REBEL IN THE RYE (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Holden Caulfield is dead.” So states Jerry’s letter to his mentor. You likely know Jerry better as J.D. Salinger, and he wrote that while hospitalized with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after WWII. Of course, we know this proclamation is premature, as Holden Caulfield is the main character from Mr. Salinger’s famous (and only) novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” … a high school literature staple for decades.

Imagine your dream is to become a great writer, but your own father continually reminds you that “meat and cheese distribution has been good for this family.” Your restlessness often works against you, and though you are hesitant to admit it, a mentor for writing and life direction is desperately needed if you are to avoid the family business. Enter Columbia professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

This is Danny Strong’s first feature film as a director, though you would surely recognize his face from his frequent acting appearances – often as a weasly character. He is also the creator of TV’s “Empire” and wrote the screenplays for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY (Parts I and II) and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. Strong does an admirable job in showing the commitment required to hone one’s writing skills and proving “the difference in wanting to be a writer and actually being one.”

Jerome David Salinger is played well by Nicholas Hoult. His scenes with Spacey’s professor are the film’s best, and Hoult also shoulders the responsibility of Salinger’s writing frustrations, personal life challenges, military service, and finally, his decision to become the most famous and long-lasting recluse (by comparison, Howard Hughes was an amateur).

We learn that Burnett was instrumental in getting Salinger’s first short story published, which finally gave Jerry the answer needed for a writer’s most dreaded question, “Have you been published?” Quite a bit of time is devoted to his odd romantic relationship with Oona O’Neill (Eugene’s daughter and the future, long-time wife to Charlie Chaplin). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) plays Oona as an enigmatic lover attracted to Salinger’s genius, but incapable of being patient for his career that might happen (and might not). She opts for the sure bet.

Salinger’s military service included Utah Beach on D-Day, and nearly as remarkably, his toting the tattered manuscript ‘Catcher’ pages throughout his tour. He returned home in 1946, and in 1951 “The Catcher in the Rye” was published. It’s been referred to as the Great American novel and a rite of passage, while also being banned and derided for its whiny Holden.

Director Strong emphasizes Salinger’s turn to Zen Buddhism and his sessions with Swami Nikhilanda, as well as his evolving distrust of stalking fans and two-faced media. Support work is provided by Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s salty agent, Lucy Boynton as his wife, Victor Garber as his father, and Hope Davis as his supportive mother. Just as in real life, we get nothing of Salinger’s later years of solitude and isolation in New Hampshire, where he died at age 91.

The book has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues to sell well today. In a shift from the recent documentary SALINGER by Shane Salerno, and the book “J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High” by Kenneth Slawenski, this dramatization doesn’t dig too deep, but it does allow a new generation to personify the legend. Perhaps it even paints a picture of a better/nicer man than what his real life actions showed. Regardless, the older Salinger certainly seemed to embrace the cause of “write and get nothing in return”.

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BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

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MARGIN CALL

October 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It is absolutely understandable if you have reached your limit for dissecting and analyzing the 2008 financial crisis. However, if you can’t get enough, or are still trying to find someone to blame for looting half your retirement plan, this film offers a different perspective and one that proves more identifiable and personal. Wall Street is the new favorite bad guy in Hollywood these days and here we get faces for the targets.

Hopefully you saw Inside Job, a fine documentary that provided an overview of the collapse. HBO’s Too Big To Fail gave us a glimpse inside the Fed’s decision making process during the crisis. This movie narrows the focus down to a singular investment bank. Writer/Director JC Chandor serves up a dramatized story that begins with massive layoffs. We see the hatchet crew arriving replete with security escorts, as high paid executives are led out to the sidewalk. Stanley Tucci plays a middle manager in the Risk-Analysis department. As he is headed to the curb, he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to finish it and “be careful”.

 Flash forward a few hours and the surviving staff heads out for celebratory drinks while Quinto’s character starts churning away on Tucci’s formula. Once he realizes that the risk formulas on MBS (mortgage backed securities) show threatened stability of the firm, he places an emergency call. It is quite interesting to see how this emergency escalates as we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy within the firm … Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker. This culminates in a late night conference room meeting when the CEO (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter.

 There are so many facets to this story. We see how some are in the game for money. Penn Badgley says it’s all he ever wanted to do, but his obsessive behavior over the income of each manager shows us why. Paul Bettany is a middle manager who realizes the “killers” such as Simon Baker have passed him by. Demi Moore plays the type who doesn’t mind finding a fall guy, as long as it’s not her. Kevin Spacey is 30+ year career man who has survived many crisis by being loyal to the firm, while also doing right by the client. Jeremy Irons is the charming, powerful CEO who laughs about being as smart as a Golden Retriever, but laser-focused on keeping the firm viable.

 What you can’t help but notice is the number of managers who point out that they don’t understand the charts and graphs and numbers, and just need someone to explain it to them in “plain English”. We also see self-preservation at its finest/worst and the struggle that some of the characters have in deciding what is the “right thing to do”. It is not surprising, yet frightening still, to see that the red flags were flying before anyone acknowledged their presence. No one wants to be the one to shut down a party.

When the CEO says the three ways to win are to: “be first, be smartest or cheat”, we realize huge decisions are made only in the best interest of the firm … not the economy, and certainly not an individual investor. Although this investment firm remains nameless through the film, I did find it interesting that Irons’ character name is John Tuld.  John Tuld … Dick Fuld … Just sayin’!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want as many perspectives as possible on what caused this latest financial meltdown OR you have any remaining doubts that corporations make decisions based on their own best not interest.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2008 is in your rearview mirror and you have no interest in looking back OR your blood pressure shoots up any time someone mentions Wall Street, investment bankers, etc.

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