RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

watch the trailer:

 

Advertisements

THE MASTER CLEANSE (2016)

April 30, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

master cleanse Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes, it’s just difficult to know how to describe or discuss a movie. This happens more frequently at film festivals where the most creative and risky films often find their only audience. This first feature film from writer/director Bobby Miller isn’t really a comedy – though there are some uneasy laughs; and it isn’t really a horror film – though isolated cabins in the woods and creepy little creatures give the impression that it could go that way.

Johnny Galecki (“The Big Bang Theory”) stars as Paul, a down-on-his-luck nice guy who hasn’t recovered emotionally from being dumped at the altar by his fiancé. One night he’s dozing on the sofa when a TV ad captures his attention … it’s a spiritual retreat for the downtrodden!  The timing couldn’t be better.

He’s joined at the isolated retreat by struggling actress Maggie (Anna Friel), a young couple, Eric (Kyle Gallner) and Lily (Diana Bang) working through relationship issues, and a quasi-caretaker and holdover client played by Kevin J O’Connor. The on-site leader is played in full-bellow mode by the great Angelica Huston.

Day one is the juice cleanse, and the participants have to force down a disgusting concoction designed to “eliminate” … the step preceding “termination”. Elimination is pretty easy to figure out, as our new friends expel from both ends (fortunately this is mostly implied, not shown).  While that part might be expected, the surprise comes in the form of the eliminated creatures unique to each of our players … little critters representing the emotional baggage we all carry inside.

In the midst of misery, the retreaters are told that the movement (no pun intended) leader (Oliver Platt) will be arriving soon. He’s kind of a cult-like figure without the expected pretentiousness. In fact, he’s a pretty nice guy that seems to really care. Of course, that would be a pretty boring story, so plenty of things go awry during the process.

“Let’s Get Pure” is the name for the retreat, and the idea of physically removing our negative energy and emotional baggage does make some sense. Director Miller seems to blend the worlds of early David Cronenberg and Gremlins to deliver an odd little film that could develop a cult following of its own. It’s a serious message conveyed in a not so serious way. Galecki and Friel do a nice job of keeping us grounded and giving us some peeps to pull for.  Just watch that final step … termination can be brutal.

 


KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

watch the trailer:

 


CHEF (2014)

June 16, 2014

chef Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it’s nice to to just sit back and enjoy a pretty simple and familiar story with (mostly) likable people and an uplifting message. Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on movies … it’s just that I found this little movie made me laugh and smile, and despite the formulaic approach (it plays like a sports movie) it made me care what happened to the characters (even though there was never any real doubt).

Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, the chef at a swanky L.A. restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. When a powerful food critic (Oliver Platt) is headed their way, chef and owner butt heads like the true artist and bean-counter they are. The Chef wants to wow the critic with a unique meal, while the owner wants to stick to what’s been filling seats for a decade. Guess who wins? Once the Chef’s public berating of the critic goes viral on social media, the soul-searching begins. Our hero soon learns that all phases of life – including parenting and cooking – work out much better when passion and full attention are in place. The film is a not so subtle reminder to all of us that our attitude determines our altitude (thanks to Zig Ziglar).

This is a remarkable cast, many of which appear on screen for only a short time. The Chef’s lead assistants are comprised of Bobby Cannavale and John Leguizamo. The maitre’d is Scarlett Johansson. Chef’s ex-wife is played by Sophia Vergara, and her other ex-husband is Robert Downey Jr in a hilariously mind-muddling scene. Amy Sedaris has a funny scene as the fast-talking publicist and comedian Russell Peters plays a photo-happy Miami Beach cop. Even Emjay Anthony, as the young son Percy, has some nice moments.

Mr. Favreau has had a remarkably varied film career as a writer, director, producer and actor. He wears all of those hats here. It’s clearly a personal project for him and he wears it well, though a bit of script tightening could have elevated the film a notch. You might remember him from writing and starring in (with Vince Vaughn) Swingers in 1996, and of course, he more recently directed colossal blockbusters Iron Man and Iron Man II. It’s been quite a career, and it’s nice to see him take on the smaller, more personal projects again.

The best “foodie” movies I can recall are Mostly Martha (2001), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and the animated classic Ratatouille (2007). This latest culinary comedy from Favreau definitely holds it’s own, and gives us an exceptional soundtrack and road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin and back to LA. My only wish was that the language had been toned down for a PG-13 rating so that more families could enjoy it together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  a low-budget, star-studded, charming, funny road trip foodie movie with father-son bonding is just what you need in the midst of blockbuster summer season.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  a fluffy comedy utilizing the gimmickry of superstars in brief roles is too lightweight for your movie tastes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010)

November 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on Jamey Reidy‘s book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”, the film bounces around between rom-com, disease-drama and an editorial on the medical profession and drug companies. The single best reason to watch the mashed-up film is the performance of Anne Hathaway, who surprisingly, has developed into an excellent actress.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hot shot, charming, womanizing, always “on” pharmaceutical rep who will stop at nothing to eclipse his quota and achieve a promotion to Chicago, the promised land for Pfizer. Struggling a bit to make a name for himself selling Zoloft, Jake’s destiny seems pre-disposed when Pfizer introduces Viagra. Talk about a pitch in the batter’s wheelhouse! However, as so often happens in life, a speed bump appears. The best laid plans …

When Jake’s character meets Anne’s character (Maggie), things change for both of them – despite the less than perfect introductory scenario. Turns out, her character suffers from Stage One Parkinson’s, while he is a Stage Four jerk. Actually, that makes for the perfect couple … for a short while. You can guess what happens.

When the film transitions from rom-com to heavy handed drama, many of the best scenes occur, but overall the movie suffers. The scene at the un-convention for sufferers of Parkinson’s is undoubtedly the film’s best. Furthermore, when Jake meets the husband of a Stage Four Parkinson’s patient, he gets the one minute down and dirty along with the advice to just walk away.

Rarely will a love story have so many moments of the couple trying so hard to push the other away. Speaking of Love Story (my attempt at a smooth transition), it is important to note that despite the drama and dark tones, this film never delivers the expected sobbing out loud moment … like the bedside payoff in Love Story. Instead, it actually does a terrific job of treating the disease with respect and directness. A nice change for Hollywood.

Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Hathaway, who doesn’t disappoint. Supporting work is not as effective or important. That includes Gabriel Macht (phamaceutical competitor), Hank Azaria (the only doctor who needs help with women), Judy Greer (the eager office assistant), Oliver Platt (Jake’s boss in the film’s most confusing role), and Josh Gad (in the Jonah Hill knock-off role), plus George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jake’s parents. A sad note: Ms. Clayburgh died on November 5th this year. She had a varied and important Hollywood career and will be missed.

What’s odd about this film is that I have actually many good things to say about it despite my overall disappointment. I love some of the fast quips from the early part. The points made against drug companies, insurance companies and the medical profession are spot on (though a bit obvious). The serious portion of the program is handled with dignity and pulls no cheap punches. Much of the interaction seemed accurate and real. But for whatever reason, the film is just not very cohesive and comes across as choppy … a series of scenes, rather than a full story. That said, it’s worth seeing for the continued growth of Anne Hathaway as an actress.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to see Parkinson’s disease treated with dignity OR you just enjoy watching beautiful movie stars roll around in bed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a cohesive, clear story OR you are looking for this year’s “big cry” (ala Terms of Endearment or Love Story)


PLEASE GIVE (2010)

June 6, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. If not for a friend’s recommendation, I probably would have avoided this one on the basis of writer/director Nicole Holofcener‘s last film, Friends with Money. I found that to be a miserable film filled with miserable people. This one, on the other hand, is a wonderful film filled with miserable people!

OK, that is a slight simplification, but it is an extremely well written story that showcases the imperfections of people, social situations and society as a whole. Sometimes it seems the harder we try, the worse things turn out. Such is the life of Catherine Keener‘s character. She and her husband (Oliver Platt) run a furniture resale shop. Kind of a Ghost of Furniture Past.  She carries around this enormous burden because they stock the store by buying cheap from grandchildren stuck with death’s aftermath … and then reselling to arrogant metrosexual types who live for kitsch and cool. Keener spends her time trying to scrape off the guilt by doling out money and doggie bags to the homeless.

There are many interesting characters in the film and that adds to the fun. Rebecca Hall (uptight Vicky from Vicky Cristina Barcelona) plays the dutiful granddaughter taking care of her 90 plus year old monster granny played colorfully by Ann Morgan Guilbert. Many will remember Ms. Guilbert as Dick Van Dyke’s neighbor in the early 60’s sitcom. Her key job in the film is to get on with dying so that Keener and Platt can take over her apartment and expand – the ultimate dream for a NYC resident. Hall’s character is the budded flower – the one just waiting to bloom as soon as the sun comes out (granny dies).

The mean-spiritedness of the grandmother is matched only by the vile spewing from Amanda Peet, Hall’s less than caring and untrustworthy sister who is obsessed with tanning … and the girl who “stole” her boyfriend. Peet’s character often just says what she is thinking which adds dimension to most conversations! There are some terrific scenes and moments and characters in the film, but the best written scene is the dinner party. Keener and Platt invite Hall, Peet and Guilbert over in a guilt-easing attempt to be civil while waiting for Granny to kick the bucket. The scene takes on an entirely new life when Keener/Platt’s daughter makes an appearance. Sarah Steele plays Abby as a smart, insightful teenager. Oh, and she is also mad at the world and bitter about her complexion and slightly pudgy build (which makes finding the right jeans a quest). The whole scene is one uncomfortable statement or moment after another. Beautiful to watch.

I could go on and on about the intricacies of the characters and their relationships with each other and outsiders, but what matters is that the film is well written and well executed. It is not some sappy, save the world rom-com, but rather a character study of what goes on in real life and in real moments. Plenty of humor, but also plenty of truth. Amazing how often those two go hand in hand.