VENOM (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those movie-goers who believe there is no need for another comic book movie, you now have People’s Exhibit A. This is the 5th Marvel film of 2018 (yep, that’s a new one every other month!), and it’s the first one proving challenging to say much of anything that is positive or complimentary.

It should be noted that this is not a Superhero movie, but rather a film based on the Marvel Comic characters and stories of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and it seems they either needed more or fewer. Director Ruben Fleisher (ZOMBIELAND, 2009) apparently worked with what he was given, hoping the stellar cast or the CGI could salvage the project.

The always terrific Tom Hardy (Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) stars as Eddie Brock, a renowned investigative reporter popular for breaking stories of corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, he has a significant lapse in ethics – an unusually forthright comment from Hollywood on today’s media. This lapse costs Brock his job, his girlfriend (4 time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), and any semblance of normalcy. While investigating the unimaginable human-alien experiments of megalomaniac Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), Brock takes on the powers of the symbiote (Venom) and spends the rest of the movie either trying to control these powers, sitting back and letting the powers take over, or exchanging frat boy dialogue with the possessive being who picked up all nuances of the English language pretty darn quickly.

Venom was last seen in the lackluster SPIDER-MAN 3 and was played by Topher Grace. This time out, Venom is the focus and Spidey is nowhere to be found or mentioned … at least not until post credits (a terrific animated sequence). The CGI is at times very impressive – reminiscent of something John Carpenter might have ordered. Two sides of the Transamerica Pyramid provide a nice visual, however, the effects are not at all consistent. Far too often … especially the battle between Venom and Riot …it’s just plain messy (like letting a group of toddlers play with black and gray slime).

The film’s saving grace could have been the interactions between Mr. Hardy and Ms. Williams, both stellar actors, but the dialogue and situations are so ridiculous that even those scenes don’t click. The moments that draw laughter from the audience may or may not have been by design, but there are far too many ‘forced comedic moments’ that just fall flat.

Composer Ludwig Goransson (CREED, BLACK PANTHER) delivers some nice moments with the score, but the Eminem song over the closing credits sounds amateurish. The film is very loud, and not so much lacking direction as it is burdened with too many directions and misfires. A comic book movie’s first priority is to be fun, and this one just isn’t much of that. Surprisingly, the film is rated PG-13 rather than R, so the excessive violence (and there is plenty) never actually spills a drop of blood. Perhaps the goal was to make a Marvel movie so uninspiring that BLACK PANTHER’s Oscar chances would be enhanced.  Otherwise, there’s no excuse.

watch the trailer:

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I FEEL PRETTY (2018)

April 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Comedians taking the leap from TV to movies sometimes find the going a bit rough. Amy Schumer hit it big with critics and audiences in TRAINWRECK (2015), and then flopped with both groups in last year’s SNATCHED (2017). This time out, she quells the raunchiness, and instead serves us a PG-13 message movie aimed squarely at adolescent girls. Ms. Schumer doesn’t abandon comedy, it’s now just a bit tamer and comes with a life lesson.

Renee (Ms. Schumer) is a mostly normal person who works in a computer “dungeon” as website support for a high-end make-up company named Lily LeClaire. Adrian Martinez plays her usually unresponsive co-worker who seems quite comfortable with the lack of human interaction that comes with the daily process. When not at her dead-end job, Renee hangs out with her also mostly normal friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips, wife of the film’s co-director Marc Silverstein). Renee does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time hoping for her dream job (receptionist at Lily LeClaire headquarters) and her dream lifestyle (being beautiful and slim like the Lily LeClaire models).

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next. Renee gets conked on the head during a fitness class, and when she wakes up, she sees herself as the beautiful woman she always dreamed of becoming. Of course, her appearance hasn’t changed the slightest, but the way she carries herself certainly has. Where once there was moping and hoping, there is now confidence and daring. Her self-esteem cup is overflowing and she falls into her dream job, and lands a terrific boyfriend, while also being pursued by a dreamy one.

Her time at the company headquarters finds her interacting with CEO Avery LeClaire played with drop-dead perfect comedic timing from 4-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams. Yes, THAT Michelle Williams! It’s such a treat to see this talented actress step away from her usual dramatic characters and flat out nail a comedic role in which she seems to nearly flutter across the screen while sporting a voice that would typically only be heard in Saturday morning cartoons. The shared scenes with Ms. Schumer and Ms. Williams are the film’s best, but unfortunately are too few – leaving some unexplored humor to our imaginations.

Co-writers and co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (first time directors, co-writers of HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) work hard to deliver the type of humor that Amy Schumer fans expect, while also paying respect to the all-important female body image message the film strives to deliver. It’s a challenging proposal, however despite my finding much of the comedy predictable, the theatre was filled with laughter from what was very likely a group of loyal Schumer fans. The bikini contest sequence seemed especially effective in generating laughter and praise from the loyalists.

As for the boyfriend role of nice guy Ethan, Rory Scovel may seem like an odd choice. He’s the anti-Hollywood leading man type – generally laid back with no glimmer of Type A personality. A quiet guy who takes Zumba classes is actually the perfect straight man for Schumer’s dominating screen personality … she does talk incessantly through most of the movie. Other supporting roles are filled by Lauren Hutton as Lilly “Gram” LeClaire, the company founder and grandmother to Avery; Emily Ratajkowski as Renee’s fitness class acquaintance, whose sole purpose seems to be in convincing Renee that beautiful women have life struggles too; Naomi Campbell as a company executive; and Tom Hopper (“Game of Thrones”), as the required eye candy for a viewing audience likely to skew heavily female.

Ms. Schumer is surely to receive backlash on the movie due to utilizing a head injury to show her character the road to self-esteem and confidence. In my opinion she should be commended for using comedy and her celebrity to send this message to the girls out there. We never know what delivery method will work, and if a fake bump on the head in a movie gets a few girls to realize success in life is not about one’s physical attractiveness, then I’m on board. Of course, there are many who say I’m not qualified to review the movie since, being a male, I can’t possibly understand what girls go through. And on that point, they are likely correct.

watch the trailer:


WONDERSTRUCK (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you know an adolescent who is ready to step up from comic book movies, this would be a terrific introduction to more emotionally dramatic and narrative-driven cinema. That’s certainly not meant to imply that director Todd Haynes’ latest is only for kids, or even that it’s aimed at that demographic. Instead, it’s the rare opportunity to follow two intersecting story lines over two different time periods with kids as the main focus, and have some very interesting post-movie discussions related to characters, eras, and filmmaking techniques.

We follow the stories of two kids who are separated by 50 years. Although the time boundary exists, the similarities between their journeys are many. Each is running away from home in search of their roots and identity. They are both hearing-impaired and living in less than ideal family environments. Additionally, their footsteps cross many of the same places in New York City as two museums play key roles.

Ben (Oakes Fegley, PETE’S DRAGON) is a 12 year old living in Gunflint, Minnesota. It’s 1977 when his mother (Michelle Williams) dies unexpectedly and a freak accident takes his hearing. Convinced an odd bookmark is a clue to finding the father he’s never met, Ben sets off for New York City. Rose (remarkable first time actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey and is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore in a dual role). Rose is an artistic child whose domineering dad has little time for her, so she hops aboard the ferry and heads to the big city to track down an idol – who may be more closely tied than we first imagine.

Brian Selznick adapted the screenplay from his own novel (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which was the basis for Scorcese’s HUGO), and some may find the two story lines muddled or difficult to follow. However, for those who connect with the characters and their adventures, it’s a fascinating and entertaining ride. Director Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, CAROL) has established his expertise in visual stylings, and here he gets to present two distinct looks for the separate eras. Ben’s 1977 world is filled with the polyester and neon colors of that era and it’s even given the washed-out look of 1970’s cinema. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rose’s 1927 world is presented in black and white as a silent movie. The lack of dialogue allows us to focus on her facial expressions and body language, which tell us what we need to know.

