SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

watch the trailer:

 

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WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When “based on a true story” appears, we can usually bank on either a hero or criminal as the subject. A good person, or a bad one. With this story, we get a teenager who is basically a good kid, but one who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. It’s likely to test your empathy and judgment. Director Yann Demange (’71) brings us the story of young Richard (Rick) Wershe, Jr through a script from writers Andy Weiss and brothers Noah and Logan Miller.

We begin in 1984, the height of the “Just Say No” era, when Rick (a terrific debut by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a 14 year old living near poverty with his dad and older sister. Mom walked out years ago. Rick helps his dad in the firearm resale business (some legal, some not). Richard Wershe, Sr is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is outstanding as the dreamer who desperately wants a better life for himself and his kids. Unfortunately, the man simply lacks the capacity to do better. Sister Dawn is played by Del Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), and Dawn is an addict who leaves/escapes home with her boyfriend. This is most definitely not “The Brady Bunch”.

Detroit was in the midst of a rapid and tragic decline, and the east side where Rick lived had already hit bottom with crime, violence, drugs and poverty. Rick’s teenage resume would read firearms dealer, known gang associate, FBI informant, gunshot victim, cash-flowing drug dealer, baby daddy, rescuer of sister, and server of life sentence. It was quite a run for someone who hadn’t yet celebrated birthday number 20.

Director Demange shows us how two sides were played against the middle, with Rick being stuck in the middle with no hope for escape. We even see a TV clip of SERPICO for a bit of foreshadowing into life as an informant. What makes the film work, beyond the remarkable true story, is how each of the main characters is humanized to the point that we understand what makes them tick. Dad (McConaughey) is a dreamer who thinks he can sell enough guns to finance a chain of video stores that will be successful enough to keep his family together. Daughter Dawn tries to escape her “loser” dad by numbing herself with drugs and running off with the first guy that will take her. Son Rick takes advantage of his ability to create trust by trying to serve his father, a drug kingpin, the FBI, and himself. These three all seem to have good hearts and best intentions, but nothing every really works out for them – despite dad being a glass-half-full kind of guy

This is also a story of contrasts … especially between black and white in many situations. We learn the difference between ‘black jail time’ and ‘white jail time’, and the FBI obviously chose Rick because he was a white kid who infiltrated a black crime ring – he even gets invited to the local skating rink to hangout, and to Las Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight. There is also the way Richard Sr sees himself as “above” the criminals as he protests the proliferation and danger of drugs, while then turning around and selling guns to those who peddle drugs. Selective morality.

The FBI recruits Rick to feed them information by threatening to arrest his dad. He is coerced into the world of selling drugs and then later railroaded by the Feds so that they could wash their hands and walk away “clean”. Because of their influence, Rick is later sentenced to life in prison for non-violent offenses. Of course, he was surrounded by violence, and even the victim of it, but it begs the question of whether the punishment fit the crime. We are never sure if we should feel empathy for Rick, disgust at the system, or frustrated and fed up with a society that set this into motion.

The supporting cast runs deep. Bruce Dern and the rarely seen Piper Laurie are Rick’s grandparents, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane play the influential FBI agents. This marks a 25 year reunion for McConaughey and Cochrane from their appearance in DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Also appearing are RJ Cyler (“I’m Dying Up Here”) as Rick’s friend Boo, Brian Tyree Henry as a detective, and Eddie Marsan and Jonathan Majors as drug dealers.

A surprising amount of humor is mixed in with the gritty crime stuff and family struggles. There is even a comical FOOTLOOSE moment at the drive-in – providing yet another contrast between blacks and whites. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (“71) works wonders in some of the least appealing settings you’ll likely find in a movie, and his approach perfectly complements our personal conflicts on who to pull for throughout this quagmire.

watch the trailer:


GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

watch the trailer:

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

December 28, 2013

wolf Greetings again from the darkness. A brilliant and expertly made film that is excruciatingly painful to watch, yet impossible to look away. That would be my one line review. Of course, that line could be followed by a 10 page essay, to which I won’t subject you. How to do justice to this extraordinary three hours of excess and debauchery? How to give due credit the craftsmanship of director Martin Scorcese? How to acknowledge the pure physicality and kinetic energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance? How to heap praise on a project so lacking in morality and decency? There are no easy answers to these four questions, but there is plenty to discuss.

Let’s be clear. This is a vulgar film telling the disgusting story of a crude and egotistical scam artist who defrauded many innocent people. Jordan Belfort’s autobiography serves as the source material for the screenplay from Terrence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire“). Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorcese) portrays Belfort as the talented stock broker who soaks up lessons from both his mentor and the real world stock market crash of 1987. That Black Monday led him right into the world of penny stocks and huge commissions. Those commissions and his stunning sales skills take him right into a world that rivals that of Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon. This is certainly DiCaprio’s most free and limitless performance to date … it’s also his most comedic.

wolf5 Sex. Drugs. Rock and Roll. Sorry, that’s not enough for Belfort. He is also driven by money, greed, power and the need to take advantage of the weak. I lost count, but surely Belfort displays more than seven deadly sins. Everything is extreme. Nothing in moderation. Belfort is both smart and stupid. He is the worst of human nature, and when combined with his charisma, becomes very dangerous. Watching him give his invigorating and over-the-top pep talks to the team recalls the cult evangelists we have seen over the years. His religion is money and winning … never accepting “no”. His followers eat it up.

While most of the movie is pedal to the metal, there are two exceptional scenes that really stood out. When a young, eager, new to Wall Street Belfort has lunch with his mentor (played by Matthew McConaughey), we sense him soaking up the lessons … we see the wheels turning to a new way of thinking. McConaughey is in top form here. The other standout scene takes place aboard Belfort’s yacht as he interacts with the FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. This agent is the closest thing to a moral barometer the movie allows and their dance of dialogue and acting is pure cinematic magic.

wolf6 Jonah Hill as Belfort’s business partner is his physical opposite, and possibly even less morally-centered than Belfort. He is also extremely funny in a demented way. Three very talented film directors have supporting roles. Rob Reiner (in a rare acting gig) plays Belfort’s bombastic dad and firm accountant. Jon Favreau is the high priced attorney fighting off the SEC and FBI. Spike Jonze plays the boiler room manager who first schools Belfort on penny stocks, and sets the wheels in motion. There is also a very sexy, funny performance from Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife.

My words don’t do justice to the manic existence and frenzied scenes of sex, profanity and drug use. The black comedy mixed in prevents this from being the bleak portrayal that it could have been, but don’t underestimate the depths to which the characters will stoop to get what they want. This one makes a similarly themed American Hustle look like a Disney flick. Consider yourself warned … and don’t think you can just turn away from the screen.

**NOTE: the soundtrack is quite diverse and complements the pace of the film.  The musical director is Robbie Robertson, who was part of The Band when Martin Scorcese directed The Last Waltz

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszwuX1AK6A

 


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

November 11, 2013

dallas1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for an actor or actress to alter their physical appearance for a movie role. Sometimes those changes become the story: Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist and Charlize Theron in Monster are a few that come to mind. Regardless of the transformation or make-up, what really matters is the performance and the character. Just ask Eddie Murphy (Norbit) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Shallow Hal). In Dallas Buyers Club, we actually get two incredible transformations that lead to two stunning performances.

dallas2 Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto each lost approximately 40 pounds for their respective roles as Ron Woodroof, the redneck, three-way loving, alcoholic, drug-addicted electrician/rodeo cowboy; and Rayon, the sensitive, street-savvy, would-be transsexual so desperate for a kind word. Their physical appearance will startle you more than once, but is quite effective in getting across the struggles of those infected with HIV virus in the 1980’s. The number of victims impacted exploded and the medical profession was ill-equipped to properly treat the patients.

This is based on a true story and a real life guy (Woodroof) who became a most unlikely beacon of hope for AIDS patients. Woodroof fought the medical industry, Pharmaceutical companies and the government (FDA, DEA, IRS). It’s impossible to miss the message and accusations that most of these had a single goal of increasing profits, rather than dallas3curing the disease. And that’s where the story lags a bit. Michael O’Neill and Dennis O’Hare are the faces of greed and bureaucracy, while Jennifer Garner, Leto, and Griffin Dunne represent the side with a heart (though Ms. Garner is clearly out of her class here). Woodroof seems to be a guy who just doesn’t want to die, sees a business opportunity, and even learns a little bit about humanity along the way.

There have been numerous other projects that deal with AIDS, including: Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. This may be the first with a protagonist who is distinctly unlikeable, despite his passion and strong survival instincts. McConaughey doesn’t shy away from the homophobic personality and cruel manner of speech that Woodroof possesses. We never doubt his frustration at those controlling the big picture, but we never really see him connect with those his brash tactics help.

dallas4 McConaughey is on a dream run as an actor right now, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see him garner an Oscar nomination. But it would be a mistake to chalk that up to his losing so much weight – he really delivers a character that we won’t soon forget. And let’s not overlook Mr. Leto, who has been away from acting for 4 years touring with his band. He is a remarkable talent and a true screen presence. Compare this role to his Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. It’s not just the range of weight, but moreso the range in acting that so impresses.

Also worth noting here is the outstanding cinematography of Yves Belanger. This movie is shot in a way that brings out the intimacy of the moment, while not losing the big picture. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and co-writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack work together for a solid foundation, but it’s McConaughey and Leto that we will most remember … and of course, the pics of the great Marc Bolan on the wall.

**NOTE: for you baseball fans, that is in fact slugger Adam Dunn as a bartender.  He was also an investor in the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two of the best and most startling acting performances of the year OR you want a glimpse at the confusion and panic that the AIDS epidemic brought to the mid 1980’s.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an elegant treatment of AIDS … this one will make your skin crawl.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvMPU0WaPcc


MUD (2013)

April 28, 2013

mud1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his very strong Take Shelter is a grounded, rustic look at what it means to become a man. While that may be enough, it also works as a chase movie, a buddy movie, a family drama, and a look at small town dynamics … all seen through the eyes of 14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life).

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud, a drifter who quickly captures the fascination of Ellis and his earnest buddy Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) as their worlds collide under a boat in a tree just off the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. Turns out Mud is a bit of a smooth-talking philosopher who wins Ellis over spinning life yarns that come just as Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Sarah Paulson from Martha Marcy May Marlene) are hitting a rough patch and he is trying to figure out just how the female species fits into the whole big picture. Mud lays out a beautiful story mud2of how he killed a man protecting his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Now Mud is being chased by the man’s family (brother Carver played by Paul Sparks, and father King played by the too-rarely seen Joe Don Baker – looking great at age 77).

Michael Shannon has a few scenes as Neckbone’s Uncle who makes a living by diving for mussels in the river. You might remember how terrific Shannon was in Nichols’ Take Shelter, and he has become quite an interesting and dependable character actor in various projects. Even more impressive is Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship … the father figure for Mud, and a quiet mud3river guy with quite a colorful past. Shepherd’s first scene with Ellis is brilliant and could generate a campaign for Best Supporting Actor if this film can reach a wide enough audience.

The story is filled with numerous little realistic touches and it’s so original that there is no perfect comparison … though it does have some of the feel of Stand By Me, which is quite a compliment. It is difficult to remember another film where Beanie Weenies were such a valued prop, or where a boat in a tree became a negotiating point, or where the unhurried pace led to such tension. Tye Sheridan delivers a strong and rare performance for such a youngster, and McConaughey deserves special mention because he has clearly broken free of his early career Him-Bo roles, and can now be considered a legitimate actor. He is simply outstanding in the role of Mud. We sense the danger that follows him, but are enchanted with his connection to the boys. David Wingo’s score is the perfect cap for this little gem.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy quiet little indies that pack a whallop OR you want to see excellent work from a great cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: deliberate pacing and sparse dialogue taking place in a quiet rural community equates to nap time for you

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m9IFlz2iYo