HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2017)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell exploded onto the scene in 2001 with his instant cult favorite HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and in 2010 he delivered the expertly crafted and somber marital drama RABBIT HOLE. In his first feature film since the latter, Mitchell revisits the punk world in what has been described as Romeo and Juliet with punks and aliens.

Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett adapted the screenplay from a short story by Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”). It’s set in 1977 Croydon (outside London) and though music plays a vital role, it’s not really a musical. And even with some funny moments, it’s not really a comedy. And while there are aliens, one wouldn’t label this as science fiction. There is a budding romance at the core, and maybe the romance description fits best … although, any unwitting group of film goers heading to the theatre expecting a typical romantic drama will likely walk out in the first 15 minutes.

Zan (Elle Fanning) and Enn (Alex Sharp) are star-crossed (or is it intergalactic-crossed?) lovers – she being an alien, he a young punk rocker. This is less about two worlds colliding than two worlds exploring each other: the freedom of punk vs the conformity of the alien colony. We cross paths with the local Queen of punk known as Boadicea (one of the most extreme Nicole Kidman roles of her career), the alien Stella (Ruth Wilson), and Enn’s punk mates Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence).

Far and away the most interesting puzzle piece here is the connection between Enn and Zan. Mr. Sharp (a Bob Geldof lookalike) and Ms. Fanning are terrific together and the film suffers when they aren’t on screen. Their live duet onstage is a true highlight and her wide-eyed curiosity combined with his zany punk persona provide most of the film’s energy.

Punk … the best thing to happen to ugly people” is likely the best line in the film, although Zan requesting “Do some more punk to me” isn’t far behind. There are messages here about parenting, diversity and globalization, but mostly it’s a creative and wild ride that’s not likely to please everyone … especially those looking for a Nicholas Sparks romance or anyone who might take the title literally.

The film is scheduled to show at the Texas Theatre in Dallas beginning June 1, 2018.

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DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

November 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 


THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we become a spouse and a parent, we immediately develop a mode of protection never before experienced. We would do anything possible to protect our kids and spouse – even die for them if necessary. One of the most gifted and imaginative filmmakers working today forces us to consider a terrifying scenario: what if we had to select one of our family members to die?

Yorgos Lanthimos delivered the most bizarre and interesting film of 2016 with THE LOBSTER. This time out he re-teams with co-writer Efthymis Filippou, although this story eschews the dark humor of their previous film, opting instead for a type of gut-wrenching psychological warfare we have not previously witnessed on screen.

The goal here is not to make the viewer uncomfortable. Mr. Lanthimos wants us downright miserable from the tension. This is obvious from the opening scene as Schubert accompanies a close-up look at open-heart surgery, and continues through the awkward conversations and speech patterns as we get to know the characters. A terrific Collin Farrell plays the surgeon Dr Steven Murphy. Nicole Kidman is his wife (also a doctor), and their kids Kim and Bob are played by Raffey Cassidy (TOMORROWLAND) and Sunny Sulgic, respectively. The wild card is Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK) who plays Martin, the most charming and oddball stalker who is hell bent on revenge and retribution. Keoghan is quite brilliant in this most difficult role.

Beyond the psycho-revenge plot lies a story of survival and atonement, making for an excruciatingly unsettling time in the theatre. We feel the vice tightening on us as the tone shifts from uncertain awkwardness to dark sinister intentions. Director Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis are in perfect sync with the various harsh angles (high and low spiked with screeching violins) and the necessary tight shots to emphasize the uneasiness and confusion of the characters.

Alicia Silverstone is quite memorable in her one scene as Martin’s mother. Frustrated that her flirtations with Steven aren’t reciprocated, she belts out the year’s greatest line of dialogue: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!” Of course, we couldn’t expect sexual relations to be any closer to normal than the conversations, and Ms. Farrell and Ms. Kidman ensure this to be so. Truly at the peak of the acting profession, Ms. Kidman has never shied away from tough material or less-than-ideal characters. Her strength and determination come through in every scene here, and it’s her scene at Martin’s home where she really puts her stamp on the film.

As difficult as it is to describe the film without giving anything away, one thing is certain – it’s a horror film. It’s difficult to imagine a more frightening scenario than what shakes out here with touches of both SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE DEER HUNTER, while also having nothing in common with those films. The film’s title comes courtesy of Euripides, and its suspenseful awkwardness at a level rarely seen. The next feature from Mr. Lanthimos (starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) is due next year, and if the line was forming now, I’d be in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LION (2016)

January 12, 2017

lion Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the real life story is enough. The story of Saroo Brierley is proof. A 5 year old boy from rural India gets stranded at a train station and inadvertently takes a train trip that strands him in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. He is adopted by a Tasmanian couple and later uses Google Earth to systematically track down his village, family, and ultimately his self.

Saroo’s story would be interesting enough had a writer fabricated it; but in fact, Luke Davies adapted the screenplay directly from Mr. Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home”. Director Garth Davis and an exceptional cast bring this incredible and inspirational and touching story to the big screen in a wonderfully entertaining manner.

The first part of the film introduces us to 5 year old Saroo (a bright-eyed and energetic Sunny Pawar) and his beloved and protective older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The two boys are nearly inseparable and seem oblivious to the hard life provided by the small village they live in – where their mother literally carries rocks all day. A fluke of circumstance causes the train station separation for the brothers, and young Saroo finds himself on a train ride that will forever change his life.

Very little dialogue is found in this first part, but we immediately connect with the young boy, and we feel his frantic desire to return home as a tightness in our chest as he falls into the quagmire of homeless kids in Calcutta. When Saroo first meets Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), he isn’t sure how to react. His assimilation into this unrecognizable new world might just as well have been on another planet as a home in Tasmania.

Once the film jumps ahead, Dev Patel takes over as Saroo and the film turns into a journey for the universal need to understand our identity … where we come from, and who we really are. Rooney Mara has a small but important role as Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy (a composite character), as does Divian Ladwa as Mantosh, another boy adopted by the Brierleys. It’s here where Google Earth enjoys its biggest plug as the tool Saroo utilizes to solve the mystery of his origin.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser, and he perfectly captures the harshness of young Saroo’s home village, the frenzied pace of Calcutta and the beauty of Tasmania … all without losing the emotions of any given moment. To cap it off and to prove the filmmakers never stooped to any ‘trickery’, the film ends with actual footage of Saroo reuniting with his mother, and then the magical moment when his two mothers embrace. Good luck maintaining composure during this part!

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GENIUS (2016)

June 17, 2016

genius Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.

It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.

And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.

The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical?  In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.

The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.

It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.

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SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

November 19, 2015

secret in their eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Why, Billy Ray, why? It’s not surprising that Hollywood green-lighted the Americanization of the 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, El secreto de sus ojos. That original from Argentina is exemplary filmmaking and a thoroughly entertaining and compelling mystery-thriller; a must-see for any true film lover. Even if an Oscar-studded cast is hired (2 Oscar winners, 8 nominations), the guiding inspiration for a remake should be more than losing the subtitles and filming Julia Roberts without make-up.

The story balances two timelines spanning 13 years. Jess (Ms. Roberts) is an investigator who works with FBI Agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Assistant District Attorney Claire (Nicole Kidman), and a blustering District Attorney played by Alfred Molina. When Jess’ daughter is brutally murdered, the investigation is impacted by the suspect’s role as a department snitch. When we catch up all those years later, the unrequited attraction between now former FBI Agent Ray and now DA Claire is as strong as ever; Jess’ appearance is on par with someone suffering from a terminal illness, and the murder still hovers over these characters as if it had occurred last week.

It’s a fascinating story that was handled superbly in the original, yet mostly comes across as uninspired in this latest project. At times, it’s even a bit confusing in how the two eras are handled. The score from Emilio Kauderer and a couple of fine scenes from Ms. Roberts (although she gets no credit here for appearing sans-makeup) are the best parts of this one. Otherwise, Mr. Ejiofor (usually a fine actor) goes over-the-top, while Ms. Kidman is simply miscast and unable to generate the proficiency required for her position. Other support work comes courtesy of Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Zoe Graham.

Other than lacking the grit and realism of the original, the editing and camera work (so exceptional in the first version) at times come off as amateurish this time around. The soccer/futbol sequence from the original is replaced with Dodgers baseball (Chavez Ravine and Vin Scully) and a link to former Manager Walter Alston. Normally that would be considered an improvement, but again, these fall short and fail to generate the necessary suspense. A weak impersonation of the famous long-tracking shot certainly doesn’t help.

For anyone who hasn’t seen writer/director Juan Jose Campanella’s (an Executive Producer here) excellent original, this version from Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) might prove interesting enough; however, those same folks are strongly encouraged to instead track down the original, and experience the emotional depth and filmmaking expertise that made it such a worthy Oscar winner.

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RABBIT HOLE (2010)

December 31, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. It would be very easy to dismiss this film as a depressing story or a real downer for the holiday season. Admittedly, the timing of its release is a bit odd, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very well made and extremely well acted film. This is a character study in dealing with grief … the breathless grief of losing a young child. The story is told with respect, warmth and even touches of humor. Based on the acclaimed play from David Lindsay-Abaire, director John Cameron Mitchell stays true to the individuals within the story and avoids a weepfest.

Nicole Kidman plays Becca, who is married to Howie (Aaron Eckhart). The couple are 8 months removed from the death of their 4 year old son who was killed when he chased his dog into the street. 8 months or 8 years. When in group therapy, Becca and Howie meet Gaby (Sandra Oh) who has been in the group for 8 years. Healing has its own timeline for each person. Becca has little use for the “God people” or the group addicts and quickly stops attending. Instead, she spends her time lashing out at everyone … her husband, her mother, her pregnant sister … even her dog and a lady at the grocery store.

Oddly enough, it is her bond with the high school boy who was driving the car that killed her son that helps her break through. She senses his pain and he understands hers. The story does a subtle and terrific job of showing how we are all touched by grief and how it affects the way we live our life. The best scene in the film is with Becca and her mother (Dianne Weist) in the basement. Her mother honestly tells her that “it” never goes away, but it does change. The grief becomes “bearable”. That’s really the goal.

No matter how many books are written on the topic, no blueprint will ever be one-size-fits-all for coping with the void and emptiness from the loss of a loved one. This story shows that if you can keep moving forward and keep connecting with others, the burden will become bearable.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character studies with outstanding performances … even if they are based around the process of dealing with grief.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer lighter fare in your holiday flicks – this certainly isn’t A Christmas Story