The American Museum of Natural History plays a significant role in both stories, and the Queens Museum is central to the finale which ties up the two pieces for us. The contrasts of the two eras are as vital as the similarities. Along the way, each of the kids gets a bit of help. Ben befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose connection to the museum and the city provides Ben a boost, while Rose’s much older brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith) also has a connection to the museum and helps put Rose on the right track. The distinct photographic styles help us easily switch between eras, and much credit goes to cinematographer (and frequent Haynes collaborator) Edward Lachman and editor Affonso Goncalves.

Oscar Wilde’s quote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, takes its shot as the theme for the two stories, and really it’s a heartfelt film with interesting storytelling and unusual cinematic effects. The set design is terrific throughout, and especially vital during the silent movie segments of Rose’s story. Carter Burwell’s prominent score also effectively shifts styles between stories and eras. The ties that bind us – a core need to understand our roots – do so regardless of age and time period. This is a nifty little film that provides much to discuss and consider.

watch the trailer:


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

November 23, 2016

manchester Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.

If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.

The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).

The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.

In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.

This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.

watch the trailer:

 


CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

October 13, 2016

certain-women Greetings again from the darkness. This is surely one of the most intriguing movies of the year that is about women and by a woman. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has adapted the short stories from Maile Meloy into a film with 3 segments focusing on the daily perseverance of three women in small town Montana (including a rare Wyoming joke).

The first segment has lawyer Laura Dern returning to the office after an … umm … “long lunch meeting”. Waiting for her is her client played by Jared Harris (“Mad Men”). The frustration between the two is palpable. Things take a turn for the worse as the sheriff calls Dern to the scene where Harris has taken a hostage at gunpoint. The issues on display here include the lack of respect for a female attorney, her unsatisfying personal life, and the one-way trust that can happen in times of desperation.

In the next story, we follow Michelle Williams and her husband James LeGros as they meet with a lonely elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonis) and offer to buy some limestone blocks that have been sitting on his property for decades. The subtlety of the conversation embodies the missing respect and power of Ms. Williams’ character.

Emotions are exploding beneath the surface in the third segment featuring horse handler Lily Gladstone as she stumbles into a class being taught by Kristen Stewart, and is immediately captivated by the smart young teacher. Where this attraction leads is further commentary on the challenges faced by those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives.

The above recaps don’t come close to capturing the extraordinary quiet and stillness that director Reichardt uses in an emotionally powerful manner. These three women are all intelligent and filled with both pride and visceral disappointment … each quietly suffering, yet trudging forward with the emptiness each day brings. They each have a feeling of isolation – even if they aren’t truly alone, and failed or lackluster relationships certainly play a role.

The acting and cinematography (film, not digital!) is as expert as the directing. Ms. Gladstone is truly a standout by saying few words out loud, but speaking volumes with her open and pleading eyes. The nuance of each scene is where the most interest is, and the overall mood of the characters and tone of the stories overcome the fact that we are plopped into these lives with little or no backstory. As each one softly crashes (two figuratively, one literally), we understand these are the faces of strong women who will continue to do what’s necessary … even if that’s shoveling horse poop. The film is dedicated to Ms. Reichardt’s dog Lucy (a key to her personal and professional life).

watch the trailer:

 

 


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


OZ: The old and new

March 5, 2013

Director Sam Raimi has a quasi pre-quel to the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz opening nationwide on Friday March 8.  Because of production rights, Mr. Raimi was limited to the source material from L Frank Baum’s book and not allowed to borrow from the film. His cast includes James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.  I won’t spoil the surprise of who is the Wicked Witch this time around, but just for fun, let’s compare the witches from the original to witches in this version.

The great Margaret Hamilton played the dual roles of the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch:

oz margaret hamilton

 

 

 

 

Here are the photos of the three witches in Oz the Great and Powerful

oz mila kunis   oz rachel weiszoz michelle williams

 

 

 

I’ll leave it to you to decide what the difference might be.

Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog