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.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


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

watch the trailer:

 


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

watch the trailer:

 


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


J. EDGAR

November 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.

The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.

 Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.

An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.

 The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.

 Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.

 As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.

If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover

watch the trailer:


DREAM HOUSE

October 7, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The horror/thriller idealist in me just refuses to surrender. With three legit movie stars and a director who is responsible for one of my favorite movies, I thought this might just be the genre’s rare gem. Instead, it’s watchable, kinda fun, yet mostly predictable and irritating.

Much of the predictability comes from the trailer, which inexplicably spoils the key twist in the film. Because of the trailer, I actually expected an additional twist to contradict the give-away. Instead, it plays out pretty much as expected, saved only by the efforts of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz (now married in real life). Word is that the producer of the film, wrestled control away from director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot) and edited the film into it’s mostly banal finished state. Such a shame.

 Basic story is that a NYC white collar professional quits his job and moves his wife and two girls to their dream house in a quaint little community. Problem is, no one told them that a few years back a mom and her two daughters were murdered in the house, supposedly by the husband who then spent years in a mental institution. With the help of a neighbor (Naomi Watts), Craig starts assembling the pieces of the murder mystery and his new home. On top of that, Elias Koteas is tracking his every move and watching the house.

 The frustration with this one lies in untapped potential. So much more could have been done with Koteas, Watts and Marton Csokas who plays Watts’ overly intense ex-husband. For two days after watching this movie, I kept coming up with new twists and turns that could have made the movie more suspenseful and entertaining. It’s clear that Craig and Weisz are unhappy with the final product as they have been noticeably absent on the talk show circuit, and supposedly Mr. Sheridan requested his name be removed as director.  The behind the scenes mess clearly impacted what we see on screen.

It’s not the worst suspense thriller you’ll ever see, but there are better haunted house films on the market.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big fan of the suspense thriller genre – even when the final product is far from perfect.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you get annoyed with obvious deficiencies in movie making.

watch the trailer (only if you don’t mind a MAJOR SPOILER):