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.

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TOUCHED WITH FIRE (2016)

February 19, 2016

touched with fire Greetings again from the darkness. We all have good days and bad. Sometimes we energetically leap from bed, while other days we barely muster the energy to push off the covers. For those who are bi-polar, those peaks and valleys are mere child’s play. When “up”, they often are filled with frenetic creativity and hyper-energy. When “down”, life holds no purpose and the simplest daily actions are deemed impossible. Medication seems to be their only hope for “normal”.

Writer-director-editor-composer Paul Dalio admits much of the story comes directly from his life and that Carla and Marco carry much of him. Katie Holmes plays Carla and Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz, 2011) plays Marco … theirs one of the few on screen meet-cutes to occur in a psychiatric hospital (not counting McMurphy and Chief). When the pendulum swings, Carla frantically scrawls out poetry based on nature and feelings. Marco is also a poet – the rapping kind – but he seems more addicted to the energy and spirit that goes with being up.

The film is really two-in-one … a star-crossed love story and a commentary on treatment (to medicate or not to medicate – that is the question). The writings and work of clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison play a vital role here, and she even appears as herself in a critical scene. Carla really wants to get “right”, especially when she discovers she is pregnant.  Marco, on the other hand, spends much of his time trying to maintain the “high” as he finds life so much more fulfilling and interesting when not medicated. Marco uses the track record of many suspected bi-polar types as proof that greatness is near – Emily Dickinson, Tchaikovsky, and Van Gogh.

Bradley Cooper was Oscar nominated for his bi-polar role in Silver Linings Playbook, and both movies pay some attention to the challenges faced by families. Carla’s parents are played by Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman, while Griffin Dunne is Marco’s dad. The best intentions often fail miserably, leaving all parties feeling frustrated and emotionally distraught. The movie seems to make the argument that medication is the only real hope if a sufferer wants to live anything approaching a normal life, and it’s Ms. Jamison’s stated contention that medication will neither change the personality nor negatively impact creativity.

Katie Holmes offers up her best work since Pieces of April in 2000. Of course, there was a “marriage” mixed in there that stomped down her career. This role reminds that she is capable of finding the core of a deep character. Welcome back. Spike Lee is listed as a Producer here, and Mr. Dalio says Lee, who was his NYU Film School professor, encouraged him to explore this facet of his affliction. Dalio’s wife Kristina Nikolova shared cinematographer duties with Alexander Stanishev.

The film, previously entitled “Mania Days”, does a nice job of showing us the extremism involved with being bi-polar, as well as the challenges that come from being part of the medical field or familial support staff.

watch the trailer:

 

 


WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

March 31, 2015

woman in gold Greetings again from the darkness. The responsibility of the filmmaker when the project is “based on a true story” is elevated when the story has significant historical relevance and blends such elements as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those the quest of a remarkable woman whose family was ripped apart by Nazi insurgents, and more than a history lesson, it becomes a poignant personal story.

Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the woman who emigrated to the United States by fleeing her Austrian homeland during World War II, and leaving behind her beloved family and all possessions. After the death of her sister, Ms. Altmann becomes aware of the family artwork stolen by the Nazi’s during the invasion. This is not just any artwork, but multiple pieces from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt … including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. See, Adele was Maria’s aunt, and the stunning piece (with gold leaf accents) has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”, while hanging for decades in the state gallery.

The story revolves around Maria’s partnering with family friend and upstart attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to take on the nation of Austria and reclaim the (extremely valuable) artwork that was seized illegally so many years ago. They are aided in their mission by an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl) who is fighting his own demons. The seven-plus year legal saga is condensed for the big screen and we follow Maria and Randol as they meet with the Austrian art reclamation committee, a federal judge (played by the director’s wife Elizabeth McGovern), the U.S. Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and finally a mediation committee back in Austria. But this is not really a courtroom drama … it’s a personal quest for justice and search for identity. What role does family roots and history play in determining who we are today? It’s the age old question of past vs. present, only this is seen through the eyes of a woman who has survived what most of us can only imagine.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) uses startling flashbacks (with Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) to provide glimpses of Maria’s childhood through her marriage and subsequent escape. We get to know her family, including some scenes featuring Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), and Maria’s father and uncle (Henry Goodman, Allan Corduner). We understand this family’s place in society and just how dramatically they were impacted by the Nazi takeover.

Helen Mirren delivers yet another exceptional performance and manages to pull off the snappy lines without an ounce of schmaltz, while also capturing the emotional turmoil Ms. Altmann endures. Director Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell round off some of the rough edges and inject enough humor to prevent this from being the gut-wrenching process it probably was in real life. This approach makes the film, the story and the characters more relatable for most movie goers … and it’s quite an enjoyable look at a fascinating woman and a pretty remarkable underdog story.

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DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2010)

September 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I really enjoy a good horror movie, I have never been too fond of those that featured unexplained or other-worldly creatures. However, with Pan’s Labyrinth to his credit, Guillermo del Toro has earned my trust. Supposedly the 1973 British version of this film (Nigel McKeand teleplay) so frightened a young del Toro that it inspired him to become a filmmaker. Here he acts as producer and co-writer, while first timer Troy Nixey directs.

 What makes this one work is that it takes full advantage of setting and dark tones, rather than over-exposure of the freakish fairies that live in the ash pit. Blackwood Manor is one creepy, yet fantastic mansion that belonged to a famous artist who was killed in the basement. Also, the three leads are good in their roles. Guy Pearce plays the struggling businessman who gets his 10 year old daughter forced upon him by his ex-wife. Katie Holmes plays Pearce’s girlfriend and the interior designer in charge of the mansion re-do. The real gem of the film is Bailee Madison, whom you will remember from Bridge to Teribithia.

 Putting a cute kid in peril is one of the most over-used cliches in horror films, but here young Sally (Madison) is actually quite brave and rational … she is trying to solve this mystery without bothering the oh-so-busy adults. As is customary, the dad (Pearce) is clueless and the last to catch on, but there is a very interesting dynamic between Holmes and Madison. Those are the kind of details that make this one worth seeing for all you lovers of horror. Just remember the second rule of real estate: never buy a mansion named Blackwood.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you never miss a decent horror film OR you want to see Jack Thompson (so great in Breaker Morant) as the crusty old caretaker

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: little creatures in the basement is all you need to know to find something else to do

watch the trailer: