12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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WOLVES (2017)

March 3, 2017

wolves Greetings again from the darkness. Anthony is a good kid with a bright future. He’s a star basketball player and a bright student, and has a loyal girlfriend and seemingly normal home life. It comes as no surprise that most of those elements either aren’t as smooth as they seem, or are more complex than on the surface.

Writer/director Bart Freundlich (known for his 1997 debut feature The Myth of Fingerprints, and for being married to Julianne Moore) slowly unveils the cracks in Anthony’s (Taylor John Smith) façade. His college professor dad (the always great Michael Shannon) is a drunk, abusive man with a short fuse and severe gambling addiction. He’s the kind of guy who is always working on his great American novel, while juggling gambling debts and throwing down quiet jealousy of his son. His mother (Carla Gugino) has good intentions and clearly wants the best for her son, but she’s just not capable of standing up to the menace. It plays like a Maslow’s hierarchy of crappy parenting.

There are plenty of clichés that we’ve seen in many movies, but it’s a pleasure to see so much real basketball being played. Anthony has a sweet jump shot and a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Zazie Beetz), and the interpersonal relationships all have nuances that come across as real life. Even Uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer) seems torn about which family member most needs his protection. Emotional-physical-financial strains abound and it all seems to crash down on Anthony as he strives to earn a college scholarship by impressing the coaches from Cornell.

As Anthony navigates the choppy waters towards independence, the film teases us with some sub-plots that could have been further explored. Anthony hits it off with an older, wiser street baller (John Douglas Thompson) who starts mentoring him. We also are given hope that Anthony’s mom will actually do something for her son rather than regretting what she hasn’t done. Lastly there is a quick tease as to an alternative past that would make some sense – though whether that’s real or imagined is left up to the viewer’s perspective.

The film ultimately plays like a Disney film that utilizes an inordinate number of “F-words”, and it even reminds a bit of the Paul Giamatti movie Win Win. It’s the acting and the periodic sequences of real emotion that allow us to remain interested in the characters right up until the end … even if our hopes differ from one of Anthony’s own parents.

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FRANK & LOLA (2016)

December 8, 2016

frank-lola Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Shannon continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today. In this first feature from writer/director Matthew Ross, Mr. Shannon is the titular Frank, and his pained facial expressions elevate this neo-noir into a dark and intriguing exposition on male obsession and sexual jealousy.

The abrupt opening scene finds Frank and Lola (Imogen Poots) frolicking in bed after obviously just meeting for the first time that evening. We (and Lola) know we are in for something a bit different when Frank slams on the breaks and states, “Maybe we should wait until next time.” Lola is taken aback, and we are soon watching this relationship develop … while simultaneously noting the subtle signs of troubled pasts for each of them.

Frank is a talented French chef and Lola is just starting her career as a fashion designer. His dark side flashes a bit more often, but before Lola ever comes clean, we realize there is unhappiness in her past. They seem to be two tortured souls in a jinxed relationship.

Filmmaker Ross keeps us (and Frank) on our toes as the script seems to continually offer yet another deeply held secret or mysterious character. Justin Long plays Lola’s new employer, while the rarely-seen-these-days Rosanna Arquette plays Lola’s name-dropping mother. However, it’s Michael Nyqvist (so great in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the suave Frenchman with ties to Lola’s past and present that really makes things interesting … and somehow even darker. His wife is played by the terrific French actress Emmanuelle Devos. Her screen time is limited, yet crucial.

The film was well received at Sundance, and it shares the creepiness of such films as Basic Instinct, Body Heat and Night Moves. Rarely do contemporary movies go as deep into the male psyche of obsession as this one, and the throw-back atmosphere is a perfect fit for the tone. Not many actors simmer like Michael Shannon, and the story offers him the perfect vehicle to remind us that everyone longs to be loved – even when we aren’t sure we deserve it.

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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.

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LOVING (2016)

November 12, 2016

loving Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are sound asleep in bed with your significant other. It’s the middle of the night. Suddenly, the sheriff and his deputies crash through your bedroom door with pistols drawn and flashlights blinding you. You are both taken into custody. For most of us, this would be a terrible nightmare. For Mildred and Richard Loving, it was their reality in June of 1958. Their crime was not drug-dealing, child pornography, or treason. Their crime was marriage. Interracial marriage.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) proves again he has a distinct feel and sensitivity for the southern way. There is nothing showy about his style, and in fact, his storytelling is at its most effective in the small, intimate moments … he goes quiet where other filmmakers would go big. Rather than an overwrought political statement, Nichols keeps the focus on two people just trying to live their life together.

Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a bricklayer and man of few words. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, a quietly wise and observant woman. Both are outstanding in delivering understated and sincere performances (expect Oscar chatter for Ms. Negga). These are country folks caught up in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, though as Richard says, “we aren’t bothering anyone”. The counterpoint comes from the local Sheriff (an intimidating Martin Csokas) and the presiding Judge Bazile (David Jensen) who claim to be enforcing “God’s Law”.

Nichols never strays far from the 2011 documentary The Loving Story from Nancy Buirski, who is a producer on this film. When the ACLU-assigned young (and green) lawyer Bernard Cohen (played with a dose of goofiness by Nick Kroll) gets involved, we see how the case hinges on public perception and changing social mores. Michael Shannon appears as the Life Magazine photographer who shot the iconic images of the couple at home … a spread that presented the Lovings not as an interracial couple, but rather as simply a normal married couple raising their kids.

In 1967, the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, unanimously held Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” as unconstitutional, putting an end to all miscegenation laws (interracial marriage was still illegal in 15 states at the time). In keeping with the film’s direct approach, the Supreme Court case lacks any of the usual courtroom theatrics and is capped with a quietly received phone call to Mildred.

Beautiful camera work from cinematographer Adam Stone complements the spot on setting, costumes and cars which capture the look and feel of the era (over a 10 year period). Nichols forsakes the crowd-rallying moments or even the police brutality of today’s headlines, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of paranoia or constant concern. We feel the strain through these genuine people as though we are there with them. The simplicity of Richard and Mildred belies the complexity of the issue, and is summed up through the words of Mildred, “He took care of me.”

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ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

April 20, 2016

elvis and nixon Greetings again from the darkness. The tagline nails the tone of the film: “On August 21, 1970 two of America’s greatest recording artists met for the first time.” Director Liza Johnson proceeds to tell the story of worlds colliding – an Oval Office meeting with President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Of course, this is a fictionalized and satirical accounting, since Nixon didn’t kickoff his recording passion until the following year.

It would be pretty easy to bash the film as heavy on cheese and light on historical accuracy, but that would be missing the point. These two public figures couldn’t have been much different from each other, but the script (Joey and Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes) finds a way to have these two icons hold a conversation … bonding over their mutual hatred of The Beatles.

The terrific opening credit sequence perfectly captures the time period and is a work of art unto itself. We first see Elvis shooting out the picture tubes in the TV room at Graceland. He’s disgusted with the news reports of Woodstock and drug use among America’s youth. Constructing a loose plot to meet with President Nixon and offer his service as a Federal Agent-at-large, Elvis is mostly interested in adding a federal badge to his collection.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey takes on the Nixon role. Rather than a finely tuned impersonation, Shannon goes after more of an impression or re-imagining of The King. It’s a perfect fit for this setting, and there is nothing like watching Shannon give an impromptu karate demonstration for the leader of the free world in the most famous room in America. Spacey, on the other hand, is spot on in capturing the posture, mannerisms, sound and essence of a man who carried much personal baggage with his political power.

The chain of events leading up to the meeting plays a bit like a farcical comedy. Nixon’s staff of Bud Krough (Colin Hanks), Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) and HR Haldeman (Tate Donovan) is equal parts incredulous and opportunistic. We get two members of Elvis’ “Memphis Maphia” with Alex Pettyfer playing Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville adding even more humor as Sonny West. There is a nice blend of “little” comedy moments and outright laughers – Elvis impersonators confronting him in an airport, the Secret Service reaction to Elvis’ gift to Nixon of collectible WWII pistols, and Elvis meeting with a DEA official played by Tracy Letts.

I found myself smiling throughout, with full understanding that this satirical look at a meeting between two famous men with little common ground has no real historical importance … other than resulting in the all-time most requested photograph from the National Archives. But for 86 minutes of smiling, I say to the filmmakers and actors … Thank you. Thank you very much.

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