THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Setting one’s film up to be compared to a long time classic can be quite challenging for a filmmaker, but that’s precisely the situation director John Lee Hancock finds himself. Known for crowd-pleasers like THE FOUNDER, SAVING MR BANKS, and THE BLIND SIDE, Mr. Hancock delivers a Netflix film destined to face off against Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic BONNIE AND CLYDE. Where the earlier film focused on the anti-hero celebrity (and beautiful faces) of the young outlaws, this latest film flips the lens and puts law enforcement (particularly grizzled veterans) front and center (Bonnie and Clyde are barely glimpsed until near the end).

The film begins with a well-planned and deadly prison break in 1934 and then moves into a meeting where Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) of the Department of Corrections is pitching Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) on his idea of reactivating the defunct Texas Rangers, and bringing legendary lawman Frank Hamer out of retirement. It’s pretty simple – the FBI and its new-fangled forensics is failing miserably in tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, and the hope is that Hamer and his old-fashioned detective work will succeed.

Kevin Costner plays Frank Hamer, and we first see him and his well-trained pet pig trying to enjoy a peaceful retirement at home with his wife Gladys (Kim Dickens). Not long after, he’s joined by his old partner Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who is down on his luck, drinks too much, and is in desperate need of a purpose. Thus begins the buddy road trip featuring the no-nonsense Hamer and the quipster Gault. Not many play self-importance better than Costner, and few deliver wisecracks better than Woody.

The screenplay comes from John Fusco, whose previous western projects include HIDALGO and YOUNG GUNS. Though this isn’t a traditional western, it has most of the expected elements. Aging lawmen chasing colorful outlaws. Good versus evil. Right versus Wrong. While it’s a relief the film doesn’t romanticize the Barrow gang and their violent ways, it’s a bit frustrating to see that the movie tries to make Hamer and Gault as famous and iconic as the outlaws they were chasing. Sure Bonnie’s fashion influenced many women of the era, but that had to be nauseating for those lawmen in pursuit who were putting their lives on the line. In the 1967 film, Denver Pyle played Frank Hamer in a shamefully written role, and here Costner strikes so many hero poses and seems to invoke mystical ESP abilities in his police work, that we half expect Hamer to walk on water at some point.

The best part of the film is watching Costner and Harrelson work together, with the latter really making this work on whatever level it does. Additionally, there is a scene with Hamer and Clyde’s dad that features William Sadler in a cameo. I don’t know if this meeting actually took place in real life, but it teases what the film could have been. As a fantasy for cinema aficionados, the project was originally intended to be a vehicle for Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but just never progressed. Combine that with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, and you’d have an unmatched triumvirate of buddy greatness. Hancock’s film certainly pales in comparison to the 1967 film, but it’s a worthy story that deserves to be told.

available on Netlix March 29, 2019

a few years ago, I posted one of my revisited articles on BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). You can check that out here: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/?s=bonnie+and+clyde

watch the trailer:


MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to ‘the fast and the furious’. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom’s memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell … which is right in Mr. Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide.  The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don’t mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt – even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly’s games. Hints are provided such as “green screen”, New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it’s quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly’s first boss, a very funny Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy as “Bad Brad”, Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly’s case, and it’s likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it’s one woman’s journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is used as a comparable for protecting one’s own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey’s young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It’s designed to wrap up Molly’s inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.

watch the trailer:


HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


FASTBALL (doc, 2016)

March 24, 2016

fastball Greetings again from the darkness. Cheese. Gas. Heat. The crowd perks up when a power pitcher lights up the radar gun and starts ringing up hitters. As narrator Kevin Costner points out, at the core of the game of baseball is the epic battle between a man with a stick and one with a rock … the bat and ball … the batter and pitcher. Director Jonathan Hock digs into our fascination with those few who can throw a fastball at speeds that cause even the elite hitters to struggle. A 100 mph fastball gives the batter .396 milliseconds to react … quicker than the blink of an eye.

Mr. Hock structures the film for maximum enjoyment and ease of keeping up. I counted 13 chapters which such titles as “The Big Train”, “The Heater from Van Meter”, “Hoot”, “The Fastest that Never Was”, “Nolan Ryan”, and “The Fastest Pitch” . Within each chapter we are treated to a blend of archival footage, interviews with baseball legends, and input from scientists and experts. The segments contrast the athletic side with the scientific side … especially interesting given how over the past 15 years, baseball has transitioned into such a risk strategy of performance tendency metrics.

Listening to a physics expert discuss the “Magnus Effect”, while legendary hitters like Hank Aaron and George Brett describe a “rising fastball”, is quite an experience for those of us who so love the great game. There is a history lesson, complete with photos and film, on how measuring the speed of pitches goes back to Walter Johnson being tracked through some contraption at the Remington Armory; Bob Feller’s pitch racing against a motorcycle; and a young Nolan Ryan going up against a crude radar detector.

Different generations are discussed with insight from such legendary fastball pitchers as Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage, Nolan Ryan, Justin Verlander, Craig Kimbrel, David Price and Aroldis Chapman. Unfortunately 80 year old Sandy Koufax is not interviewed, but we do see some rare video footage from his 1965 Perfect Game. There is discussion on earlier eras and pitchers such as Walter Johnson, Bob Feller and the enigmatic Steve Dalkowski (who does make a brief appearance). Gibson describing his infamous glare from the mound is itself worth the price of admission. However, it’s the great Nolan Ryan who has the most camera time, which is understandable given his unprecedented quarter century run as a power pitcher.

