March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously lampooned the political landscape of England (IN THE LOOP, “The Thick of it”) and the United States (“Veep”), writer/director Armando Iannucci turns his skewering pen and clear eye to a bygone era in Russia. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the film takes place in 1953 Moscow at the height (and the end) of Josef Stalin’s reign.

Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces (think ‘Secret Police’) ruled by force and terror for 20 years, and most citizens lived with the daily goal of staying off “the list” – a place which likely resulted in imprisonment, if not death. An opening sequence featuring the live performance of an orchestra drives home the outright fear that hovered over every part of that society. To be clear, Iannucci’s approach is less ominous and more Mel Brooks. It’s slapstick satire with profanity.

Following the death of Stalin (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!), what follows is a Keystone Cops medley of jockeying for power amongst the members of Stalin’s cabinet. Closed-door plotting abounds – though sometimes in full view of others – and alliances come and go in the blink of an eye. It plays out on screen as more spoof than satire, so brace for over-the-top performances from Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrenti Beria), Jeffrey Tambor as dimwitted doofus Malenkov, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Molotov.  Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) offspring, and other supporting work comes from Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, and Jason Isaacs.

I watched this film the day after watching RED SPARROW, and the two films provide an interesting and oddball comparison to different eras of Russian history. Iannucci’s film is nothing short of a full bore attack on Kremlin activities, as well as the self-interested actions of politicians that seems to remain prevalent in modern days. It’s also a reminder that being “better as a committee” has as many flaws as the rein of a tyrant. There is a terrific final shot in a concert hall, where seated behind Khrushchev and his wife is a leering Leonid Brezhnev … foreshadowing future events. And if that’s not enough, the closing credits are as nuts as the film itself.



January 14, 2016

a perfect day Greetings again from the darkness. “Somewhere in the Balkans, 1995” is the notice we receive in the opening frame, and the post Kosovo War setting is less about fighting a war and more about finding humanity in the aftermath. Based on the novel by Paula Farias and adapted by Diego Farias and director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, the film follows a group of Aid Across Borders workers as they make their way through the community, attempting to navigate the cultural and political challenges to offering assistance.

The corpse in a drinking water well is the immediate challenge facing the aid workers. Benecio Del Toro (Mambru), Tim Robbins (B), Melanie Thierry (Sophie) and their interpreter Fedja Stukan (Damir) are facing a short deadline in order to save the well from contamination for local villagers. Most of the movie revolves around their quest to find a rope so they can hoist the large corpse from the water. Searching for rope may seem a flimsy story center, but on their journey, we get to know these characters, some of the local cultural differences (in regards to dead bodies), the bureaucratic red tape faced, and the always present danger faced by do-gooders from the outside.

It’s understandable that a group in this situation would utilize humor to offset the ugliness, and there is no shortage of one-liners and wise-cracks, especially from B (Robbins). His cowboy approach is in distinct contrast to the veteran Mambru and the idealistic rookie Sophie. Soon enough they are joined by a local youngster named Nikola (Eldar Reisdovic) and an inspector Katya (Olga Kurylenko) sent to determine if the Aid program should continue. Oh yes, Katya and Mumbru are former lovers and it obviously didn’t end well.

As they work their way through the ropes challenge and the threat of land mines, we learn through the actions of Mumbru that no matter how much one wants to help, it’s only natural (and sometimes painful) to ask yourself if you are truly making a difference, or simply wasting time in a place filled with people who don’t seem to care. The specific use of multiple songs is at times distracting, and other times a perfect match (Lou Reed, The Buzzcocks). Del Toro proves yet again that he is a fascinating screen presence, and the message is strong enough to warrant a watch.

watch the trailer:




April 25, 2015

water diviner Greetings again from the darkness. The lure of the director’s chair is sometimes too much for A-list actors to avoid. We have watched Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie and Kevin Costner have success behind the camera, and now we get Russell Crowe with a story tied to his roots in Australia. The film is scheduled to open in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), a day of national pride and remembrance.

Mr. Crowe also stars as Connor, an Australian farmer with a gift for finding water sources in the outback – hence the title. Connor and his grieving wife lost all three of their sons in the Battle of Gallipoli, when Britain and Allies invaded Turkey, resulting in the death of more than 100,000. Four years after the battle, Connor is forced to try and fulfill the promise he made his wife … travel to Turkey, find the bodies of their sons, and bring them home for proper burial.

Director Crowe, working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), delivers a film that looks exceptional … both in its widescreen vastness and beauty, as well as its more intimate moments (though the heavy dose of amber glow is a bit too much early on). Flashbacks play a key role and the battle scenes are brutal and realistic, as is a monstrous sandstorm that engulfs the young sons in a moment designed to convince us that Connor was a protective father, and carries the guilt of allowing them to fight the war.

Connor’s trip into Turkey allows for the clash of cultures, as he is truly an unwelcomed guest and a proverbial fish out of water. If not for the enterprising young boy that guides him through some tough spots, Mr. Connor’s trip may have been short-lived. Instead he struggles through clashes with the British, the Greeks and especially Turkish Major Hasan (an excellent Yilmaz Erdogan).

While the cultural and personality clashes are entertaining, the stereotypes and simplifications are somewhat tougher to accept. A romantic interlude with the hotel owner (Olga Kurylenko) is maybe the most out-of-place segment of a dramatic movie we have seen in awhile. Crowe and Kurylenko are both fine actors, but this makes little sense and distracts from Connor’s mission. We can only assume the Producers demanded a little romance to offset the downbeat war segments and cash in on Crowe.

Crowe shows promise as a director, and if the film has any box office success, we can hope he will have a bit more input into what stays and what goes in his next project.

watch the trailer:




September 1, 2014

november man Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhere there must exist a checklist of the main plot lines for all the spy thrillers and action films ever made. Should you wonder what’s on the checklist, then this is the movie for you. Ambition it does not lack. Striving to be an edgy Bond flick, an action-packed Bourne thriller, and a complex Le Carre mind-twister, the film, unfortunately, excels at none of these … though does manage to be entertaining enough for the pre-fall dead zone (timing is everything).

Pierce Brosnan stars as a retired CIA operative Devereaux, called back into duty 5 years after a mission gone bad (seen courtesy of flashback). His boss Hanley is played by the always interesting character actor Bill Smitrovich, but we are supposed to buy in fully to the mentor vs protégé story line of Brosnan and Luke Bracey (the next in a long line of hunky Aussies).

Geopolitics, inner-office power plays, and mistaken identity all come into play, as do the innocent neighbor, an imperiled young daughter and backroom deals between the CIA and a Russian President-elect (Lazar Ristovski). All of this plus a quietly creepy assassin played by extremely limber gymnast Amila Terzimehic, a revenge-seeking (former Bond girl) Olga Kurylenko playing dress up, the rarely seen/scene-stealing Will Patton, car chases and crashes, gun fights, fist fights, knife fights, computer tracking and sneaky drones. Of course, all of these are on the aforementioned checklist.

Director Roger Donaldson has a varied career with such films as No Way Out, Cocktail, The World’s Fastest Indian (highly recommended), and The Bank Job. This film is based on Bill Granger’s Devereaux novel “There Are No Spies”, and Donaldson’s eye for action sequences are a plus. However, the saving grace here is Mr. Brosnan. He brings an edge that his James Bond never could … he even yells a few times! However, as with most movies, the script makes or breaks, and in this case the plausibility test is flunked, despite the numerous checked boxes.

***NOTE: I can’t help but notice the trend of aging actors (60 plus years old) trying to prove their high testosterone levels in uber-serious action-thrillers – Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, and Denzel Washington (turns 60 this year) come to mind, and of course the most obvious is Sylvester Stallone, who at least plants his tongue firmly in cheek for The Expendables franchise.

***NOTE: If you would like to see Mr. Brosnan give an edgy, offbeat performance in a better film, I recommend The Matador (2005)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have wondered how Pierce Brosnan would have fared in the Daniel Craig “Bond” films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping for a clever spy thriller in the mold of Le Carre’.

watch the trailer:





May 3, 2013

to the wonder1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Terrence Malick makes films that typically fall into the “love it or hate it” genre. He has a very loyal group of fans (of which I am one) who appreciate the unique mental and emotional ride that his projects provide. To say that his films are not accessible to mainstream movie-goers is understandable. His objective is to challenge you to access your own beliefs and thoughts, rather connect with the characters in his movies … they are simply the tools he uses.

Less than two years ago, I was struggling to put thoughts into words after watching Malick’s The Tree of Life. Now, in record time for him, he releases another film that is even more impressionistic … actually abstract is not too strong a description. It could fairly be called a companion piece to The Tree of Life. The usual to the wonder2Malick elements are present – nature, uncomfortable relationships, minimal dialogue, breathtaking photography, and powerful music. Where The Tree of Life focused on Creation and Family, To The Wonder takes on Love and Faith.

Water imagery is a frequent key as we see the personal relationship mimic the changing of the seasons. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American visiting Paris, meets and falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited local filled with light and energy. Their love affair moves to the stunning Mont Saint-Michel before settling in the drab plains of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

to the wonder4 It’s not surprising that the relationship suffers as the newness wears thin. The interesting part is how Malick presents it. We mostly witness bits and pieces … he shows us moments, not events. We easily see that Neil’s aloofness and sullen moods don’t jibe with Marina’s effervescence. When she returns to Paris, Neil easily falls in with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. When she later accuses him of making what they had “nothing”, we all understand what she means … and why.

While Neil is proving what a lost soul he is, we also meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He has lost the light of his faith and is in full crisis mode, even as he attempts to console and guide Marina. There is no secret that much of this film is autobiographical and that Malick is working through wounds he still carries these many years later. As a movie-goer, there is little to be gained from Alleck’s disconnected character or from Kurylenko dancing in the to the wonder3rain. The real prize is awakening the thoughts and feelings many of us probably buried over the years to hide emotional pain. Malick seems to be saying that it’s OK to acknowledge your foundation, regardless of your ability to deal with these feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

If you prefer not to dig so deep emotionally, this is a beautiful film to look at – thanks to Director of Photograpy Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent Malick collaborator), and listen to – a blended soundtrack with many notable pieces from various composers. While this will be remembered as Roger Ebert’s final movie review (he liked it very much), it will likely have very little appeal to the average movie watcher – and I’m confident that Terrence Malick is fine with that.

watch the trailer:



April 27, 2013

oblivion1 Greetings again from the darkness. Here we have Exhibit Number One in proving the theory that no quantity or quality of movie special effects can overcome the lack a good story. Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) directs his own graphic novel, and the result is a beautiful and impressive looking film that lacks substance and fails to develop any characters for us to care about.

This almost plays as a sci-fi tribute with tips of the cap to at least the following: The Matrix, Moon, Total Recall, Inception, Planet of the Apes, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey … and even Top Gun! Unfortunately, it falls short of all of those except for the stunning visual effects of the patrol drones (George Lucas oblivion2would be proud) and the beautiful photography of Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi).

The most obvious comparison is with Wall-E. This time, Tom Cruise plays the “mop-up crew” along with his assigned spouse played by Andrea Riseborough (very good as Wallis Simpson in W.E., and recently seen in Disconnect). We learn from the initial voice-over (by Cruise, not Morgan Freeman) that Earth was left in ruins after a long battle with aliens. Now the last bit of Earth’s resources are being harvested before it is deserted forever.

oblivion3 The cast is pretty deep with an extremely upbeat Melissa Leo showing up in the “Hal” role on a low-res video screen, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as leaders of the underground surviving humans, Olga Kurylenko (a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, and currently in To The Wonder), and even stunt-woman extraordinare Zoe Bell making an appearance.

All the wonderful toys are present, the look and feel are really something to see, the Jetsons-style home is kinda cool, and we get the ever-present Cruise sprint … this time in a space suit! Despite all the goodies, this one just seems to fall flat in the ability to draw us in. If you are a sci-fi visual type, you’ll get a kick out of it. Otherwise, look elsewhere for an effective team and another day in paradise.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a huge sci-fi fan and enjoy new effects (see the patrol drones)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a good story, no matter how advanced the effects

watch the trailer:




October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer: