SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


RICHARD JEWELL (2019)

December 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are being falsely accused of a terrorist act that killed and injured people. You are the FBI’s primary suspect. Your name and face are spread across every possible media outlet. Your belongings have been searched and seized as evidence – right down to your mom’s Tupperware. Cameras follow your every step of every day. Now imagine all of this occurs mere days after your actions actually saved lives and you were hailed as a hero across all of those same media outlets. Richard Jewell didn’t have to imagine this, as he lived this nightmare in 1996.

We first see Richard (played by Paul Walter Hauser in one of the year’s best performances) as a supply clerk at a law firm in 1986. His awkward ways and surprising efficiency catches the eye of attorney Watson Bryant (Oscar winner Sam Rockwell), a quasi-connection that comes into play a decade later. We then jump ahead those 10 years to find Richard being fired from his campus security job at a college due to his over-zealous focus on protocol. Fortunately for Richard, the Olympics are coming to Atlanta, so finding work as a security guard is pretty easy.

Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park is shown with crowds of people cheering at a Kenny Rogers and later dancing the Macarena. As one of the on-site security guards, Richard spots a suspicious backpack that turns out to be holding the bomb that detonates, creating tragedy for many. As the viewing audience, we know that Richard’s actions saved lives and he most definitely was not responsible for planting the bomb. And it’s that knowing that places us as close as possible to the Richard Jewell experience.

Four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood directs yet another story of a working-class hero. Only this time, he blatantly calls out what he sees as two evil forces: the U.S. Government (the FBI) and the media. Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, SHATTERED GLASS) based his script on the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” by Marie Brenner (who also wrote the article that was the source for THE INSIDER, 1999). It can be argued that Eastwood comes down hard on the FBI and the media, but you might consider putting yourself in Richard Jewell’s shoes before crying foul.

Jon Hamm has perfected the role of cocksure FBI agent and here he plays Tom Shaw as the man totally focused on proving Richard Jewell was the perpetrator. Much has been made of Eastwood’s depiction of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde, who directed this year’s surprise hit BOOKSMART). It’s a bit curious that the uproar is over what some interpret as a reporter trading intimate relations for a scoop, yet Eastwood’s contempt seems focused more on the idea of trying a citizen’s case in public … while lacking any real evidence outside of a profile. The reporter (Ms. Scruggs passed away in 2001) is certainly portrayed as an ultra-aggressive reporter desperate for a headline story, but the implied consensual affair occurred after the inside information was provided – and the FBI agent was actually surprised… “Is this really going to happen?” Perhaps the viewer reaction to this is a sign of the times, but I’m guessing if any one of Eastwood’s critics were similarly falsely accused (as Jewell), the fictionalized version of the reporter would be less important than having the truth discovered. Of course, this could have been easily avoided had the name of the reporter been changed for the film.

Two key supporting roles come courtesy of Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Richard’s mother Bobi, and Nina Arianda as Watson Bryant’s paralegal. Ms. Bates starts out as a loving and simple mother to Richard, but her press conference captures the character in a new light. It’s a strong and heartfelt performance. Ms. Arianda brings some warmth sprinkled with welcome sarcasm to her role. Mr. Hauser is spot-on in every scene, and when these four are all together, it’s a pleasure to watch. Hauser and Rockwell are especially good in their scenes together as the ‘wronged man’ contrasted with the take-no-guff attorney.

Every time Richard says “I’m law enforcement too”, it’s heart-breaking to us and an opening for the FBI to manipulate him. The profile of a single white male living at home with his mom, carrying gung-ho dreams of a career in law enforcement, while collecting guns and knowledge on bombs and police procedure, made Richard Jewell seem like the kind of guy who would do something for attention. However, the film and the true story both emphasize the danger of prematurely persecuting individuals – especially in public. These days the race is always about who is first with a story, rather than who is right. A rush to judgment can be seen as an abuse of power, whether it’s by the media, a law enforcement agency, or folks on social media. At this stage of his career, director Eastwood seems more interested in telling stories than showing one. He offers up little visual artistry outside of the terrific performances, but this story … it’s a doozy.

watch the trailer:


BOOKSMART (2019)

May 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every generation tends to get the high school movie (the movie about high school life) they deserve. Going back to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Sidney Poitier in TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), what followed were such memorable films as CARRIE (1976), GREASE (1978), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), most every John Hughes movie from the 80’s, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), SAY ANYTHING (1989), DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), CLUELESS (1995), 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999), MEAN GIRLS (2004), HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (2006), JUNO (2007), and SUPERBAD (2007). It’s that last one on the list that this directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is likely to draw the most comparisons to.

Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) and Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD, and sister of Jonah Hill) star as Amy and Molly, two best friends and high school seniors who have sacrificed a social life (i.e. partying) for academics in order to position themselves for the best colleges. Amy has decided to take a gap year doing charity work in Botswana, while Molly wears her intelligence and class ranking on her sleeve and sits in judgement of her less disciplined classmates. She is headed to Yale with her ultimate life goal being an appointment to the Supreme Court (she has an RBG poster up in her room).

Imagine their shock when, the day before graduation, Amy and Molly discover that many of their less-disciplined (i.e. hard partying) classmates will also be attending elite schools. The besties immediately scheme to make up for 4 years of nose-to-the-grindstone by attending the biggest party of the year … and showing others how much fun they can be. Plus, the party affords each the opportunity to pursue their crush: skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for Amy, and athlete Nick (Mason Gooding) for Molly.

Although (full disclosure) I was never a high school girl, the one thing that stands out about the film is how the kids seem like real kids. That’s not to say most every aspect isn’t slightly exaggerated, because it is. The level of gayness in the Drama club is a bit difficult to take, and the teenage body is objectified in more than one shot; however, director Wilde has a knack for making high school look cinematic. Two sequences are particular standouts for the way they are filmed: the swimming pool scene with Amy underwater, and the house party as the characters weave in and out of rooms in the large house

Supporting roles add depth to the comedy thanks to Jason Sudeikis as the school Principal/Lyft driver; Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, who is always popping up and stealing scenes; Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents; Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”) as the misunderstood ‘Triple A’; the aforementioned Victoria Ruesga and Mason Gooding; and star-in-the-making Diana Silvers as Hope – the aptly named rebel who clicks with Amy.

Co-written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the film presents a realistic friendship between two teenage girls, and mines some common and recognizable personalities for comedy gold. Smart and funny female characters are interesting at any age, and “no one knows me” is the anthem of most every high school student since caveman days. The inevitable comparisons to SUPERBAD will likely be favorable to this film, and it will probably be the perfect fit for this generation – even if we hope most students avoid many of the happenings. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers, you should prepare for the harsh language high school kids are known for, as well as that ‘brazen, yet insecure’ blend so common to the age. Of course, we can’t help but find the timing of release quite interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal. It won’t replace AMERICAN GRAFFITI for me, but with Olivia Wilde having been known as an actress, we now recognize her as a legitimate director.

watch the trailer:


LIFE ITSELF (2018)

September 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a “downer” period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that this latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas – with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.

It’s highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It’s a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won’t debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.

Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Hero” and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator – a recurring theme throughout. It’s also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.

Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan’s face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to “The Gonzalez Family” of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier’s boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione’s olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle … or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson’s place after Chapter 1 is revealed.

Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back – to “stand up” after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.

watch the trailer:


THE LAZARUS EFFECT (2015)

February 26, 2015

lazarus Greetings again from the darkness. In this day of direct-to-video and movie streaming, it’s a bit surprising that one like this secures a theatrical release. But then it does have a solid cast and a producer who has a proven track record of profitable box office success with low budget horror. The other thing it has going for it is the time of year – there is not much being released right now that can draw the weekend teenage groups, the audience this is clearly aimed at.

Horror movies can be fun, and with a cast that includes Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Evan Peters, this one has the foundation to develop a following. However, what starts out like a new age “religion vs science” battle, ends up as a schlocky pseudo-intellectual gore fest. It teases us by mentioning the big questions: What happens when we die? Is it possible to bring back the dead? Should we even try? There are philosophical and ethical questions that are just as relevant as the religious ones.  Unfortunately, the teases offer no payoff and instead we are left with cheesy special effects and a demonic presence that is not so interesting.

When a movie disappoints like this, comparing it to better pictures seems unfair; however, there are elements of Flatliners (1990), Pet Sematary (1989), and of course James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). We even get an “IT’S ALIVE” reference, tongue-in-cheek though it is. The biggest difference is that all three of those films knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish, whereas this first feature film from director David Gelb is a mish-mash of genres and styles.

The basic premise is that lovers, and co-researchers at a Catholic university, Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde), along with their assistants Clay (Peters), Niko (Glover) and Eva (Sarah Bolger, one of the sisters from the great IN AMERICA from 2002), began by looking for a way to extend brain activity in comatose patients. Their work evolved into attempting to bring the dead back to life. It’s no surprise – and included in the trailer – that one of the group dies and the experimental serum is used to reanimate that person. You probably won’t be surprised at this … things don’t go well.

There are some interesting moments and elements – the recurring dream sequence plays out well, but most of the good stuff is quickly dropped in favor of jolts of shock and awe. Jump-scares abound and that will go over well with the Friday night teenagers, but few others will find much to like here. Producer Jason Blum has a real feel for this genre and has turned 50 cents into mega-millions with such movies as the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Purge, and Ouija among others. Mr. Blum has 21 projects in the works for 2015 alone, making him one of the most prolific producers working today. He will learn that it’s sometimes better to let dead dogs lie.

watch the trailer:

 


HER (2013)

January 11, 2014

her Greetings again from the darkness. Well, critics have been raving about this film so strongly the past few weeks that I almost feel guilty going against the grain. Almost. Where they see a masterpiece with insight into love and self, I see an implausible story bordering on ludicrous.

Writer/director Spike Jonze is an incredibly creative filmmaker. His Adaptation and Being John Malkovich are two movies I can watch repeatedly. I was a fan of his film version of Where The Wild Things Are, but this one just brought me nothing but annoyance, frustration and irritation.

Rather than defend my minority stance, I’ll just admit to not being onboard with this one. I have always believed we should each judge a film by how it touches us … how we connect with it. I was neither touched nor connected.

What I will say is the premise of technology replacing human interaction in the near future is not unthinkable and has already happened for some. But to say that a real relationship … that true love … can not just occur, but become commonplace between people and machines just simply contradicts what I believe comprises true love.

The film is extremely well made and visually beautiful. The acting is superb: Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams are all terrific. Voice acting is spot on including Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Kristen Wiig, and even Spike Jonze. But falling in love with an operating system? Maybe what Osgood Fielding III said at the end of Some Like it Hot is really true … “Nobody’s perfect“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a very sad version of what could happen if technology continues to expand its role in our lives OR cyber-sex with Kristen Wiig is appealing to you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your love stories to involve two PEOPLE!

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4

 


RUSH (2013)

September 28, 2013

rush1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan are back in their wheelhouse with a film based on real people. Their previous collaboration was Frost/Nixon, and they also had separate “true stories”: Howard with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, and Morgan with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Here they tackle personality opposites and fierce Formula One competitors James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The two lead actors are perfectly cast. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) slips seamlessly into the swashbuckling, rebellious playboy that was Great Britain’s James Hunt. Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Goodbye Lenin!) becomes the focused, determined, meticulous Spanish-German Niki Lauda (and could get mentioned come Oscar nomination time). You might think of Hunt as an X-Games type who thrives on publicity and fun, while Lauda is more scientist or engineer driven by the quest for perfection. Both were World Champions and their rivalry brought out the best rush2in each.

Do not think for a second that you need be a Formula One expert or even know the backstory of Hunt and Lauda to enjoy this movie. It is extremely entertaining and exciting. Morgan’s script might hover a bit more on the oh-so-photogenic Hunt/Hemsworth character, but it also does a nice job of preventing the not-so-likable Lauda from being a bad guy. In fact, it demonstrates that champions are not all alike.

The look of the film is exemplary. Beautifully photographed by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire), the colors and grainy texture make this look like it was filmed in the 1970’s, not just based then. While the racing scenes are stunning, it is actually an intimate look at this world and the men of this era. Without dwelling on it, we get a realistic feel for the fiery crash that caused Lauda’s horrific injuries and his extraordinary fight to recovery while in the hospital.

rush jh nl We also get a peek at the very different marriages of these two men. Hunt’s short lived bond with model Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde) ended when her affair with Richard Burton caused the final split between Burton and Liz Taylor. Lauda’s relationship with his wife (Alexandria Maria Lara) occurred without the whirlwind, but in a very real and organic manner. Both are an additional touch of realism to a quite real story.  The photo to the left shows the real Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

There have been no shortage of racing movies over the years. Some good: Le Mans (Steve McQueen) and Grand Prix (James Garner). Some not so good: Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) and Driven (Sylvester Stallone). Ron Howard’s latest clearly finishes near the top at the finish line.

**NOTE: James Hunt died from a heart attack at age 45 in 1993.  Niki Lauda is 64 years old and has owned and run small airlines and remained involved with racing through management and commentary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining and exciting movie based on two real life adversaries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for serious insight into the Formula One world

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmLvpSOh1QA


THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013)

March 18, 2013

Incredible Burt2 Greetings again from the darkness. As I sat in a theatre with approximately 80 others, it took me awhile to realize that the only audible laughs were coming from a couple of teenagers near the back. Until that point, I had just assumed that my grumpy old man syndrome had reared its head as I managed only a couple of chuckles.

The best comparison I have for this “comedy” from director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) are the Will Ferrell sports-themed spoofs Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. If you found those to be hilarious, then this one might provide you some laughs. Rather than picking on a sport, the movie focuses on the world of Las Vegas magic shows … big-budget stage productions (David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy) vs. streetwise illusionists (Criss Angel, David Blaine).

incredible burt4Childhood friends Albert and Anton evolve into Vegas superstars Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The influence of Siegfried and Roy are obvious, right down to the costumes, hair and tans. After 10 years of the exact same act, Wonderstone is a pompous womanizer who cares little for the magic act, and Anton is the epitome of the invisible sideman. Casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) threatens to end the act if the duo doesn’t come up with something new to compete against the daring and popular street illusionist Steve Gray (Jim Carrey).

Gray’s “Brain-rape” act is supposed to compare to Criss Angel’s “Mind-freak”. Instead, Gray comes across more like cheap reality TV with masochistic tendencies. Of course, Burt and Anton collapse under the pressure and their friendship and act splatters to a painful end. Burt spirals out of control and ends up performing in a nursing home … a fortuitous turn that introduces him to his childhood idol (Alan Arkin).

incredible burt3 All you really need to know is that this comedy offers few laughs and only shows a pulse when Arkin and Carrey are on screen. Carell seems miscast as a pompous womanizer, so neither trait plays particularly well. Additionally, his bounce back is not believable since his rock bottom lasts about 30 seconds. Buscemi’s only real gag is his poke at celebrity humanitarian crusades. Otherwise, he and Olivia Wilde are bystanders with little to do, which is a shame. Really would have liked to see Carrey’s character with a better, more believable act so that the rivalry might have proved more interesting.

There is an underlying message of friendship and maintaining a passion, but this is no message movie. Heck, it’s barely even a comedy … unless you are one of those teenagers in the back row.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for a glimpse of the past from Jim Carrey or the scene-stealing wonder known as Alan Arkin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking an insightful, funny comedy that takes advantage of a strong cast

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn1wR1V9dqs


THE WORDS (2012)

September 17, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Kids and dogs. They can get away with just being cute. Screenwriters don’t get to settle for cute. Their words must deliver a story that we care about. First time co-directors Brian Klugman (Jack’s nephew) and Lee Sternthal also co-wrote this script (and the story for Tron: Legacy). Their idea is cute. A movie featuring a story within a story within a story within a story. Unfortunately, the third level brings the film crashing down towards a conclusion that is so poorly presented, that the good parts of the film are quickly forgotten.

Rory Jansen (played by Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who is sitting on two unpublished novels. Dora, his extremely supportive girlfriend (a requirement for a struggling writer) is played by Zoe Saldana (showing much more range than Avatar allowed). They receive financial support from Rory’s good as gold dad played by JK Simmons. Rory takes a job in the mailroom at a publisher and tries to keep writing. It’s clear he’s going nowhere despite his dream of becoming the next great American novelist. And then … just like THAT … his life changes. He discovers a manuscript hidden in the secondhand leather portfolio that Dora bought him. Rory confronts the Faustian dilemma in a way that either changes who he is, or exposes who he is.

The manuscript is published and Rory becomes famous and rich. And they all live happily ever after. Well, until one day Rory is reading in the park when an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) strikes up a conversation. Soon, he is deep into the story about the events that motivated him to write the story some 60 years ago. It’s a fascinating love story that combines war, Paris, heart-breaking loss and true love. In other words, the kind of real life story that creates a story like the one Rory is getting credit for. Plagiarism is a horrible crime and intrusion made most humiliating once exposed.

The flashbacks during the re-telling of the Old Man’s story are extremely well done (featuring Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder) and make a terrific parallel to Rory and Dora’s story. Unfortunately, the bookend structure around these stories involves Dennis Quaid as an author at a reading of his most recent book. He has actually written the story that we have just seen. Yes, the one involving Rory and the Old Man. The film plays it coy as to what the real source is for Quaid’s book, but at this point, we just don’t care. If we aren’t disappointed enough, we get Olivia Wilde as a grad student plusting after Quaid and the story behind the story. Talk about letting the air out of the balloon! Their scenes together are excruciatingly bad.

In real life, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife really did leave the originals of his early writings on a train, lost to the world forever. That forms the basis for this film, but as is often the case, real life proves much more interesting than fiction. On the plus side, Bradley Cooper steps up from his lackluster string of performances to show he has more to offer than just being cute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Bradley Cooper flash some acting chops OR like me, you always give a shot to films about writers

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hope to protect yourself from the excruciatingly painful scenes featuring Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde OR you get really annoyed when screenwriters ruin a promising premise by trying to be too cute

watch the trailer:


IN TIME

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now this is a terrific premise for a sci-fi story. You have surely heard the phrase: “Time is Money”. Well in this world, Time is not just money, it is Life itself. Time is everything … and it’s displayed for all to see via a glowing neon green counter on each person’s forearm.

The film has an odd look for a futuristic sci-fi film. Vehicles look like modernized versions of 1970’s classics, but fashion and other technology seem basically unchanged. Society is divided more severely than today, but the commentary is clear … there are haves and have-nots, whether the currency is money or time.

 All people live until age 25 at which time they stop aging and the clock starts. They are given ONE year and are free to earn, gamble or spend their time … heck, some even gamble. When your clock hits thirteen Zeroes, you drop dead immediately. So, the working class is isolated in time zones, running from place to place and taking extra shifts at the plant just to pay the rent. The rich live in Connecticut (some things never change) and try to find ways to leisurely spend their days that will never end.

 Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, one of the poor ones. In a scene that will have you scratching your head, Olivia Wilde plays his mom (remember, you stop aging at 25). Will has a chance meeting with Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has lived more than 100 years and still has more than a century left. After a deep, philosophical conversation, Will ends up with Henry’s time and becomes a murder suspect.

Will runs off to Connecticut and is pursued by the Timekeeper Police led by a creepy Cillian Murphy. Will ends up in the lavish home of Philippe Weiss (Vincent Katheiser from Mad Men) and falls for his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Will and Sylvia end up on the lam and turn into the ultimate Time Bandits … Robin Hood who steals time from the rich and distributes to the poor.

 While the premise is promising, some of the best stuff is left untouched. Henry Hamilton would have been a fascinating character to get a little more backstory on. Cillian Murphy’s character is obviously talented and a bit burned out. It’s a bit disconcerting to see most of the people in a movie look all about the same age, but that’s a very cool product of this society. As is the “big board” of time that looks eerily similar to the Stock Market boards we see that track movement every moment of the day. Time is precious and is of course watched over.  Also, I never figured out how the whole arm-based time counter began, so more history would have been welcome.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol also brought us Gattaca and Lord of War. I would have liked this one to go a bit deeper, but it’s fun to watch Timberlake and Seyfried playing Bonnie and Clyde. Thinking about this from a monetary standpoint is pretty interesting, but it also reminds us that there’s never enough time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always up for a sci-fi film that doubles as an editorial on the class system OR you want further proof that Justin Timberlake is on his way to being a legit movie star.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a real sci-fi lover and plot holes send you into a days-long funk OR you are apt to sprain an ankle just watching Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried sprint in high heels throughout the film

watch the trailer: