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:

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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: