ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

watch the trailer:

 

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THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

watch the trailer:

 


KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

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:

 


ROBOCOP (2014)

February 14, 2014

robocop Greetings again from the darkness. The expected cringes and groans never fully surfaced as the modernized re-boot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic unfolded on the screen. Sure, I wish Peter Weller made even a cameo appearance, and yes, I missed the charm, humor and satire that has allowed the original to remain relevant; but, director Jose Padilha reimagines the story, sticks to PG-13 action, and incorporates the video game look favored by today’s filmgoers.  The result is an adequate action movie with a Dr Frankenstein twist, a dash of questionable technological morality, topped with the always evil corporate conglomerate.

The opening sequence takes place in Tehran and is extremely well done, setting the stage for incisive commentary on today’s foreign policies and drone usage. Unfortunately, THAT movie never materializes, but we do get the over-the-top conservative news host … played colorfully by Samuel L Jackson, who does manage to work in his iconic catchphrase (yes even a PG-13 movie is allowed one MF). His holographic studio reminds of Minority Report, and has the futuristic look required to distract us from any real message.

Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing“) adequately fills the part man/ part robot role (good guy and good cop Alex Murphy), but the script really lets him down when it comes to his wife (Abbie Cornish) and kid, his crime-fighting instincts, and the overlapping criminal elements – some poorly cast generic arms dealer and the ultimate villain known as mega corporation OmniCorp run by the great Michael Keaton. The movie’s best scenes involve the interaction between Keaton and the always terrific Gary Oldman, playing a conflicted doctor/robotics genius with a conscience (most of the time).

The supporting cast is stellar and features a nasty Jackie-Earle Haley, a properly proper Jennifer Ehle, a relatively straight-laced Jay Baruchel, a two-faced police captain played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Murphy’s partner Michael K Williams, and Oldman’s loyal assistant played by Aimee Garcia (“Dexter“). The biggest missed opportunities involve the cop partnership with Mr. Williams … such an integral part of the first movie (Nancy Allen), but here it seems most of this story was inexplicably left on the editing floor.  The story, the viewers and Mr. Williams deserved much better.

A bit too much shakycam in the first shootout left me disappointed, as did most of the action sequences. However, the effects for the robotic suit and Murphy’s “body” are fantastic.  Especially effective is the scene with Murphy first becomes aware of what remains of him and how much is robotic suit.  This is very much a tale of moralistic choices, and it could have been interesting to see Murphy go a bit deeper in his existential questioning of Man or Machine. Mostly, I was simply relieved it wasn’t terrible and didn’t tarnish the legacy.

**NOTE: the city of Detroit is the base, but the movie never really touches on the problems within the actual city.  In fact, very little crime solving is shown – but we do have the stats relayed to us.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wonder what Iron Man would be like with an evil billionaire calling the shots rather than a  brilliant billionaire wearing the suit OR you never miss the rare (these days) chance to see Michael Keaton on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are perfectly content to allow the 1987 film version to maintain its spot as THE Robocop movie.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INmtQXUXez8


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodward, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

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