Just as interesting as listening the pitchers, is having the hitters discuss the challenge in hitting the fastball. The difference between a 92 mph fastball and a 100 mph fastball is broken down scientifically by the experts and real world by hitters such as Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline, George Brett and Hank Aaron. The chalkboard and video clips work together to make it clear just how difficult it is to hit the fastball. As for the “fastest pitch ever”, the mystery may never be solved.

watch the trailer:

 


McFARLAND USA

February 18, 2015

mcfarland Greetings again from the darkness. “A Disney movie” was once synonymous with good-hearted family fare. Even though the lure of big box office has caused the studio to expand their film boundaries a bit, no one does it better when the material is a heart-warming, inspiring story … especially if based on a true story. This latest has less in common with The Mighty Ducks, and more with Miracle, The Rookie, and Dreamer.

Based on a true story that began in 1987, Kevin Costner plays high school coach Jim White, who after a couple of unfortunate incidents, finds himself with a not so desirable teaching/coaching gig in the San Joaquin Valley in central California – specifically the poverty stricken farming community of McFarland. To say that life is hard in McFarland is a bit of an understatement. The families are mostly Hispanic and heavily dependent on crop picking. Once the kids are age 10, they are put to work in the fields before and after school.

Toting their prejudices, Coach White and his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (one whom you will recognize from TV’s “Homeland“) arrive as outsiders, but quickly discover their neighbors are very proud people who value family and community. Coach also discovers that the area boys have developed a natural ability to run distances in the heat, so he forms a school cross country team, and the rest is literally history. The runners dominate the California state meet by winning 9 of the next 14 years, and many of the boys go off to college – something previously not even a remote dream for most.

Since this is Disney, most of the jagged edges are rounded off. Crime, discrimination, politics, racism, and poverty are present, but do not receive much attention. Director Niko Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does nice work in keeping the story grounded and focused on the individuals. We get a feel for the skepticism and family obstacles faced by this first group of runners. More importantly, we witness the pride and involvement as the boys begin to have some success, and the sense of belonging that sneaks up on White and his family.

Costner does get a shot at a motivational speech, but it’s small in scope and wonderfully centered on what the boys have accomplished, rather than some unrelatable shot at changing the world. Seeing him on a “Barbie” bike brings a laugh, as does some of the high school boy chatter directed at their duck-out-of-water coach. We don’t really get to know the individual boys too much (some are actors, some are actual McFarland students), but the end credit video recap of where they are now (27 years later) really hits home as to the importance of guidance and mentorship for youngsters.

The film is extremely pleasant and the story’s roots in the real world lend credence to the inspirational message and underdog-overcoming-obstacles story. It’s also a reminder that opportunity to make a difference is all around us. Just look what Jim White and runners have accomplished!

**NOTE – for Bull Durham fans, Visalia is just up the road from McFarland (bringing Costner full circle).

watch the trailer:

 


JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2013)

January 18, 2014

jack ryan Greetings again from the darkness. Tom Clancy’s spy novels have produced four prior movies with three different actors appearing as Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. While not based on a specific Clancy novel, this latest is a prequel clearly attempting to re-boot the franchise with Chris Pine as Ryan.

Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have come up with an elaborate backstory beginning with Ryan (Chris Pine) as a university student so impacted by the 9/11 events that he enlists in the Marines. His heroic actions in Afghanistan and impressive recovery from serious injuries draw the attention of Kevin Costner’s character who recruits Ryan into the CIA. Ryan is established as a genius analyst quickly rising through the ranks at his Wall Street firm.

That entire set up is well played and quite interesting. A character who is believable as both a Marine-trained combat expert and a world-class financial analyst is borderline superhero stuff, so a fine line must be walked. Oddly enough, the big mission that Ryan falls into is actually reminiscent of the Cold War James Bond films. Foiling a terrorist act and a Russian plot to crash the US economy may be a bit far-fetched, but not if you have Chris Pine and Kevin Costner on your side! The best scene … and most worthy of an espionage thriller … takes place at a fancy Russian restaurant. Dining together are Ryan, his fiancé (Keira Knightley) and the Russian bad guy (played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh). It reminds somewhat of the poker game between Bond and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Every glance and every word have dual meanings, and they all know they are being played. Unfortunately, it’s this terrific little dinner that begins the downward spiral for the movie. The action sequences are just plain silly, and the car chases, tricked out surveillance vans, and all-knowing super computer programs are just too familiar and tiresome to be effective.

Kenneth Branagh has had an extremely diverse directing career with films such as Frankenstein (1994), Hamlet (1996) and Thor (2011). It’s understandable that he would jump at the chance to re-ignite this franchise, but the genre is filled with high level competition – especially Bond and Bourne. So while it’s entertaining enough for a January action movie, it’s not at the level of the other franchises.

Perhaps Chris Pine is a bit too ambitious. Already established as the new Captain Kirk in the Star Trek re-boot, he seems somewhat over-matched in the Jack Ryan role. His stunning blue eyes may rival those of Frank Sinatra, but his screen presence falls short of Harrison Ford.

Three favorite pieces in this one are recognition for Manhattan’s long time theatre Film Forum, a two scene cameo from ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the appearance of Peter Andersson as Branagh’s head of security (he was the sleazebag case worker in Sweden’s original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Kevin Costner states this is geopolitics, but I believe it is closer to Hollywood’s desperation to recapture success instead of creating something new.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s January and your button for an Action flick is being pushed after all the Oscar releases in December.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you now expect all action/thriller movies to be at the level of Bond and Bourne.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9KAnx4EvaE

 

 


JFK (1991)

November 22, 2013

jfk1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.

When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.

jfk2 Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.

Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.

jfk3 In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.

Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.

This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.

**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald

**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)

**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know