THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)

July 13, 2017

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals (I saw this at Oak Cliff Film Festival) where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. This outlandish comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is profane and at times mean-spirited.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned warped nuns played by Aubrey Plaza (the director’s long-time girlfriend), Alison Brie (“Mad Men”), and Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated “Saturday Night Live” skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Just as the characters begin to wear a bit thin, a new character is introduced, resuscitating our interest. Each of the actors deliver, but it’s Armisen and Micucci who are especially fun to watch, as is Riley’s tendency to turn communal wine into a community beverage.

Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch. However it makes more sense when you learn that Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. Expect an altar filled with f-words and blasphemy with a wink. If you are OK with that, you’ll likely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

watch the trailer:

**I could only find a red band trailer – and ‘nun’ of that is appropriate.


WHIPLASH (2014)

October 26, 2014

whiplash Greetings again from the darkness. The pursuit of greatness is not always pretty. No matter if your dream is athletics, dancing, music or some other; you can be sure hard work and sacrifice will be part of your routine. You will likely have a mentor, teacher or coach whose job is to cultivate your skills while pushing you to new limits. This film questions whether the best approach is intimidation or society’s current preferred method of nurturing.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first year student at an elite Manhattan music conservatory. Andrew dreams of being a great jazz drummer in the vein of Buddy Rich. When offered a rare shot at the top jazz orchestra, Andrew quickly discovers the conductor is a breed unlike anything he has ever encountered. The best movie comparison I can offer for JK Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher is R Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket. This is no warm-hearted Mr Holland’s Opus. Fletcher bullies, intimidates, humiliates and uses every imaginable form of verbal abuse to push his musicians, and especially young Andrew, to reach for greater heights.

Andrew and Fletcher go head to head through the entire movie, with Fletcher’s mental torment turning this into a psychological thriller … albeit with tremendous music. We witness Andrew shut out all pieces of a personal life, and even take on some of Fletcher’s less desirable traits. Andrew’s diner break-up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is much shorter, but just as cold as the infamous opening scene in The Social Network. At a small dinner party, Andrew loses some of the sweetness he inherited from his dad (Paul Reiser), and unloads some Fletcherisms on some unsuspecting family friends.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has turned his Sundance award-winning short film into a fascinatingly brutal message movie that begs for discussion and debate. The open-ended approach is brilliant, though I found myself initially upset at the missing clean wrap that Hollywood so often provides. What price greatness? Is comeuppance a reward? Are mentors cruel to be kind? For the past few years, I have been proclaiming that Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is the next John Cusack. Perhaps that bar is too low. Teller just gets better with each film. His relentless energy draws us in, and we find ourselves in his corner … even though this time, he’s not the greatest guy himself. Still, as strong as Teller is, the film is owned by JK Simmons. Most think of him as the dad in Juno, or the ever-present insurance spokesman on TV, but he previously flashed his bad side as the white supremacist in “Oz“. Even that, doesn’t prepare us for Simmons’ powerhouse performance … just enough humanity to heighten his psychological torturing of musicians.

You should see this one for Simmons’ performance. Or see it for the up-and-coming Teller. Enjoy the terrific music, especially Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. See it for the talking points about teachers, society and personal greatness. See it for any or all these reasons – just don’t tell director Damien Chazelle “good job“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see JK Simmons in a likely contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar OR you have been waiting for someone to prove a drum solo can actually be worthy of your attention

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in exploring what is involved in attaining greatness, regardless of the talent or skill

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA (2013)

June 3, 2013

candelabra1 Greetings again from the darkness. According to director Steven Soderbergh, this is his farewell to film. He is taking his eye and camera and will concentrate on specialty projects … at least until he figures out that movie directors make more money (yes, I’m skeptical). This one has been “in the works” for years and is based on Scott Thorson’s autobiography.

If you don’t recognize the name Scott Thorson, you surely recognize his opponent in his 1982 palimony suit … Liberace. The story recounts how a 17 year old Scott fell under the spell of Mr Showmanship, and didn’t leave until 1982, when he was forced out. To understand what occurred during those years requires an understanding of the times. The gay culture had not worked its way into mainstream America. Despite his over-the-top flamboyance (on and off stage), candelabra2Liberace’s fans refused to believe he was gay … or more accurately, refused to even entertain the idea.  This “secret” was protected by Liberace and his professional camp.

Although their actual ages are way out of whack for the story, Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are both exceptional as Scott and Liberace, respectively. Much of this story focuses on Scott, but Douglas’ performance is what makes this work. He walks the fine line between predator and protector, lover and louse. When he tells a young Scott that he wants to be his “Brother, Father, Lover, Best Friend”, we are nauseated as viewers, while Scott is captivated.

candelabra3 Supporting work comes from Dan Akyroyd as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s fixer and handler; an exceptional Rob Lowe as plastic surgeon Dr. Startz; Scott Bakula as one of Scott’s first and the one who introduces him to LL; Paul Reiser; Nicky Katt; and Debbie Reynolds … yes THAT Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) … who plays Liberace’s controlling and creepy mother.

Scott Thorson is really not a very interesting character, though there is no doubt that he and Liberace were exceptionally close for almost six years. The movies have shown us many “kept” women over the years, so it’s a twist to see a studly young man in the role. The slow spiral into drug addiction and paranoia is not fun to watch, and rather than follow Scott, the movie ends with Liberace’s passing due to complications from AIDS. Since then, Mr. Thorson testified against gangster Eddie Nash in the Wonderland murders, and was placed in the Federal Witness Protection program. Of course, his taste of fame would not allow him liberaceto live a quiet life and he has since been shot and arrested … even giving interviews from the Reno jail just one month before the premiere of this movie.  Only recently was his bail posted by the fine folks at Nevada’s The Moonlite Bunny Ranch. (yes, really)

Definitely worth watching thanks to the Michael Douglas performance, but also as a reminder of just how much innocence society has lost in the last thirty years. Soderbergh says that no studio would distribute the film because it was “too gay”. Maybe we haven’t progressed so much after all. Luckily HBO picked it up, though that prevents Douglas from being an Oscar contender. Brace yourself for the “creep factor”. Liberace (that’s the real one, pictured left) even tried to legally adopt Scott … a move that eclipses the wildness of even his costumes, pianos and cars.

**NOTE: Robin Williams was originally cast as Liberace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you were a fan of Liberace OR you want to see just how far society has advanced in 30 years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no intention of allowing for the possibility that Liberace was in a relationship (other than professional) with Scott Thorson

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp3wAyRf15c