THE HERO (2017)

June 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s considered bad form to gush over a film or actor during a review, but come on … it’s Sam Elliott, dripping masculinity from his signature mustache – beloved by men and women alike. Writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) offers up not just a rare lead role for Mr. Elliott, but also one that seems to closely parallel his actual 45+ year career.

Aging western actor Lee Hayden (Elliott) opens and closes the film in a sound booth, progressively more annoyed at each of the director’s requests for just ‘one more’ take on his voiceover for a BBQ commercial. What happens in between will likely be judged by critics as one cliché after another, but it’s also the chance to see an actor north of 70 years old fight through a wide range of emotions and situations, each grounded in struggles many of us will face at some point in our lives.

When the doctor delivers the worst possible news regarding a recent biopsy, Lee has every intention of telling his ex-wife (the rarely seen these days Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real life wife of 30+ years) and estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). Neither attempt goes well, and instead, Lee finds himself on the sofa of child actor-turned-drug dealer Jeremy Frost (an admirable stage name for Nick Offerman’s character) toking on a joint and watching classic silent films. In fact, the recurring themes of beach, blunt, bourbon and Buster (Keaton) are there to solidify the notion that Lee is a creature of habit, and it’s meeting Jeremy’s customer Charlotte (Laura Prepon) that finally jolts him back to life.

Charlotte is a stand-up comedian and would-be poet who has an unusually accelerated attraction to older men. Of course, she can’t resist Lee, and a May-December romance develops in his last chance at happiness (cliché number 7 or 8, I lost track). Charlotte accompanies him to an event where an obscure group of western film lovers is presenting Lee with a Lifetime Achievement award, and she also becomes somewhat of a life adviser – counseling him to come clean with his family. To ensure no viewer misses out on the sentimentality, Charlotte recites the poems of Edna St Vincent Millay and reminds us all that buying more time is usually the right call.

As Lee and Jeremy munch on Chinese food after the cloud of smoke has cleared, Lee has a great rebuttal to Jeremy balking at hearing his story: “A movie is someone else’s dream.” That sentiment is something I try to hold onto whenever reviewing a movie, as it’s important to remember that it’s the artist (writer, director, actor) who is taking the risk by putting their work on display. It also fits in with the theme here of finding one’s place – putting one’s legacy in order. Contemplating morality and softening regrets are natural steps to take, and each of us should make it easier for those trying. So, scoff at the sentimentality and clichés if you must, but the messages here are loud and clear and important.

Although I had previously seen him (oh so briefly, accusing Redford of cheating) in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid (1969), and then again in the late night cult classic Frogs (1972), it was his breakout role in Lifeguard (1976) that made me a Sam Elliott fan for life. Depending on your age, your introduction to his screen presence might have been as Cher’s biker boyfriend in Mask (1985), Patrick Swayze’s pugilistic partner in Roadhouse (1989), Virgil Earp in Tombstone (1993), the wise stranger at the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski (1998), the Marlboro Man in Thank You for Smoking (2005), delivering a gut-punch as Lily Tomlin’s former lover in Grandma (2015), or as Timothy Olyphant’s nemesis in “Justified”. Elliott is the paradigm for the pregnant pause, and combined with that baritone drawl, ultra cool demeanor, bushy mustache, and head-cocked-at-an-angle glance, he undoubtedly won you over to believe him in whatever role it was … because that’s how icons become icons.

Paraphrasing a line in the film: the Sam Elliott voice can sell anything – pot, bbq, Dodge, clichéd roles – and I happen to be buying (gushing).

watch the trailer:

 

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THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

watch the trailer:

 


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

watch the trailer:

 


DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

watch the trailer:

 


22 JUMP STREET (2014)

June 14, 2014

22 Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of 3 minute trailers that give away the best gags, if one can walk out of a comedy having laughed a few times, it must be deemed a success. Such is the case with this sequel to 21 Jump Street (2012), which was borne from the 1980’s hit TV show of the same name.

A couple of years ago, officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) went undercover at a high school to bring down drug dealers. This time, they head to a local college for the same purpose. If that sounds like a re-tread, at least the film acknowledges such. In a scene with Nick Offerman, a few minutes of self-parody are devoted to the misgivings of re-do’s … even with double the budget! Co-directors (back from the first, and fresh off The Lego Movie) Phil Lord and Christopher Miller make this film the butt of its own joke, and for the most part, that approach works.

The best buddy comedies work because of two things: the script and the rapport of the leads. The pairing of Jonah and Tatum works very well, even when we get the predictable split into liberal arts and sports (take a stab which actor gets which assignment). There are a couple of actresses who play vital supporting roles – Amber Stevens as Schmidt’s love interest, and Jillian Bell in an offbeat and quite funny take as the nemesis. Oddly enough, Jenko’s relationship is a bro-mance on the football team with the QB played by Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son). One of the poor decisions was to quadruple the screen time for Ice Cube … his antics are funny in more limited doses. Very limited.

There are some terrific “old man” jokes, more than 25 songs, and references to Maya Angelou and Tracy Morgan … both who have been in the news for less-than-uplifting reasons lately. Most will find the best sequence to be after the movie ends and before the credits begin. The mock sequels (23 Jump Street, 24 …) appear in rapid fire mode with a couple of cameos and some creative “schools”. While the movie wobbles between spot on and over-the-top, it delivers what we expect … a funny enough sequel to a funny enough tribute movie.

**NOTE: this sequel offers up a Richard Grieco cameo rather than the Johnny Depp cameo from the first one

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: mindless comedy hits the spot during the summertime OR you enjoyed 21 immensely and have been anxiously awaiting 22

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting another Johnny Depp cameo OR Ice Cube yelling and scowling is an annoyance you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


21 JUMP STREET (2012)

March 20, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The original 1987-91 TV series “jump” started Johnny Depp‘s mega-superstardom career, and yes, he is a generous enough to appear in a brief cameo in this updated film from co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The script from co-writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill makes little effort to stay true to the source material and that works in the film’s favor.

We first meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as polar opposites at the same high school. One of them is a pudgy, nerdy looking guy trying hard to throw down an Eminem look, while the other is the ultra-cool jock who is skating by academically. Guess which is which? Flash forward seven years and these two are still misfits … this time at the police academy where one aces the physical fitness tests and bombs academically and the other is just the opposite. Guess which is which? So these two decide to become buddies and help each other live the dream as badass cops.

 Cut to the next scene where they are patrolling a park on bicycles and visualizing their first big bust. When things go wrong … SURPRISE! … they are assigned to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), an angry man who runs the Jump Street undercover unit out of a Korean church. Since neither Hill nor Tatum look anything like high schoolers, the absurdity is written into the script. They become the most mis-matched brothers since Schwarzenegger and Devito in Twins.

Their mission is to discover the dealers and source for a new drug making its way through a local high school. The drug has already killed one student and it takes these two “brothers” about 5 minutes to uncover the dealers, a group of popular rich kids. The supplier is a bit slower to come and the process involves numerous comedy skits involving Tatum as a science geek and Hill as Peter Pan.

 The comedy skits involve nice work from Elle Kemper, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell. The cool kids are played by Dave Franco (James’ brother) and Brie Larson. Car chases, a keg party, science experiments and the prom all play a role, as do white tuxedos and one of the oddest shootouts ever filmed. What seems like 1200 rounds are fired in a hotel room before someone is actually hit.

In addition to Depp’s pretty cool cameo, there are also appearances from Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson Peete, both of whom starred in the original TV series. Of course the story is ridiculous and the film never really takes itself seriously, but I was actually somewhat impressed with Channing Tatum’s ability to play deadpan to Jonah Hill’s slapstick. The two worked pretty well together and there are enough laughs to make this one worth seeing.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Channing Tatum generate some laughs (purposefully this time) OR you just need some mindless giggles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a tribute to the original TV series OR you are a fan of realistic police dramas

watch the trailer: