MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nicole has already made her decision. The film opens with her and husband Charlie in a therapy session. They are listing traits they admire about the other person. Watching this, we are unsure if the therapist thinks this exercise might salvage a broken marriage, or if it’s some cruel way of highlighting what is being lost. This is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most gut-wrenching film to date, and it’s based, at least partially, on his split from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Writing about personal experience is nothing new for Baumbach, as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was inspired by his parents’ divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming theatre director in New York City, and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the company’s lead actor. When Nicole informs Charlie that she wants a divorce, and is headed back home to Los Angeles to be with family and resume her TV acting career, he is stunned. She explains that her dreams and ambitions have been stifled by focusing on his career, and despite her numerous attempts to discuss this, he has never bothered to take her seriously. Oh, and she’s taking their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

What follows is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, editing, and human nature. We watch as Nicole builds the foundation of her new life, while Charlie is staggered – not so much in denial, as disbelief. Their initial course of an amicable split, equitable division of belongings, and shared/split custody of Henry is abruptly altered when Nicole takes counsel from powerhouse LA divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce and California laws. This forces Charlie to meet with attorney Bert Spitz (a terrific Alan Alda), who may or may not be up to the task – his acumen varying from day to day.

Baumbach allows both sides to play out. These are basically normal, good people in a situation that brings out the worst traits in both. Unsparing pain arises at every turn. One particular argument between Charlie and Nicole is the axis on which the movie turns. It’s a spilling of guts and filled with devastating honesty. The scene is relentless and builds to a breakdown or breakthrough … any description leaves us spent. Just when we don’t believe we can handle any more emotional turmoil, up pops a moment of genuine tenderness that restores our faith – even if it’s only long enough for us to breathe again. There are even some surprisingly funny (dark humor) moments sprinkled throughout, just as there is in life.

Supporting roles are filled beautifully by Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver and Wallace Shawn. As Henry, Azhy Robertson avoids the “cute-kid” syndrome and delivers an actual nuanced performance by a child actor. Although it seems they are both everywhere these days, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Driver are truly outstanding in their roles here. Scarlet perfectly captures a woman moving on, while Adam singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at the bar in front of his theatre company is one of the most poignant on screen moments of the year.

There have been some amazing movies about marriage/divorce over the years. Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), Benton’s KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979), and Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011) come to mind. Baumbach’s latest belongs in that group. Even the “best” divorces – those where both sides end up better off – are a “loss” for both parties. At a minimum, it’s a loss of a once-in-time vision of life partnership. The division of assets is a cold term for the shredding of emotions. We are fine with whatever the adults decide as long as the priority for both is their young son who shouldn’t pay the price for their debacle … but certainly will, just as countless other children have. I’m only now able to write about this film after seeing it at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF). As a movie lover, I’m in awe of the acting and storytelling. As a human being, it temporarily destroyed me.

watch the trailer:


KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

watch the trailer:

 


THE ICEMAN (2013)

May 24, 2013

iceman1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatizations are at their best when actual footage of the subject or event doesn’t exist. They can be an effective way to highlight a particularly interesting story or person with details we might not otherwise access. Richard Kuklinski‘s story is fascinating and frightening. He is known as the mob’s most prolific hit-man/contract killer. Writer/director Arial Vromen has adapted Anthony Bruno‘s novel for the screen, and wisely cast Michael Shannon in the lead. It makes a nice companion piece to the chilling 1992 documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.

The movie is dominated by the hulking presence of Shannon as Richard Kuklinski. Shannon is no match for the physical size of Kuklinski, but his movements and the camera angles capture the powerful and imposing monster that he was. If iceman2you are unfamiliar with Kuklinski’s story, he killed somewhere between 100-250 people. His missions were carried forth in cold-blooded, heartless and widely disparate manners. Additionally, he often dismembered his victims and froze bodies and parts to prevent the actual time of death from being established. He was good at his job, though hardly a good guy. But wait! Not so fast …

Kuklinski was also a husband a father of two daughters who made up what appeared to be a lovely, normal family in suburban New Jersey. This guy had an internal switch he flipped from the street to the dining room table. When he was iceman6captured, his wife and daughter claimed they had no clue what he did for a living (he had told them he was in Finance). Sure, they admitted to his having a wild temper and even threatening his wife a few times, but they never once considered that he was a cold-blooded killer by day and neighborly barbecue dad on weekends.  The photo at left is an actual family photo of the real Kuklinski family.

Winona Ryder plays Deborah, Kuklinski’s wife. Before you snicker, you should know that Ryder is exceptional in the role. Her comeback tease in Black Swan gave us hope she had returned to form, and with this turn displays the talent we always knew was there. The always dependable and creepy Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Roy Demeo, the mobster for whom Kuklinski worked. The scenes with Shannon and Liotta together are bone-chillingly frightening. Chris Evans (light years from Captain America) plays fellow hit-man Robert Prongay aka “Mr Freezy”. Kuklinski credits Prongay with valuable insight into poison and disposal of bodies. It’s heart-warming to see that even contract killers have support groups. Other fine acting comes courtesy of David Schwimmer iceman4as smarmy Josh (Demeo’s right hand man), Robert Davi (as Leonard Marks. Demeo’s link to the family head), James Franco (as one of the hits), and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother Joey.

Childhood flashbacks give us the table-setting necessary to understand the balance of nature v nurture in the Kuklinski household. Still, no matter how much abuse or misery one has a child, it’s difficult to comprehend the stoic evil that possessed Kuklinski. And to be clear, Michael Shannon’s performance is his best yet … and that is saying a great deal. He has become one of the most interesting actors – one who can take the lead as he does here and in Take Shelter, or as a scene-stealing supporter in Revolutionary Road, Mud and the upcoming Man of Steel (as General Zod). iceman3He’s not a flashy actor, just an enormously talented one.

Vromen captures the gritty feel of the nearly three decades of “family” life in a manner that reminds of Kill the Irishmen … the Ray Stevenson take on Danny Greene. The atmosphere and inner turmoil are similar, but there is no comparison to the Kuklinski evil. Should you doubt this, I would highly recommend the documentary previously mentioned. Watching the actual dead eyes of the real Richard Kuklinski as he talks about his life is beyond horrifying.

*NOTE: the real Kuklinski claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa.  His story was unable to verified because … you got it … he was very good at his job.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by the power of “family” life and how the members handled problems OR you are familiar with Kuklinski and want a film that captures the essence of the monster and the times (bad clothes and facial hair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: violence, even when based on true stories, is not your cup of tea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aciNNjzyS20


THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

April 4, 2013

place Greetings again from the darkness. With an extended tracking shot to open the film, we follow Ryan Gosling, a motorcycle stunt rider, from his trailer through the carnival grounds and right into the metal sphere with his co-riders. It’s an exhilarating start to the film and introduces Luke (Gosling) as a heavily-tatted star attraction on the carnival circuit.

This is director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his 2010 critically acclaimed Blue Valentine (which also featured Gosling). While that film painfully presented the gut-wrenching misery of a crumbling marriage, this latest shows multi-generational fallout from poor decisions and faulty father-son relationships. Cianfrance has quite an eye for well-intentioned, but inadequate personality types. This latest is presented in triptych format … three distinct story divisions. The first segment is mesmerizing and top notch filmmaking.  It follows Luke’s attempt to “do right” by his newly place3discovered infant son – the result of last year’s carnival trip to this same town and a tryst with Romina, a local gal played by Eva Mendes.

Gosling is especially effective (yet again) as he falls in with a local mechanic played by a terrific Ben Mendelsohn (frightening in Animal Kingdom). The two hatch a scheme to capitalize on Luke’s bike riding skills by robbing banks. These “jobs” allow us to see the other side of Luke, who seems sincere in his desire to provide for the child and win back Romina. Things go badly when Luke crosses paths with rookie street cop Avery Cross (played by Bradley Cooper). Watching Gosling’s contradictory personalities is quite amazing … he flips from quietly charming to cold-blooded brutal bank robber in the blink of an eye.

place4 The story then shifts to follow Avery and his strained relations with his wife (Rose Byrne), their infant son, and Avery’s former state Supreme Court judge father (Harris Yulin). A sub-plot brings in police department corruption led by … who else? … Ray Liotta. Mr. Liotta still possesses the beady-eyed stare that can scare the crap out of his fellow actors and anyone watching the movie. This corruption and the idealistic and ambitious nature of Avery aren’t a very pleasant mixture, but it sets the stage for the final act.

Flashing forward 15 years, brings us to a fairly predictable situation that still proves interesting. The previous stories focused on the failed relationships of Luke and his father, Luke and his mis-fired attempt at being a dad, and the awkwardness of Avery and place2his father. Now we see the resulting mess that are the two now teenage boys. The sons are played by Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan (memorable as Cricket in Lawless). DeHaan especially shines as the Gosling/Mendes prodigy.

Sean Bobbitt is the film’s Director of Photography and he deserves special mention for his work with Cianfrance in bringing a different and intimate look to the characters, setting and story. Also, Mike Patton’s unusual score fits perfectly and keeps the viewer on track. This is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, but those who enjoy tough, artsy films will be rewarded.

*NOTE: During the Q&A after the screening, director Cianfrance mentioned that Ryan Gosling is not “typical” actor, but that he has quite a feel for characters and visual story telling. Unfortunately, a couple of days later Mr. Gosling announced he was taking a sabbatical from acting.  Luckily for us, he has built a pipeline of movies that should keep us satisfied for the next couple of years.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of gritty independent films OR you enjoy triptych story structure OR you just want to see Ryan Gosling at his coolest riding motorcyles

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an uplifting, inspirational story … no superheroes saving the world in this one.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G07pSbHLXgg


GOODFELLAS (1990) revisited

February 7, 2013

goodfellas1 “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”  That’s how Henry Hill introduces himself.  He is the narrator and key figure in director Martin Scorcese’s 1990 masterpiece.  What follows Mr. Hill’s intro is the film version of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, Wiseguy: Life in the Mafia Family (published 1986).  Every so often the perfect match of writer, director and cast occurs, and Goodfellas is one of those rare treats.

Viewing a 35mm print at the historic Texas Theatre just seemed apropo.  Knowing that this is the realized vision of Mr. Scorcese and his long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, caused the numerous VHS and DVD viewings over the years to simply fade away.  The silver screen works wonders for a film with such “big” characters, such startling violence, and such a perfectly inter-woven soundtrack.

Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, the real life gangster who ended up snitching on the mob and entering the Federal Witness Protection program.  This should not be considered a spoiler because Hill’s story is known worldwide and, well, the movie is 23 years old!  Liotta was a relative newcomer when he exploded onto the screen in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild in 1986.  His manic performance in that movie led Scorcese to cast him as Henry Hill.   The real life Hill spoke at length with Pileggi for the novel, and the result is a very detailed and nuanced look into the life inside a New York crime family.

goodfellas4 The fascinating aspects are too numerous to touch on them all, but there are some that really stood out in this latest viewing. First, Lorraine Bracco plays Hill’s wife Karen. Watching the development of her character is pure gold on screen. She starts out as a fresh-faced blind date, who pulls no punches in putting Hill in his place after he stands her up … and right in front of his fellow gangsters, no less.  Watching her fall for “the life” is like watching someone get gradually intoxicated.  She seems aware but numb to the rational side of her brain. As Karen develops, she battles through some really tough situations, continues to be Hill’s biggest supporter, and finally his cohort in crime near the end.  She is one of the most interesting and best developed female characters from any gangster movie.

Another really fascinating character to follow is that of Tommy Devito played by Joe Pesci. Tommy is a tough guy born into the life, but the prime example of just never being satisfied. His short fuse temper is responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in the movie.  The “funny like a clown” scene and the fallout from “go home and get your shinebox” are two of the more goodfellas2frightening sequences ever seen on screen, and are perfect examples of what a loose cannon Tommy is. This character is based on the real life Tommy “Two Gun” DeSimone, muscle for the Lucchese crime family.

In addition to Karen, Henry and Tommy, the other main character is Jimmy Conway, played by Robert DeNiro. Conway is based on the real life Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, who was supposedly the mastermind behind the infamous Lufthansa heist depicted in the movie.  The Conway character perfectly represents paranoia and greed, while hiding behind the mob loyalty pledge. DeNiro never once overacts here, but his Conway dominates the screen despite the strong presence of Liotta and Pesci … and even Paul Sorvino, who plays mob boss Paulie.  Paulie is based on Paul Vario, the head of the Lucchese crime family. Sorvino plays him as quietly powerful and a guy with a phone phobia (for good reason). Sorvino’s Paulie is the centerpiece of the mob and is totally believable as a guy you better not cross.

goodfellas One of the more memorable scenes features Jimmy, Henry and Tommy stopping off at Tommy’s mother house to pick up a shovel … and a large, useful knife.  While there, Tommy’s mother (played by Catherine Scorcese, Martin’s mother) not only makes them a huge 3 am Italian meal, but also shows off some of her artwork, and even tells a joke!

What’s really fun to watch as the film progresses is the change of pace and camera work. Watching young Henry earn his stripes is treated with a light, almost comical touch.  As he becomes fully entrenched, we see a young man enjoying the power and respect of his position. This is crystallized by Scorcese’s infamous long-tracking shot through the back entrance and kitchen of the Copacabana as Henry and Karen end up front row by the stage. The downward spiral is much more frenetic with fast cuts and a desperate feel. Scorcese helps us feel the drug-induced paranoia that dominates Henry.

David Chase has stated that Goodfellas had quite an impact and inspired him to create “The Sopranos”, and the marks are goodfellas3quite clear. There is even a significant crossover in the cast as both feature Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, Frank Pellegrino, Michael Imperioli and, of course, Lorraine Bracco (who was Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist).

Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Joe Pesci was the only winner (Best Supporting Actor).  It lost out in the Best Picture category to Dances with Wolves.  Scorcese has since directed two other critically acclaimed gangster films: Casino (1995, from another Nicholas Pileggi book), and The Departed (2006, which won Scorcese his first Oscar and also won Best Picture). You might also like to know that Pileggi is the creator of “Vegas”, the new TV show starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis.  The show is about the mob’s influence in the early “wild west” days of Las Vegas.

For years, movie lovers have been debating whether The Godfather or Goodfellas is the best gangster film. As much as I love debate, I see no reason to choose … they are both exquisite filmmaking, though quite different in style. Both films have provided us direction in life.  The Godfather informed us that “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business”.  Goodfellas counseled us “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”   Far be it from me to question the source of good advice!

***PROFANITY WARNING***  This is the unedited “funny like a clown scene” and it’s definitely NSFW!!!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E84VqqCPI7w


KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)

December 1, 2012

killing Greetings again from the darkness. No apologies will be made in regards to my fondness for mob, organized crime and hit-man movies. The underworld grit and quest for power makes for a colorful and meaty topic for books and movies. Still, with such a long and varied history of mob tales, we have come to expect a certain amount of action and a turf war for power and control. Director Andrew Dominik, working from a George V Higgins novel, delivers an artsy look at the emotional side of mobsters and then adds a heavy-handed slap of political and economic editorials.

Who knew hit men and mobsters TALKED so much? This plays like Dr Phil on The Sopranos.  So often they are portrayed as men of few words who specialize in suppressing their emotions. Imagine how differently The Godfather movies would have played if Don Corleone had chatted about his feelings over tea with Barzini.  Here we get Mickey the hit-man, played by killing3James Gandolfini, as a man lost in booze and sleazy sex-for-pay. He has clearly lost his once sharp edge and now loves to tell stories that do nothing but showcase his lack of resolve. We get a few talky scenes with local criminal Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) and his small-time recruits Frankie (Scott McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). We even get a talky high-stakes card game stick-up where mob guy Markie (Ray Liotta) tries to negotiate an end to the heist.

By far, most of the blabbing comes from mob fixer Jackie (Brad Pitt). It matters not whether he is in the car with the Driver (Richard Jenkins), in a bar with one of the punks, or in the hotel with schlubby Mickey, this guy just talks incessantly. Luckily killing2for us viewers, the dialogue is extremely well written and often entertaining.  But it still boils down to too much emotional baggage … especially from a guy who likes to kill ’em softly (from a distant).

The individual pieces of the film work very well. Ben Mendelsohn, who was so frightening in Animal Kingdom, is terrific here as the strung-out hoodlum always looking for a quick score. Liotta adds a sense of humor and realism, Gandolfini dominates the screen, and Pitt proves once again that he is at his best in a tough/bad guy role, rather than as a strutting poser.

killing4 Where the movie goes wrong is with the obnoxious and numerous attempts to make sure we catch the parallels between the US economic woes and those of the mob. The faceless “committee” mob clearly symbolizes our government’s inability to make wise decisions, and if somehow we miss all of that … Pitt’s final monologue spells it out for us. He firmly believes the US is not a country, but rather a business … and each of us is on our own.  How ironic that the only mob business we witness is their killing off of each other. It’s always frustrating when the individual parts are greater than the movie as a whole, but an artsy looking mob film that beats us upside the head with a 90 minute message just can’t overcome the coolness of Brad Pitt with a shotgun and Johnny Cash singing (“The Man Comes Around”).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you appreciated the artsy approach that director Andrew Dominik took with the western genre in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford OR you just want to see Brad Pitt looking cool brandishing a shotgun

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer mob movies to be about the inner-workings of mobsters seizing power OR you prefer pretty boy Brad Pitt to tough guy Brad Pitt

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDyaNnrgdp4