MAX ROSE (2016)

September 6, 2016

max-rose Greetings again from the darkness. It’s pretty rare that an actor goes twenty plus years between lead roles, but such is the case for the legendary comedian and Muscular Dystrophy telethon host Jerry Lewis. Writer/director Daniel Noah’s film was shown at Cannes Film Festival in 2013 as part of the tribute to Lewis, but it’s taken about three years for it to gain any type of United States distribution.

The film begins with a grief-stricken Max Rose (Lewis) dealing with the death of Eva, his wife of 65 years (played by the great Claire Bloom). We see Eva in flashbacks to little life moments, and also as an apparition and conversation partner as Max tries to solve the mystery of a 1959 make-up case … it’s a mystery that could destroy Max’s memories and the accepted version of his life.

Max is being looked after on a regular basis by his doting granddaughter (Kerry Bishe) and periodically by his son (Kevin Pollack), who has more than enough stress in his own life. Max, a retired jazz pianist, has clearly never been the warmest or most open of gents, and the eulogy he delivers at Eva’s funeral can best be described as self-centered.

Soon enough, Max has moved into an assisted-living facility and the best scenes of the film find him re-discovering life with the likes of Rance Howard, Lee Weaver and Mort Sahl. Unfortunately this sequence is short-lived and Max is back on the trail of the mystery make-up case … which leads him to the mansion of a movie producer named Ben (or BS, if you’re looking for a punchline). Dean Stockwell and Jerry Lewis are two screen veterans who know how to work off of one another, but just aren’t given much to work within their time together.

And that’s probably the film’s greatest weakness … it leans heavily on nostalgia. Seeing Jerry Lewis (age 90 today) back on screen generates a warm feeling – as do Ms. Bloom and the other old-timers, but the story is just too simple to provide any real insight or commentary on aging, loss, or family stress or secrets. The combination of nostalgia and sentimentality can work provided there is more depth – something that’s simply lacking with our story and characters.

Mr. Lewis gamely plays an unsympathetic character, and does capture the cantankerous nature that we’ve all witnessed in some elderly folks. There is even a laugh out loud moment featuring knitted pot holders, and we do get Lewis in a red clown nose – fortunately without his “Hey Lady!” voice. What’s missing is the depth required if one plans to tackle a theme like making peace with the past … especially when the past isn’t there to defend herself.

watch the trailer:




November 24, 2013

nebraska1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Alexander Payne has proved yet again that he has a remarkable eye for characters, and no need to bury those characters deep in plot. About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants provided us with characters we could laugh with, cry with and feel with. His latest is his first film which he did not write, but it’s clear that he and screenwriter Bob Nelson are similar type people watchers.

What you notice immediately is that this film and its characters move at their own pace. There is no rushing or urgency. They do nebraska2things and say things in due time. Or not. What you also notice is that the camera does the same thing. Filmed in stark black and white, the camera is exceedingly quiet and still … just like the characters and landscape. We can thank Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants. Even the score is a bit offbeat. The blending of trumpet and guitar is rare, yet seems to fit just right.

Bruce Dern is 77 years old and in his sixth decade of acting. While I have liked him quite often – and really liked him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – this may be his best performance and best role yet. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic, nebraska4and hard of hearing, and crotchety, and isolated. More seriously, he seems to be in the early stages of dementia given his insistence on walking to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” from a mass marketing mailing similar to Publishers Clearing House. With minimal dialogue, we “get” Woody. That’s thanks to Dern’s physical performance and ability to emote through simple gestures. We feel his quiet desperation in the search for meaning in a life that is slipping away. He just wants to be somebody before the end.

The delivery mechanism is a road trip shared by Woody and his very patient son David (Will Forte). We sense David looks at the trip as an opportunity to connect for the first time with his dad, and maybe even get some life questions answered along the way. On the trip, other family members join in, including Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Woody’s colorful wife Kate (June Squibb). The trip takes them to Woody’s hometown where they cross paths with other family and old friends.

nebraska3 Woody’s insistence that he is about to be a millionaire brings out the “true self” in those whose paths they cross. Many of his old friends are truly happy for him and wish him nothing but the best. Others aren’t so kind. True colors can be hard to watch, especially as shown by Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and other family members who are just after “their fair share” of the loot. The movie excels in these moments … watching a fiery Kate put these vultures in their place, while defending the husband she has spent the whole time badgering is priceless.

Ms. Squibb delivers the film’s funniest lines, but she also gives a depth to Kate that adds the level of realism. Will Forte is surprisingly effective given his “Saturday Night Live” background, but we never lose sight of Bruce Dern (and his hair). The characters we see are grounded rural midwesterners who live their life from day to day, depending heavily on family and friends. Their interpersonal skills are quite different than what is found in metropolitan areas, and those born and raised in heavily populated areas may struggle to relate.

The film should garner Oscar nomination consideration in multiple categories, and Mr. Dern is probably a shoe-in for a Best Actor nom. So slow down and share this trip from Montana to Nebraska … while I can’t promise a prize of one million dollars, you will definitely be rewarded.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character driven dramatic comedies based on people you might know (if you know people in the rural midwest)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your sense of humor is more likely to parallel that of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell than Sideways or About Schmidt.

watch the trailer:


July 6, 2013

lone ranger Greetings again from the darkness. The Western genre has always appealed to me. I love the clear division between good and bad. Heroes and Villains face-off and the good guys usually win, thereby protecting those too weak to protect themselves. TV had an impressive string of popular westerns: “The Rifleman”, “Maverick”, “The Big Valley”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke” (1955-75).

One of the most popular got it’s start on the radio in 1933: “The Lone Ranger“. When it hit TV in 1949, the great Clayton Moore donned the mask and badge, accompanied by Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Though they filmed a couple of movies, they were best known on the small screen. Then in 1981,  The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in theatres. It was directed by William Fraker and starred Klinton Spilsbury. If you have never seen it … Mr. Fraker never directed another movie and Mr. Spilsbury never acted again. Enough said.

lone ranger2 Thirty-three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and mega-star Johnny Depp have teamed up for a re-imagined Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. Yes, that is the proper order since this is mostly the story of Tonto, told by Tonto, with the camera focused on Tonto (Depp). There is very little respect for the roots of the story, and that’s probably because it would not be politically correct these days to have a subservient Comanche taking orders from a masked white man.

We first meet an aging Tonto as the “Noble Savage” in a 1933 Old West traveling museum. This approach reminds me of the far superior Little Big Man featuring Dustin Hoffman. Tonto proceeds to tell a young boy his version of history. We are never really sure if this is a tall tale or just a commentary on how our memory recalls events solely from our own perspective. Tonto’s character is given a full backstory, but John Reid, the square and square-jawed prosecutor who Tonto mentors into becoming the lone ranger4Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer) is presented as a naive buffoon. Reid’s courageous brother Dan is played by James Badge Dale, and the bad guys are played by Tom Wilkinson (Cole, the train baron), and William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish, the notorious outlaw who wiped out the Rangers).

It seems apparent that Verbinski was striving to create the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The template is familiar … lots of action and wise-cracking, replete with the newest caricature in the Johnny Depp repertoire. Though Depp has many critics, I am not one. To me, he is a modern day Red Skelton, and I admire the nuances of his Captain Jack Sparrow, Wily Wonka, Mad Hatter, and of course, Edward Scissorhands. Tonto is another feather in his cap (so to speak) and his decision to base the look on Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” adds a stark look along with fodder for comedy.  Depp performs an impressive stunt featuring a tall ladder and two trains … it plays like a tribute to the great Buster Keaton.

lone ranger3 Many film critics have been bashing the production – some even before the film’s release. In this day of information overload, we all are aware of the battle between the filmmakers and the studio. The final product does in fact wear the scars of entirely too many writers and budget mismanagement and limitations that come with the Disney brand. What should have been a perfect fit (ultimate good guy Lone Ranger) turned into a jumbled mess at times. The 2 1/2 hour movie easily could have been a full hour shorter. Maybe building two new locomotives worked great for realism, but was tough on the budget. With so few young movie-goers even aware of the Lone Ranger, creative freedom to re-imagine the character makes sense, but making him a klutzy sidekick probably doesn’t. So what we get are pre-release headlines telling us the film is a bomb. I find that unfair. It certainly appeared that most of the audience I was part of enjoyed the movie, though there were cracks about how long it was.

There are some very impressive segments within the film and having Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing over the heart-pounding climax adds a level of fun that most movies don’t have. The use of Monument Valley in Utah put me in the mood for a John Ford movie marathon.  So while I fully agree that the movie is much too long, the script should have been tightened, and more respect paid to the main character, it seems highly likely that the movie will be remembered much more fondly than film critics would have us believe … at least by those who give it a shot.

**NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, Britt Reid who became The Green Hornet, is the great nephew of John Reid (The Lone Ranger).

**NOTE: I totally missed the significance or tie-in of the blood-thirsty rabbits in this movie, though they did remind me of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbits.  If you “get” this, please explain to me.

**NOTE: Helena Bonham Carter.  ugh

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the critics and accept this as another blockbuster summer fun flick OR you want to see the latest addition to the Johnny Depp Hall of Oddity

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the All-American hero as seen in the long ago TV series (this is really not his story)

Below are two videos.  The first is the 27 second opening to the TV series.  The second is one of the full trailers to the new movie:


COOL HAND LUKE (1967) revisited

June 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Entirely too many years have passed since I last saw this movie, so when Cinemark included it in the summer classic film series, I was in my seat nice and early. Mention this movie and the first thing people do is quote one of the most famous lines in movie history: “What we’ve got here – is failure to communicate.” No question that’s a great line. But there is so much more to this movie and it holds up beautifully 45 years after release.

Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, who spent two years on a chain-gang, this is the story of Luke (Paul Newman) who just can’t bring himself to conform to the rules, regardless whether those be the rules of the military, society, prison, or self-imposed by his fellow convicts. We are introduced to Luke as he drunkenly cuts off the top of parking meters on main street of a small town. Later, in a throw away line, we learn he was gaining revenge on someone. It’s the clear indication that while he doesn’t always want to fit in, Luke clearly knows right from wrong.

 There are so many terrific scenes in this film, that it’s not possible to discuss each. Every scene with the prison warden, played by Strother Martin, is intense. Each of the Boss guards are frightening, especially Morgan Woodward as the sharpshooter behind the mirrored shades. There are numerous impactful scenes featuring the group of convicts. Even though we learn little about the individuals, we realize the fragile male psyche is on full display. Despite the power of all of these characters and scenes, the real strength of the film is the relationship between Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy). Watching the early cat and mouse game, and the subsequent transfer of power, we realize this is two amazing actors at the top of their game.

 George Kennedy rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor award and continued on to become one of the most successful and prolific character actors of the 70’s and 80’s, and his career culminated with his iconic role in the Naked Gun series. As for Paul Newman, this is one of his best performance in a long line of standout performances. This one is in the middle stage of his career and he exuded manliness with a touch of sensitivity. He and Strother Martin would meet again in one of the best sequences of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 Watching Luke win over all the convicts, including the previous leader played by Kennedy is stunning, yet gut-wrenching when offset by the scenes with the guards who are hell bent on getting Luke to understand his place. They understand the risk he poses to the systematic rhythms of the prison.  What no one seems to understand is Luke’s odd need for misery … he allows himself only moments of joy before lapsing back into some odd form of sacrifice. Study the famous egg scene.  50 eggs. 50 inmates.  The pain he endures and the scene ends with a crucifix pose. Now take that to the final few scenes that take place in the church. Luke is asking the questions, but he refuses to hear the answer.

 The supporting cast is downright incredible. This was the feature film debut for: Ralph Waite (4 years later he became the beloved paternal figure of TV’s “The Waltons”); Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser from Walking Tall); James Gammon (later the crusty manager in Major League); and Anthony Zerbe, another iconic character actor of the 70’s and 80’s. Also featured are Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton (singing a few songs), Wayne Rogers (from “MASH”), Richard Davalos (James Dean’s brother Aron in East of Eden), and Rance Howard (Ron’s dad as the sheriff). In a brief, but truly great scene, Jo Van Fleet (also from East of Eden), appears as Arletta, and we quickly understand Luke’s background and inability to find himself.

Often overlooked by film historians, “Lucille” putting on a show for the convicts as she washes her car, is a scene that is meant for more than titillation. As she creatively buffs the windows, the reaction of the convicts reminds us that these are still men and no amount of humiliation and degradation can change that. One of my friends (Big E) argues that Joy Harmon was clearly cheated out of an Oscar for this scene.

The score is the handy work of Lalo Schifrin and expertly captures the moment … especially in the black tar scene. Director Stuart Rosenberg (working here with the great Conrad Hall) was known only for his TV work when he got this script. He went on to direct another prison movie in 1980 called Brubaker. Starring Newman’s Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford, the film was a decent prison drama, but not at the level of Cool Hand Luke … which by the way, was installed into the National Film Registry in 2005.



CHINATOWN (1974) revisited

May 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The latest of the monthly 1970’s film screenings hosted by Dallas Film Society and The Dallas Morning News was the classic Chinatown.   It was shocking to see 35-40% of the hands go up when host Chris Vognar asked how many had never seen the film.  I felt a combination of guilt, pride and envy since my viewings number approximately 15 or 16, not counting “pit stops” while channel surfing.  This is truly a classic film that should be seen by all lovers of movies.

This is a chance to see the work of three film greats at their absolute peak: Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski (director) and Robert Towne (writer).  I have previously discussed Nicholson’s work in the 70’s (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail,Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  He is so confident and assured and expert in his manner and delivery.  It is so much fun to watch the perfect actor in the perfect role.  Regardless of what you may think of Roman Polanski the man, he is unquestionably an excellent director (Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer).  His visual flair is on full display with cars, wardrobe, colors, and camera angles.  It is obvious he adores the source material.  Robert Towne has some terrific screenplays on his resume (The Last Detail, Shampoo), but none better than this one.  Along with Network (Paddy Chayefsky), this is one of my two favorite screenplays of all-time.  It is outstanding!

 Some people refer to this as “the Nose movie”, thanks to the scene where Polanski, in a cameo as a tough guy, teaches Nicholson a lesson about sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. What I love about the story and the movie is that we are along with Gittes (Nicholson) for the whole thing.  There are no shortcuts … no narrators … no flashbacks … we get to solve the mysteries right along with him.  Too many movies make it easy for the viewer.  I prefer to work a little.  And trust me, this one makes you work.  Is it a whodunit?  Is it a kidnapping?  Is it a political power play for control of water?  Is it just outright corruption?  The answer is YES to all of these!

 If you have seen it before, watch it again and pay attention to the absolutely perfect mood score from Jerry Goldsmith.  Check out the wardrobe – the number of suits worn by Nicholson is crazy.  The same holds true for Faye Dunaway’s dresses.  Pay attention to the multiple “eye” references right up to the final two … Dunaway in the car and John Huston shielding his “granddaughter” from the grisly scene.  You may have missed the supporting work from John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, Rance Howard (Ron’s dad), Burt Young (Paulie in Rocky) and James Hong.  James Hong?  If you are a “Seinfeld” fan, you’ll recognize him from the Chinese Restaurant scene where he pages “Cartwright”.  Especially pay attention to the powerful performance of John Huston as Noah Cross.  And no matter how many times you have watched it, the “nose” scene will still make you cringe.

If you have never seen the film, I urge you to set aside some time to watch this classic.  Don’t allow yourself to be distracted.  Take it all in and then … “Forget it Jake.  It’s Chinatown.



January 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. On average, I see two new releases per week. Selections are based on subject matter, cast, director, and most often, the trailer. My two most recent viewings were BLUE VALENTINE and SOMEWHERE, both somber to say the least. So a light-hearted buddy flick with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, and directed by Ron Howard, seemed like just the right change of pace.

Unfortunately, the actual film has little resemblance to the film advertised in the trailer. Sure the comedy scenes from the trailer are present: Vince gives an acidic toast, Kevin James does his fat-man dance, and Channing Tatum plays an off-center tattooed boy toy with a loaded gun and dead fish. Where the fraud comes in is with the rest of the film. This is a pretty dark, weighty relationship movie that poses quite the moral dilemma (hence the title) for Vince. Should he tell his best friend and business partner that his wife is cheating on him?

Rather than a few rounds of funny scenes with Vaughn trying to get it right, we get “deep” emotional wrangling of a poor guy who just doesn’t know the best solution. Along the way he hurts many people he likes, and a few he doesn’t. Please don’t take this wrong, I am fully onboard with dramas being mixed with comedy. In fact, Ron Howard has provided us with one of the best examples of this … PARENTHOOD. However, this is nowhere near that level, and in fact, misses the mark in both comedy and drama.

I spent much of the movie trying to decide who was most frightening, Winona Ryder or Karen Carpenter. What?? Oh wait, I meant Winona Ryder or Jennifer Connelly. Too soon? Come on, she died in 1983. The point is Ms. Ryder carries forth with her BLACK SWAN look and Ms. Connelly evidently hasn’t had solid food for at least a dozen years. Queen Latifah does her best to bring some energy to the film, but her character only has about 3-4 scenes. It’s always nice to see how Ron Howard works in his brother Clint and his father Rance … thereby keeping their actor’s guild cards current.

 There really was a good idea here, but the comedy and drama just weren’t meshed well. And Kevin James as a genius engineer? Seems a stretch from Mall Cop! Ron Howard has some classic movies to his name. Some funny ones like NIGHT SHIFT, and some dramatic ones like A BEAUTIFUL MIND and APOLLO 13. Unfortunately, this one falls flat and really provides little entertainment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: umm … sorry, I’ve got nothing … just watch the trailer and save your money.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a slapstick comedy with Vince Vaughn, Kevin James and Queen Latifah.