October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed – both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an “old” Will Smith and a “young” Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a “young” clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It’s not even really Will Smith – it’s a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It’s very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it’s pretty obvious that day is coming.

What’s also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated … well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990’s and it has “almost” made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.

We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry’s final mission. It’s his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest – an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.

High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson’s LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots – down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda – but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format … leaving us wondering, what’s the point?

watch the trailer:


September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are dark comedies and then there is the first feature film from director Eva Vives (although she wrote the screenplay for RAISING VICTOR VARGAS). It’s really a dark drama with both feet in the stand-up comedy world, so we find ourselves laughing at the (profane) jokes, despite a lead character that is in desperate need of emotional salvation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is dynamite as Nina Geld. And dynamite is meant to have two definitions here. She is terrific in the role, and she (her character) explodes with little notice. Nina Geld is definitely provocative. She is definitely a feminist. She is definitely funny, and she is most definitely messed up. We learn all of this in the first 5 minutes, and spend the rest of the movie waiting to see whether she self-destructs or is somehow saved.

We first see Nina as she delivers a set on stage at a comedy club. Her act is mostly about sex and the misery of relationships. We soon learn why she seems to have little happiness in life. The abusive married cop (Chace Crawford, Tony Romo’s brother-in-law) she has been seeing interrupts the one-night stand she was looking forward to. It’s quite unsettling to watch this unfold, and it seems to be the final straw needed to push Nina to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s southern California where her agent (Angelique Cabral) has arranged for to audition for “Comedy Prime” – a one hour comedy special produced by Larry Michaels (played by Beau Bridges).

In L.A., Nina rooms with a stereotypical southern California “New Age” type (Cate del Castillo) who senses energy fields and remains quite civil in her arguments with her partner (played by Clea DuVall). Mostly we see what a damaged soul that Nina is, and bearing an unfair brunt are her mother (Camryn Manheim), her mom’s friend (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS), and a fellow comic (Jay Mohr).

When Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a rare leading man role), she begins to show her first signs of actual human connection. And of course she is confused by this, and her self-destructive being rears up. The big reveal as to the cause of Nina’s constantly confused state (I don’t believe the therapy sessions are working) is held back until late in the final act … and it’s a doozy that leads to a painfully honest on stage meltdown.

Ms. Winstead is really terrific here, and she is absolutely believable in her stand-up bits. In fact, the montage of impressions and her constant fine-tuning of the act are almost as good as the heavy drama pieces she excels at. The film itself is kind of a mash-up of stories, but it’s her performance that keeps us onboard … even as we question her character’s stability (and incessant hair tussling).

watch the trailer:



September 8, 2016

the-hollars Greetings again from the darkness. John Krasinski’s second film as a director mines the all too familiar territory of dysfunctional family life … only the script from Jim Strouse takes it a step further by burdening each character with their own special form of advanced personal dysfunction. The saving grace here is the always dependable Margo Martindale who anchors the gaggle of struggling men in her life.

Richard Jenkins plays Margo’s husband – a husband quick to cry and slow to recognize most any situation. Sharlto Copley plays their oldest son who is living in their basement and going through life rudderless ever since his divorce. Lastly there is John Krasinski who relocated from their Midwest hometown to NYC pursuing his dream of making it as a graphic novelist.

One morning Margo collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Krasinski rushes to her bedside to discover that Dad has recently fired the oldest son from the family business that is rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Additionally, big brother is super jealous of his ex-wife’s (Ashley Dyke) new relationship (Josh Groban) and takes to stalking and bad-mouthing. Of course, Krasinski is toting his own baggage. He is whiny and depressed about his job, and has cold feet towards marrying his 8 months pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The film is loaded with familiar faces and talented actors. Charlie Day shows up as Margo’s nurse and Krasinski’s insecure former high school nemesis who is now married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead … oh yes, she still has the hots for her high school sweetheart (Krasinski). Randall Park is Margot’s doctor, and Mary Kay Place has a (very) brief role as Jenkins’ sister and employee.

Unfortunately the familiarity extends beyond the faces and into the clichéd characters and story lines. Most of the conversations are predictable, though there are plenty of laughs throughout. It may be the only film to feature punchlines utilizing Jenny Craig, Rod Steiger and Indigo Girls. It’s also interesting to see how all three of the lead male characters are wandering aimlessly when the women aren’t guiding them. This is a theme that could have been better explored and helped set the film apart from so many similar type films.

Despite the negatives, any movie that offers up a few laughs to go along with Margo Martindale at its core, does have some value.

watch the trailer:




October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

watch the trailer:



August 16, 2013

spectacular1 Greetings again from the darkness. Coming-of-age teen dramas with a comedic flair that speak to that tumultuous period of life are rarely worthy of discussion. The exceptions hover film greatness: Rebel Without a Cause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, and Say Anything … Along comes young director James Ponsoldt and his adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel. While not perfect and falling just short of the level of those classics, it is nonetheless a welcome addition and quite interesting.

It’s tempting to call Sutter (played by up-and-comer Miles Teller) a happy-go-lucky kid. He’s the frat boy type – quick with a quip, smooth with the parents and girls, and the envy of the masses. However, that term would be misapplied to a kid who not only is never without his flask, but also gives them as gifts. He uses his wit and booze to dull spectacular2the pain of his aimless existence. We see his lackadaisical efforts at completing a college admission form, and it’s used as a plot device to track Sutter’s progression/maturation through the film.

Brie Larson is terrific as Sutter’s perfect match … right up until she decides that his philosophy of living in the now (even spectacularly) doesn’t leave hope for much of a future. After an extreme night of drinking and partying, Sutter gets awakened while laying in a neighbor’s front yard. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) is bookworm Aimee Finicky, who recognizes the popular Sutter, even though he has no idea who she is. Slowly, the two connect on a level previously unknown to either … some good, some not so wise (just like real teenagers).

spectacular3 This couple of opposites learn much from each other, and soon enough, Sutter is confronting his long last father (Kyle Chandler). No real surprises what he discovers, but it’s a life lesson that must be learned. Sutter seeks more from his remaining family – a big sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who escaped the grind, and a workaholic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doing her best to provide hope for Sutter.

The script is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who also wrote (500) Days of Summer. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe proved they could present teen dilemmas in an entertaining way, and this one follows the same structure. This is a dialogue-heavy story as Sutter and Aimee struggle alone and together to figure out life’s next steps.

I will say that for the first few minutes of the movie, I found Sutter to be the kind of guy that I would typically have no interest in. Tip of the cap to the filmmakers and Miles Teller for turning that around. It should also be noted that Shailene Woodley is so naturally affecting, that her character never comes across as anything but sincere. Given the state of today’s mainstream coming of age stories, this one definitely deserves a look and could gather some attention come awards time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a smart, mostly believable (Shailene Woodley would never go unnoticed in a high school) story about coming to terms with yourself at age 18 (we’ve all been there!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: teen movies with raunchy comedy are the only teen movies you want to see (there seems to be an endless supply)

watch the trailer:




February 20, 2013

a good Greetings again from the darkness. With only a few exceptions, comparing any sequel to its original is a bit unfair and usually somewhat disappointing. This is especially true with the Die Hard franchise. That initial entry in 1988 is often referred to as the top of the class in the action film genre. It combined stunning action sequences, breath-taking suspense, a world class villain, and a few characters to whom we could relate. Most notably, it introduced us to John McClane, a NYC cop making a trip to California in a last ditch effort to re-connect with his estranged wife and have Christmas with his kids. McClane, as played by Bruce Willis, was a likable guy with a touch of insecurity and a terrific stream of wise-cracks. Oh yeah, he also managed to run barefoot through broken glass while outsmarting a team of high-powered terrorists looking to steal millions.

Twenty-five years later, McClane (and Willis) is back for the fifth entry in the Die Hard franchise. Unfortunately, he is the only a good3piece that bears any resemblance to the original brilliance. The action is only stunning in its level of absurdity and exaggeration. The first car chase seemingly destroys at least a third of the existing vehicles in Moscow. It does so with film editing that is likely to spur nausea and migraines among viewers. Subsequent action scenes include numerous explosions and enough gunfire and violent falls to kill off McClane and his son (Jai Courtney) at least a dozen times. Chernobyl makes for an interesting connection to the past, but falls flat in the end. Speaking of falling, McClane and Junior somehow manage to avoid paralysis or even broken ribs despite numerous falls and jumps that are just plain laughable.

a good2 The only “breathtaking” suspense offered was an obvious twist among characters we can’t name with baggage we aren’t privy to. The only other significant breath was my exaggerated sighs of frustration. As for the villain, I couldn’t remember his name during the movie and we are never let in on the big secret file … only that it contains some bad stuff on important Russian big guys. This particular bad guy chomps on a carrot while performing a goofy little dance … all while threatening to kill McClane and his son. Guess what happens? You’re right … McClane doesn’t die.  We know this because Die Hard 6 was announced a week before this one opened.

Relating to these characters is impossible. McClane has some lame parent-regrets that don’t come across as sincere. His son is such a highly trained CIA operative that we aren’t sure what to make of him. We know he botched his mission and apparently it was because he stopped to yell at his dad for the ill-timed visit. The Russian that Junior is supposedly rescuing is bland, though he has a good4a lovely daughter … but even she is saddled with truly awful dialogue. The only fun character in the movie is the Russian cabbie played by Pasha Lychnikoff. He sings Sinatra with a smile, even if he actually never drives the cab thanks to the traffic.

It’s been a rough year for action icons Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham and now Bruce Willis. Maybe the action genre has been muted due to the terrific action sequences of the recent Batman and James Bond movies … each of which offer interesting stories to go with endorphins rush action . The first Die Hard had a great story and fun dialogue. Now McClane spends much of the time telling people “I’m on vacation“. When it’s not funny the first time, each successive time is just exasperating. That’s not acceptable writing and this isn’t acceptable movie directing. Director John Moore is also responsible for The Omen (remake) and Max Payne, while writer Skip Woods gave us Swordfish and The A-Team. There have to be more talented filmmakers who deserve a shot.

**NOTE: I did not like this movie

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: and only if, you are OCD and must keep your streak of Die Hard movies going

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: at all possible

watch the really good trailer (it’s much better than the movie):



THE THING (2011)

October 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s tip our ski masks and flamethrowers to John W Campbell Jr. He wrote the 1938 novella (“Who Goes There?”) that has inspired 3 versions of The Thing, plus the Alien series and numerous other sci-fi movies and TV episodes. This latest version is actually a pre-quel to the 1982 film John Carpenter’s The Thing starring Kurt Russell. First time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr does a nice job of staying true to Carpenter’s version and offering a back-story, while still coming across fresh for a new generation.

 Going back to 1951, The Thing from Another Planet succeeded in frightening a bunch of young filmgoers and hooking them on sci-fi and terror at the theatre. In that version, James Arness (later famous as Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke) was a hulking creature responsible for many nightmares for kids in the 50’s. John Carpenter updated the look in 1982 with a version that has become classic sci-fi and horror, and now this version takes advantage of today’s spectacular special effects.

 The special effects do dominate and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creature and its process are on full display quite a lot, so instead of suspense, we get outright fright shown by the research team. If you aren’t aware, this research station is located in Antarctica, and the frozen tundra and isolation are characters unto themselves. There is very little character development in this most recent version. We do get a Ripley-esque Kate played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof cheerleader), a misguided scientist (are there any other types?) played by Ulrich Thomsen, and a right guy in the wrong place nice guy played by Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Warrior). The rest of the cast are mostly Norwegian dudes who, I am sure, have had better vacations than this.

The movie has a couple of very nice shots depicting the frozen terrain and a very cool overhead of the creature frozen in ice. Other than that, fans of the 1982 version will be glad to know that the flamethrowers are back, as is the dog. Just know that this one is driven by special effects, so if you are up for a creature/alien film, you’ll probably be satisfied.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of either of the previous two OR you like the mixture of terror and sci-fi OR you never miss a movie featuring a flamethrower

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think John Carpenter’s 1982 version can’t possibly be topped OR you aren’t the type to be impressed by gore-centric special effects OR you are protesting since Kurt Russell doesn’t make an appearance

watch the trailer: