VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

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THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have our stories. The stories that make up our life. Some of us dwell on the “bad” things, while others remember only the good times. A few even romanticize the past, which could also be termed embellishment. Where exactly on this scale that Jeannette Walls’ story falls is debatable, but the facts are that her life story is the foundation for a best-selling book and now a high-profile movie.

Ms. Walls’ memoir describes her unconventional childhood with bohemian parents who cared more for freedom and independence than for feeding their kids. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (a ‘must-follow’ filmmaker after his powerful 2013 indie gem SHORT TERM 12) chose this as his next project, co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and wisely opted to work again with Brie Larson, who stars as the oldest Jeannette (from late teens through adult).

The film bounces around in time from Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s to her time as a New York gossip columnist in 1989. The timeline isn’t all that bounces, as we watch this family of six, seemingly always on the run, ricochet across America with all their belongings strapped to the top of the battered station wagon – usually on the run from creditors or following the latest dream from Rex (Woody Harrelson).

Rex is the type of guy who rants against most everything that makes up what we know as society. He can’t (or won’t) hold a job and fills his trusting kids’ heads with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow – going as far as drawing up plans and specs for the off-the-grid fantasy home referenced in the title. Rex then spends what little money the dirt poor family has on drinking benders which cause him to become a nasty, abusive threat.

Rex’s wife Rose (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who somehow possesses even fewer parental instincts than her husband. Although she could be labeled an enabler of his abusive ways, she might actually be the more interesting of the two, even if the story (and Jeannette) focuses much more on Rex. The best scene in the movie is when mother and grown daughter share a restaurant booth, and the two worlds collide.

Of course the real story here is how Jeanette managed to rise above this less-than-desirable childhood and achieve her own form of freedom as a writer. The stark contrast between the squalor of her West Virginia shack and the million dollar apartment she later shares with her fiancé (Max Greenfield) makes this the ultimate depiction of the American Dream – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even when you don’t have boots).

The acting is stellar throughout. Mr. Harrelson could garner Oscar attention as he manages to capture both the dreamer and failure that was Rex. Ms. Watts maximizes her underwritten role and turns Rose into someone we believe we know and (at least partially) understand. Ms. Larson embodies both the desperation of a teenager whose environment forced her to be wise beyond her years, and the iciness of a grown-up trying so hard to leave the past behind. In just a few scenes, Robin Bartlett manages to create a memorable and horrific grandmother – one whose actions explain a great deal. The most remarkable performance of all, however, belongs to Ella Anderson (the only good thing about THE BOSS). She captures our hearts as the adolescent Jeannette – the closest thing to a parent this family had.

There are some similarities between this film and last year’s expertly crafted CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. In fact, two of the young actors (Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell) from that film also appear in THE GLASS CASTLE. The biggest difference being that Viggo Mortensen’s character could be considered to have an over-parenting approach, while Woody Harrelson’s Rex never over-did anything, except drink and dream.

The movie probably has a bit too much Hollywood gloss and sheen to adequately portray the hardships of a large family living in poverty, though the top notch acting keeps us glued to the screen. By the end, we can’t help but wonder if some of Ms. Walls’ romanticism of her father and past might be due as much to her immense writing talent as to her childhood challenges.

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CHUCK (2017)

May 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That guy could take a punch.” It’s supposed to be a compliment and knowing nod to the machismo and toughness so valued in the world of boxing. Instead that trait is responsible for the two claims to fame for heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner: he shockingly went 15 rounds (minus 17 seconds) against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar winning movie Rocky.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and the four co-writers (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristopher, Liev Schreiber) spend very little time in the boxing ring or with the usual training montages, and instead focus on how Wepner’s ego and inability to handle fame affected his family, his health and his life. This is a portrait of Chuck the man, and it’s at times more painful than the barrage of punches Ali landed in Round 15.

Liev Schreiber is outstanding as ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, the disparaging (but accurate) sobriquet that stuck with Wepner – thanks to his propensity to bleed in most bouts. His self-motivation to “Stay up Chuck” against Ali (played here by Schreiber’s “Ray Donovan” brother Pooch Hall) is what became the foundation for Stallone’s Rocky screenplay. There are a few terrific scenes with Wepner and Stallone (a spot on Morgan Spector) as Wepner desperately tries to latch onto the Rocky bandwagon, going so far as to introduce himself as “the real Rocky”. It’s tough for an actor to get Oscar consideration for a performance in the first half of the year, but Schreiber is worthy.

It’s not the first time we have seen the pitfalls of instant fame and celebrity status, and even though it’s a true story, there is a familiarity to it that makes the plight of this lovable lug quite easy to relate to. Wepner’s blue collar narcissism may have been the cause of much of the pain in his life, but it also allowed him to become a folk hero. His connection with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight provides all the personality profile we require to grasp Wepner’s make-up.

The supporting cast is strong. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan is his hero-worshiping corner man and cocaine accomplice, Elisabeth Moss plays wrongly-done first wife Phyllis, Michael Rappaport is estranged brother John, and Naomi Watts (she and Schreiber ended their long-term relationship soon after filming) as his confidant and second wife Linda. Moss and Rappaport each have very strong scenes … scenes that remind us that these are real people and not part of some fairy tale.

Director Falardeau delivers no shortage of 1970’s cheese – wardrobe, facial hair, disco music, party drugs, and night clubs – but there is also enough humor to maintain balance: Wepner explains after the Ali fight how he tried to “wear him down with my face”. By the end we aren’t sure if Wepner was self-destructive or simply lacking in dependable counsel. Either way, the journey of self-discovery is even more interesting than the boxing career, and the film is punctuated with closing credit footage that provides viewers with a sense of relief. A tragic ending has been averted, and Chuck remains a local Bayonne, New Jersey resident – even if he’s no longer a bleeder.

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THE LAST IMPRESARIO (2014, doc)

December 4, 2014

last impresario Greetings again from the darkness. In the biographical documentary genre, a stream of talking heads is ordinarily my least favorite approach. However, director Gracie Otto (sister of actress Miranda) understands that when your subject is “the most famous person you’ve never heard of”, it’s pretty impressive and effective to line-up 50+ celebrities to offer their thoughts and memories of the man.

Michael White. Maybe you know the name, maybe you don’t. Even before the opening credits, we get rapid-fire celebrity descriptions of Mr. White and his impact on theatre, film and the creative society of the 1960’s and 70’s. Director Otto explains how she first noticed Mr. White at the Cannes Film Festival as a slew of celebrities paid their respects. She then began her research into this most interesting man whose 50 year career has left quite a personal stamp.

We hear descriptions such as “he likes people” and he “likes being where the action is”. This about a man who grew up in Scotland, was educated in Switzerland, and worked in New York … before making a real mark in London’s West End Theatre district. His infamous dinner parties allowed paths to cross between the brightest in stage, art, film, and publishing. He had an eye for talent outside the mainstream – experimental and avant garde appealed to him … those who pushed the envelope (or ignored it completely). Because of this, his sphere of influence included such diverse personalities as Pina Bausch, Yoko Ono, John Waters and Kate Moss. His stage production of “Oh! Calcutta” was a major cultural breakthrough and led to others such as the original “Rocky Horror Show”, and the iconic comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When Ms. Otto asks him why he has so many friends, Mr. White replies that “you never lose a friend”. This comes after we have learned that powerful music producer Lou Adler took advantage of him during negotiations for the Rocky Horror rights in the U.S. White does acknowledge that he has been “cheated” a few times over the years. Another apt description is that he is “drawn to excitement more than money”. It’s then that we learn of his incredible archive of 30,000 photographs – from a time before the paparazzi ruled the world.

The odd font style makes some of the onscreen graphics difficult to read, but the music reminds us that Michael White’s legacy from the swinging 60’s as a playboy and gambling Producer is quite secure Today Mr. White lives a modest life, and periodically has to auction his collections to raise funds. He has had a couple of strokes, walks with the aid of two canes, and is sometimes difficult to understand. He still has regular dinners with friends … after all, with this attitude in life, one never loses a friend.

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BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

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ST. VINCENT (2014)

October 19, 2014

st vincent Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray’s Vincent cracks a rare on screen “Chico and the Man” reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray’s Vincent – a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts). Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver’s mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It’s here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role straight – none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver’s principal and teacher (a standout Chris O’Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the “bad” likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don’t mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O’Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have missed the fully-engaged Bill Murray last seen in Lost in Translation (2003)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: unpredictable endings are why you see movies

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THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

January 6, 2013

impossible Greetings again from the darkness. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio C Sanchez reunite for a much different film than their taut thriller The Orphanage (2007). What separates this from the long list of disaster films is that it’s exceedingly well made, it’s based on a true story, and it puts a young actor in a role vital to the connection with audience.

The real life Belon family from Spain have for some reason been presented here (by Spanish filmmakers) as the British Bennett’s with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (as Henry and Maria). They are on vacation at a beach resort with their three boys Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). In the beginning the resort plays like paradise. Unfortunately, this is Thailand in 2004 when one of the worst impossible2natural disasters of all-time hits … a Tsunami with enormous force and monstrous waves.

Filmed with remarkable intensity, we see Maria and Lucas (separated from the others) struggle mightily to survive and stay together. This 10 minute sequence leaves the audience spent and gasping for air. Rarely do we witness such realistic near-drownings on screen. The film soon breaks into two simultaneous acts: the fight for survival by Maria and Lucas; and the quest to find them by Henry, Thomas and Simon.

The first half of the film is the strongest portion and it deals with the storm and it’s aftermath. The second half is very emotional impossible3and focuses on the courage of Lucas and the strength of Maria. It’s one of the most unique combination tales of survival and family love that we’ve seen. The filmmakers wisely choose to let the story follow the family and not throw in cheap parlor tricks like TV newscasts. We all remember those reports, and the actual film does a terrific job of recreating the frightening images.  There is also a short, but sweet (almost mystical) scene featuring Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) contemplating the stars.

Acting by the leads take this to elite status. Ewan McGregor turns in what is his best performance in quite some time. His phone call home scene is excruciating to watch. Naomi Watts delivers what is likely an Oscar nominated performance, despite being almost unrecognizable while laying in a hospital bed during much of the film. The real star and soul of the film is Tom Holland as the youngest son. His performance recalls those of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants … two of the best ever child performances.

Be forewarned. This one is a true tearjerker … especially if you are a parent or grandparent. Keeping in mind that it’s the true story of one family’s ordeal makes a few scenes almost impossible to watch clear-eyed. The film ends with a photo of the Belon family … perfect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a good tear-jerker, especially if based on a true story OR you want to what terrific filmmaking in a disaster movie looks like OR you need proof that it is possible to make Naomi Watts look unattractive.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the trailer eclipses your preferred public display of emotion

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgw394ZKsis