THE DINNER (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, 2009) takes the source novel from Herman Koch and turns it into a checklist of items and people to detest. Rather than a cynical look at humanity, we endure a shrill commentary on white privilege, entitlement, misguided parenting, social media for millennials, and mental illness. If somehow the world and local news doesn’t feature quite enough ugliness for you, then Mr. Moverman’s movie should fill the gap – making Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) look like a light-hearted comedy by comparison. It’s definitely no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or even My Dinner with Andre.

Dinner for four at an over-the-top ostentatious restaurant is the setting, and aggravation is the sauce for each course – labeled on screen for our convenience as Aperitif, Appetizer, Main course, Cheese, Dessert, and Digestif. Richard Gere is Congressman Stan Lohman, a candidate for Governor and a slick politician in the midst of a battle to get the necessary votes for approval on his sponsored bill. He is joined by his second (yes it matters) and much younger wife Katelynn, played by Rebecca Hall. Rounding out the foursome is Stan’s estranged (and strange) brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), who is every bit as off-center as her husband.

These four have no real interest in sharing dinner time conversation, but the horrific actions of their teenage sons have brought them together for a strategy session. Michael (Charlie Plummer) is Paul and Claire’s son, while Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is Stan’s son with first wife Chole Sevigny. Video of their despicable and unforgivable act has been posted on YouTube, and now the four “adults” are convening to decide the best step for these “good kids” who just need help getting back on track. At least that’s what Claire would have us believe. In fact, if satire exists at all in this script, it surely would be in the fact that the politician is the only one to exhibit any semblance of moral fortitude in this situation. We even hear the incident described as “an unfortunate chain of events” … further emphasizing the film’s theme that EVERYTHING is political these days.

The film itself is often too-congested and convoluted. The flashbacks are messy and unnecessary, and the dialogue ill-timed and seemingly written for shock value rather than with situational purpose. No one does droll like Steve Coogan, yet his character spends the film sermonizing (with his running narration of a Gettysburg analogy) and showing no signs of humanity. The big reveal with his character is borderline shameless and insulting. Somehow we are left to ponder who shows the worst judgment – the teenagers or the adults. Evidently we are supposed to feel the moral outrage that all of society is now driven by politics, and in politics, “someone always gets hurt”. Personally, if I have outrage, it is directed at a manipulative film that stole valuable time from me.

watch the trailer:

 

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SULLY (2016)

September 8, 2016

sully Greetings again from the darkness. Society has a tendency to go to extremes – hero worship for those who probably don’t deserve it and character assassination for those who have the gall to be less than perfect. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has experienced both. On January 15, 2009, Sully made the decision to land the crippled aircraft of US Airways flight 1549 right into a river … an event immediately labeled “Miracle on the Hudson”.

Surprisingly, this is the first film collaboration for Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood. Both have cinematic experience with true life stories and real people: Hanks most recently in Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies; and Clint with American Sniper and J. Edgar. This one is the perfect fit as Hanks takes on a good man who takes pride in doing his job, and Clint brings to life a story that showcases the best of human nature.

Tom Komanicki adapted the screenplay from the book “Highest Duty”, co-written by Sully and Jeffrey Zaslow. Much of the attention is given to the doubts and uncertainty Sully experienced during the NTSB review. The scrutiny of his work by the committee (played here by the ultra-serious Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) left his career and reputation dangling, inspiring nightmares that are much worse than yours and mine.

Certainly we are in awe of what Sully pulled off that morning, but as movie goers, we are anxious to see the plane crash/splash/landing. Clint comes through in breath-taking fashion. While it lacks the hysterics and drama of the upside-down plane in Flight, this re-creation is so realistic that we nearly obey the flight attendants repeated instructions of “Heads down. Stay down”. Even the cockpit chatter, passenger evacuation, and first responder’s (many of whom are real life folks, not actors) activities are played in matter-of-fact manner … more people just doing their job. We shiver knowing the icy Hudson River water is 36 degrees, and we feel Sully’s anxiety as he desperately tries to get a final count … a count that he prays will hit 155.

Aaron Eckhart plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles and has a couple of memorable scenes, and Laura Linney embraces the thankless role of telephone wife of Sully during the aftermath and hearings. We get a glimpse of Sully’s background with flashbacks to his flight lessons at a Denison Texas private airfield, as well as a portion of his military service. Hanks is the perfect choice for a role that would have suited James Stewart just fine were it the 1940’s.

The conflict here comes from the NTSB inquiry. Backed by computer simulators that show the plane could have coasted back to LaGuardia, we get the distinct feeling that the committee’s goal is finding human error – naming a scapegoat (other than Canadian geese) for their “lost” plane. It’s Sully who reminds us that the committee is simply doing their job … just as he was, Skiles was, the Flight Attendants were, and the first responders were.

This is technically expert filmmaking. We know the ending, but are glued to the screen. Frequent Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern handles the cinematography, and like the acting and story-telling, the camera work avoids any excess or over-dramatization. The film provides one of the best examples ever of the duality of hero worship and intense scrutiny, and how a person can be a hero by simply doing their job. The closing credits show clips of the flight’s reunion and every survivor would agree that the best among us allowed a continuation of life … something that could have gone to the other extreme.

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GENIUS (2016)

June 17, 2016

genius Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.

It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.

And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.

The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical?  In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.

The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.

It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.

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MR. HOLMES (2015)

July 16, 2015

mr holmes Greetings again from the darkness. Be honest … would you be excited to see a film if it were described as follows: “A grumpy 93 year old man struggles with his failing mind and deteriorating body as he tends to his beehives during retirement in a small coastal town”. Chances are that synopsis would cause you to skip on to whatever else is showing at the theatre. However, a single revelation would likely change your mind … the elderly man is actually legendary detective Sherlock Holmes.

Ian McKellen stars and holds little back as he portrays the elderly Holmes trying to reconcile the past, the present and his failing health. And yes, there is one last case to solve … only it’s the last case he actually solved 35 years earlier. Sadly, Holmes can’t recall how that case ended, and the fictionalized version written by his friend John Watson offers no resolution.

We first see Holmes as he returns from an international trip – a trip that seems a bit out of place with the rest of the movie; at least until it circles back near the end of the film. In fact, we get quite a bit of back and forth between the present and past, and McKellen pulls off both the elder and much younger Holmes … though his performance as the faltering, frail one-time genius is Oscar caliber.

Laura Linney plays his housekeeper, but it’s her son Roger (Milo Parker) who jells with Holmes and re-kindles that twinkle in the eye. The scenes with Roger and Holmes provide poignancy and humor, and also the dose of reality so necessary to a film focusing on a living legend.

Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) directs the film, which is based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, and pretty quickly pulls the rug out from under us on the iconic deerstalker cap and the ever-present pipe. Still, only the staunchest, least-flexible fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character will be turned off by this mostly gentle and insightful look at aging – and a reminder that even fictional geniuses grow old.

Baker Street makes an appearance, as does the charred and blackened Hiroshima site, and a blurry Dr. Watson. Don’t expect the frantic pace of Robert Downey, Jr or the elegant precision of Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch. Instead, enjoy the subtle moments, the wry smiles and the valiant attempt to bring a mortal end to the seemingly immortal Great Detective … with a few clues tossed in for good fun.

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HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)

December 16, 2012

hyde Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit of a curiosity why the only four-times-elected US President has been portrayed so few times on screen. Without putting much thought into it, the most memorable non-documentary occurrence may have been by Jon Voight during Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Bring on Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1939 first ever US visit by British monarchs … King George VI(“Bertie” played by Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) … and the stage is set for a behind-the-scenes political tale of the “social” meeting that led to the US and England joining forces in WWII. Unfortunately, that’s not really what we get.

Director Roger Michell (Morning Glory, Venus) and noted playwright and screenwriter Richard Nelson (Ethan Frome) just can’t seem to make up their mind which story they want to tell. Is it the historical meeting between FDR and the King? Is it the hyde3fling between FDR and his 6th cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), whose relationship was uncovered through the diaries and letters left behind when she passed in 1991? Is it the ongoing manipulations by Mrs Roosevelt (FDR’s mother, played by Elizabeth Wilson) and the cagey Eleanor (Olivia Williams)? Is it a political statement that all powerful men have insecurities and needs? The film is narrated and mostly told through the viewpoint of Daisy, a local 47 year old spinster, who gets dragged wide-eyed into the FDR mayhem. Mrs Roosevelt, Eleanor and FDR’s assistant Missy (Elizabeth Marvel, The Bourne Legacy) all understand the President’s reason for allowing Daisy into their inner sanctum. Daisy, a bit slow on the take, learns why once FDR stops the car in a meadow during one of their private, scenic drives. The running story of Daisy is probably the least interesting within the film, and it often deflates whatever momentum might get started.

hyde2 The best and most interesting portion involves the private meeting between FDR and the King that takes place in the study after hours. The two bond as men who are in positions of power, share the same insecurities, and who both curse their afflictions … the King and his stuttering, and the President with his polio. The best line of the film occurs during this meeting when the President asks “Can you imagine the disappointment when they find out what we really are?” It’s a reminder that all great men are just that … men.

This barely qualifies as a historical drama, and the far more interesting personal topic (rather than Daisy) would be the ongoing power struggle between Eleanor and Mrs Roosevelt. FDR does have to remind them that HE is the President! There is acknowledgment of Eleanor’s sexual preference, as well as her acceptance of FDR’s extra-marital desires and needs.

hyde4 Much is made of the famous American picnic where the King and Queen are served hot dogs, and this story highlights the Queen’s paranoia that this is yet another slap in the face meant to dishonor their presence. In fact, it is presented as a shrewd move by FDR to introduce the British royalty as people to be embraced by the American public.

It must be noted that though the film plays much like a made for TV movie, Bill Murray does a solid job portraying FDR as a man filled with humor, mischief and in full command of the burden he carries. His need for “me” time is understandable and his agreement with the press photographers explains why so few pictures exist of his wheelchair or other challenges in living with the polio. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t keep up with Murray’s performance or with the powerful subject he portrays. Sound familiar Mr. Voight?

**Note: stay for the credits and see footage of the infamous “hot dog picnic”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy Hallmark-style movies dwelling on interpersonal relationships OR you still need proof that Bill Murray is a legit actor.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a historical drama centered around Franklin Delano Roosevelt

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQaScjiWDyY


THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION (2009)

July 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most everyone is familiar with the peak of Merchant-Ivory film collaboration which included: A Room With a View, Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End to name a few. Ismail Merchant died a few years ago, but director James Ivory returns with a powerful, yet odd film based on Peter Cameron’s novel.

The film boasts a very nice cast: Anthony Hopkins as the aging, gay man who is the brother of a famous (now dead) novelist; Laura Linney as the widow of the writer; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the writer’s former mistress. Oh yeah, these three all live together (plus Hopkins’ younger Japanese partner) in a compound in Uruguay on land the writer left behind after his suicide.

The story gets interesting when Omar (played by Omar Metwally) shows up unannounced after receiving a declination of his request to write a biography on the novelist. Hopkins supports the idea as he expects it will generate book sales and revenue for the group. Linney is flat against it thinking it will spill too many secrets. Gainsbourg initially sides with Linney, but changes her vote when she falls for Omar.

On the surface, the story is about Omar’s attempt to win over Linney’s bitter character and change her mind. The much more appealing story is Omar’s awakening to life in this oddball community, now that he is out of the clutches of his domineering type-A girlfriend and co-worker played superbly by Alexandra Maria Lara. Talk about a personality that makes you want to run away to Uruguay! She almost makes Linney’s character seem charming.  Almost.

Mr. Ivory excels in subtlety and he is in fine form here. So many “little” moments make this story really click. It is also beautifully photographed. This is a really good film with interesting characters and a theme of finding one’s self that will probably get lost in the mass confusion of summer giants like Twilight and Toy Story 3. If you get the chance, make the time to see this one.