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:

 

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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


KILLER JOE (2012)

August 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every so often there’s a movie that just defies description and leaves me at a loss for analysis. Initially I thought maybe I could come up with a comparison, but that has proved futile. It also falls short (but does set the tone) to imagine if David Lynch, John Waters and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a film. And then it hit me that really the most likely legacy for this movie is as a midnight movie favorite. A cult film if you will. It has the twisted humor and borderline caricature characters and enough wild scenes and bizarre lines of dialogue, that I believe the midnight crowd will embrace it wholeheartedly.

 The first surprise is that it’s directed by 76 year old William Friedkin, who is best known for his 1970’s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. He even throws in a bit of a chase scene here just to remind of us of his timeless scene from the latter. The story is from playwright Tracy Letts who won a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” (a film version coming soon). Mr. Letts took the inspiration of the story from a real cop in Florida, moved the setting to Texas for obvious reasons and then filmed in Louisiana for economical ones.

 The next surprise is Matthew McConaughey, who has made a career of playing Him-bo’s in farcical rom-coms that seem only to exist so he can be filmed without a shirt. Here, he plays the titular Killer Joe Cooper as a fastidious, meticulous detective who runs a murder-for-hire “business on the side”. Killer Joe has a couple of rules and demands that the details be just right before he agrees to a job. But then he bends his rules when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal sister of Chris (Emile Hirsch) and daughter of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). She becomes the retainer when father and son can’t come up with actual money for the job.

The best way to describe these people, including and especially Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gena Gershon), is they are the epitome of trailer-park hicks who are not merely dysfunctional as a family, but even moreso as human beings. They barely have money to get by in life, but it’s spent on beer, cigarettes, fast food and horse racing. When a small drug deal goes bad, Chris (the scheming son) comes up with the idea of killing his mother (Ansel’s ex) to collect the insurance money. A touch of Double Indemnity thrown down by the Beverly Hillbillies.

 So hustler son and simpleton dad hire Killer Joe for the job. Think of the plan from Blood Simple, and now imagine it’s carried out by the cast of Dumb and Dumber. Things go awry when Joe meets Dottie. It brings out a side of him hidden by his smooth vocal manners and starched black exterior. A side best compared to the sadistic nature of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

No more details need be provided, just know that the story and the people are twisted and demented, and the violence and sexuality are the type that make a film tough to watch at times. That level of discomfort is assuaged by the laugh out loud moments offered by the dialogue, but merely leaves our brains desperately gasping for coherence.  Worth noting is the unique camera work is provided by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad).

Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” is fitting end punctuation for the film, and be warned that while I will never view canned pumpkin the same again, that pales in comparison to what Gena Gershon must now think of when someone offers her a piece of fried chicken.

watch the trailer:


BERNIE (2012)

May 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1997 in Carthage and a shocking discovery hits smack dab in the middle of town square. That’s rural east Texas where everyone knows everything about everyone. Well almost everything and almost everyone. A year later, Skip Hollandsworth wrote an article for Texas Monthly about the fascinating, too-strange-to-believe story that shook this community. Now, 16 years after the murder, Hollandsworth co-wrote a screenplay with director Richard Linklater and they present a visual representation that allows us to wrap our heads around the events.

Linklater is always an interesting filmmaker. His resume includes Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. Here he re-teams with Jack Black, who stars at Bernie Tiede, the nicest man in Carthage. You need not take my word for it. Linklater interviews several actual Carthage residents who swear Bernie was the sweetest, most generous man they ever met. Some even state they will never believe he committed the murder … despite his confession. Whatever you think of Mr. Black as an actor, his performance here is unlike any of his previous work. He is somehow subtle and believable while playing a real life over-the-top assistant funeral home director. His walk, speech pattern, mannerisms, interests and singing style tell us all we need know about Bernie Tiede.

The basic story is that Bernie befriends the wealthiest, wickedest widow in town. They become very close as friends, travel partners and even live together. Bernie gains Marjorie Nugent’s trust and is eventually in charge of her finances and written in as her sole beneficiary. What makes this odd? Well, Bernie is 38. Marjorie (played by Shirley MacLaine) is 81. Oh, and he is gay. This odd arrangement somehow is accepted in this community for one reason … he is just so a nice man! He truly is nice. Right up until the point where he’s not so nice.

 This is one of those movies where the links are stronger than the chain. Black’s performance is stellar and worth the price of admission. Equally entertaining are the “interviews” with the local townspeople. And adding intrigue to all of that is the best ever supporting performance from Matthew McConaughey as local DA, Danny Buck Davidson. Those three elements make this oddball movie a sight to behold. There is humor to make us laugh and oddity to raise eyebrows.

The downside is that the docudrama approach actually takes away from what should have been the key aspects of the story. More screen time watching the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie could have proved enlightening. Instead, the development is reduced to snapshots of vacations and a snippet of a couples massage. The dark elements are only hinted at until the shock of the deed.  The filmmakers choose not to dwell on the “other” side of Bernie, and instead play along with the locals version of the nicest man in town.

Movies based on truth are all the more enticing when the characters are themselves quite interesting and different. That’s certainly the case with Bernie Tiede, Danny Buck Davidson, and the locals in Carthage. For a taste of small town East Texas living and dying, questionable morals, battles between legalities and religion, and the hypocrisy and clouded judgment that occurs when a nice guy gets dirty … this is as good as it gets.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: black comedy immersed in real life tragedy is your thing OR you don’t want to miss a wonderfully odd and touching performance from Jack Black (and lots of hymnal singing)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t apprecaite a murderer being portrayed as a nice guy – even if that’s the TRUE part of the story!

Watch the trailer: