Listen Up Philip with a glimpse into the complexities of friendship between two women who seem mostly clueless to both their world of privilege, and their not-so-subtle narcissism. Both Catherine and Virginia have experienced personal tragedies at different times, and their friendship has basically crumbled due to the responses of each woman towards the other.

A startling opening scene serves up a very emotional Elisabeth Moss (Catherine) as she and her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) argue their way through an ugly break-up due to his infidelity on the heels of the suicide of Catherine’s dad and mentor. The rest of the movie covers the week (each day marked by a scripted placard) that Catherine spends with her best friend at Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter) family lake house. Flashbacks cover the previous year’s visit under much different circumstances, but it’s the intimate … and often quite uncomfortable … moments between the two women that provides the crux of the film.

Director Perry focuses a great deal of attention on the faces of Catherine and Virginia – many of these are extreme close-ups that leave thoughts unspoken, yet quite clear to the viewer. There are elements of 1970’s schlock horror films … but not in a bad way. The music, atmosphere and camera angles have a certain retro feel, but the tension between the two friends is palpable and timeless.

Perry’s script and the performances of Moss and Waterston tap into that nasty bit of human nature that makes us believe our problems are much worse than anyone else’s. Building on that, the animosity felt when our friends aren’t “there for us” in times of trauma, can lead to a dangerous slope that affects judgment and mental stability. Watching Catherine and Virginia go at it has elements of truth and dread.

Patrick Fugit appears in a few scenes as Virginia’s neighbor, and his sole purpose seems to be to torment Catherine – at least that’s how she sees it. The juxtaposition of the two visits (separated by one year) makes for some very interesting character observations, and helps us understand the delusions and bitterness. It’s an interesting and stylish little film that doesn’t so much entertain as spur introspection.

watch the trailer: