THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

watch the trailer:

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LBJ (2017)

November 2, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 50 years after his death, President John Kennedy casts an ever-present shadow over Lyndon Baines Johnson’s career as a stellar politician and a President with significant accomplishments. Part of the reason is presentation – JFK was a story book leader straight from the fashion magazines, while LBJ was a vulgar-at-times comic book adversary who looked and talked funny. Each has been portrayed on film numerous times and from various perspectives.

Woody Harrelson and his facial prosthetics play LBJ, and Mr. Harrelson seems to be enjoying the swagger and emotional range of the titular man. What this film does that’s a bit different from others is embrace the comedic elements – enhanced by both the performance and the script from Joey Hartstone. It seems odd (a somewhat awkward) to have so many laughs in a movie where the infamous 1963 Presidential motorcade, and subsequent assassination, form the backdrop.

Director Rob Reiner presents LBJ in all his crude and gruff glory, but also shows the ultimate politician – a man who was constantly negotiating. Intimidation was always part of the LBJ motif, and the film effectively displays the tactics used by John and Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David) to take the wind out of LBJ’s sails after the election.

There are reenactments throughout the film that place us back in the middle of iconic images seared into our memories … the motorcade after the shots, the scene at Parkland, and the swearing in aboard Air Force One with Jackie still wearing her blood-stained Chanel suit. This was an incredible time in our history, as the nation was emotionally shattered. It’s for this reason that much of the film seems disjointed or misguided. Too much (or maybe not enough) attention is on LBJ’s strained relationship with Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), one of the most racist men we’ve seen on screen. Their discussion of race relations while being served dinner by the black woman is beyond uncomfortable – yet still somehow too stagey.

Most of the film is spent on LBJ’s time as Senator and Vice President, with only the final act being about his famous networking upon ascending to the Presidency … after which the entire focus is on the Civil Rights Act. The flow of the film seems a bit off, though most will enjoy watching Harrelson’s performance – especially when paired with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lady Bird. Together, the two almost rescue the script.

watch the trailer:


SPOTLIGHT (2015)

November 12, 2015

spotlight Greetings again from the darkness. Faith. A word that easily could have been the title of this gripping and heart-wrenching film. Faith can be defined as trust and belief. Faith can also be defined as religion and ideology. Few things are more devastating than broken faith … the core of this “based on actual events” story of The Boston Globe’s exposure of rampant child molestation by dozens of Catholic priests, and the systematic cover-up by “The Church”.

It’s challenging to name a movie that is as well-made as this one, while also being as difficult to watch. We know the story … we even know how it snow-balled globally … but the raw emotions of disgust and sheer anger permeate much of our being as we watch it unfold on screen. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) and it’s worthy of favorable comparison to other investigative newspaper films like The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007), and even the granddaddy of them all … All The President’s Men (1976).

The opening scene takes place in a 1976 Boston police station. A priest has been accused of molesting a child. Within a couple of minutes we witness the empty promises, the intimidation, and the cover up. So much is conveyed in this brief opener, not the least of which comes courtesy of the ambivalence of the veteran cop as he shrugs it off as ‘just another day’ in front of an idealistic rookie cop. This is accompanied by Howard Shore’s spot-on score, with the best parts featuring only a piano and bass.

Flash forward to 2001 as we meet the investigative journalist team called “Spotlight”. It’s led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery), whose father was the editor of The Washington Post during the Woodward/Bernstein/Watergate era. New to The Globe is managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Unlike the others, Mr. Baron is neither a Boston local nor a Catholic. In fact, we catch him reading Dan Shaughnessy’s book “The Curse of the Bambino”, just so he can get a better feel for the community and its people.

What is most fascinating about the movie is that it focuses on the investigative aspects – just how diligent the reporters were in putting the story together – and how fluid the process was … the story led them, not vice versa. There was no media agenda to “get” the church. Instead, the reporters experienced natural shock as each piece of the puzzle was discovered. One of their key sources was a priest-turned-psychologist (voiced by Richard Jenkins) who helped them put scope to the numbers. Another was Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the leader of a victim’s group, who had tried before to provide documentation to the press. Saviano is the perfect example of how someone so passionate about a cause can be viewed with such skepticism … right up to the point when they are proven correct. Three attorneys add perspective to the cover-up. Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) made a career of settling cases (and silencing victims) for the church. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the polar opposite – he fights vigorously to get the victims heard, while Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) is caught in the middle – settling cases for the church and struggling with his conscience. Other interesting characters include Paul Guilfoyle as Pete Conley, a smooth-talking power-broker for the church, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law – the man at the top who eventually apologized and was rewarded with a high-ranking position at The Vatican.

The film is so well crafted and acted that it features more than a few “best scenes”. Sacha has a brief encounter with a former priest on his front door stoop. The priest freely admits to molesting kids and his rationalization will certainly deliver chills to most any viewer. Since this is Boston, it makes perfect sense for the reporters to be so distracted by the story, that it supersedes the Red Sox game they are attending at Fenway Park. Being that the investigation lasted well into 2001, it’s quite informative to watch a news agency shift directions for the September 11 tragedy, and along with the nation, put all else on hold. Finally, there is a point in the movie where we as viewers have just about had our fill of extreme emotions – we either need to hit something or throw up – and reporter Rezendes comes through with exactly what is needed: an emotional outburst and release of exasperation rivaling anything previously seen on screen. It’s a wonderful moment for Ruffalo as an actor, and a peak moment for viewers.

The story hit the front page of The Boston Globe in January 2002. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its superlative investigative journalism. The report vindicated so many who had been taken advantage of, and exposed the colossal arrogance of the church. The innocence of a child vs the power of God. The story broke the faith that so many once held, and started a global (as evidenced by the closing credits) reckoning and awakening that was desperately needed. The film offers a line of dialogue, “It takes a village to raise a kid … or abuse one.” In other words, it took the often silent actions of so many to allow this despicably evil horror to continue. In a tribute to the newspaper profession, it took a small group of dedicated reporters to pull back a curtain that should never again be shut. Let’s have faith in that.

watch the trailer:

 


BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

watch the trailer:

 

 


WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

June 30, 2013

WHD1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Roland Emmerich loves destroying buildings. In Godzilla, he crushed Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty was trashed in The Day After Tomorrow. Independence Day saw The White House explode, and, as you would expect by the title, The White House gets pretty banged up again in his latest. We have come to expect summertime big, slightly dumb, action-packed popcorn movies, and this one certainly fits the bill (emphasis on dumb).

Relased just 3 months after Olympus Has Fallen, the plot is similar, but the approach is diametrically opposite. Emmerich seems to think he gets a free pass thanks to a steady stream of punchlines … spread amongst most every character. Hey, it’s a parody of action films so if you don’t like it, you must not “get it”. Unfortunately, we do get it and it’s just not that funny … the action is weak … the CGI appears shortcut … and the characters ring hollow. Through it’s numerous similarities and tips of the cap, Emmerich seems to beg us to compare it to the class of this genre … Die Hard (1988). WHD2We’ve all seen Die Hard, and sir, this is no Die Hard.

Channing Tatum takes on the lead action role, though he is working with a safety net … the buddy picture element supplied by Jamie Foxx. Unfortunately Tatum has neither the acting chops or the screen presence to pull off the lead, and Foxx’s President Sawyer is simply a poorly conceived character. Tatum’s daughter is played by Joey King, who was so good in Crazy Stupid Love.  Here she plays the role of smarter-than-adults kid and is clearly designed to be the patriotic heart of the film.

For these type of films to work, we need a nasty bad guy. James Woods is fun to watch as he chews scenery as the Secret Service Director. He holds one of the numerous personal grudges against the government and the faceless “Military WHD3Industrial Complex”. Woods’ number one guy on the assault team is Jason Clarke, who was last seen in a key role in Zero Dark Thirty (no coincidence, I’m sure). The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much wasted, including a miscast Maggie Gylenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and the always fun Michael Murphy (where has he been?).

There is nothing wrong with pure escapism, but rather than compare this to the classic 1988 Die Hard, it really has more in common with this year’s mediocre A Good Day to Die Hard. If you prefer your White House terrorist attack movies to be serious and full out action, then Olympus Has Fallen is the better call. Instead, if your preference is strained one-liners, an awkward buddy-film and hazy bad guy motivation, then White House Down might do it for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: three months is the maximum amount of time you can go without a new attack on the White House action flick OR you just need some pure escapism with a stream of punchlines during what should be a high-tension event

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your action flicks to focus on action and not slapstick comedy OR you are already convinced Channing Tatum is less talented than Jason Statham despite his appearance in most movies these days (admitted exaggeration)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AXbiCdmXgw


JACK REACHER (2012)

December 22, 2012

jack Greetings again from the darkness. Lee Child has written 17 Jack Reacher books since 1997, and it’s a bit surprising that it took Hollywood this long to latch on to this enigmatic lone wolf drifter who doesn’t so much care about laws as he does right and wrong. Fans of the books were outraged when it was announced Tom Cruise would play the 6’5 hulking Reacher, as much of the character’s appeal stems from his ability to physically dominate a situation while using very few words.

Unfortunately I can’t ease the minds of those fans of the pulpy series, but rather to encourage them to give this a shot. Author Child was probably ecstatic when Mr. Cruise took an interest in the character, despite the obvious conflicts. Very few actors can command screen presence like Cruise, especially in action sequences. That’s where this gets a bit jack2dicey. This is not an action movie. It’s an investigative mystery thriller that includes 3-4 action sequences.

The film has a real 1970’s feel to it along the lines of Billy Jack or Walking Tall mixed with Dirty Harry and numerous westerns with strong, silent types, and of course, the timeless pulpy detective stories. See, Reacher is a former military investigator with a mind that is always a step or two ahead of everyone else. He looks at the obvious evidence and immediately notes a list of doubts where none previously existed.  So, he is smarter than you.  He can fight better than you.  And he is travels much lighter than you.

jack4 A seemingly random sniper attack is a bold way to begin a movie given recent real-life events, but the opening sequence is executed with methodical precision and daring so that we can quickly believe in Reacher’s conspiracy theories. In the blink of an eye, Reacher has appeared out of nowhere (his usual address) and is in the middle of the investigation being conducted by the lawyer of the wrongly accused James Barr (Joseph Sikora). The defense lawyer is played by Rosamund Pike, whose character is the daughter of the District Attorney (Richard Jenkins). The police detective is played by David Oyelowo and it’s easy to tell something isn’t completely right within the walls of city hall.

Reacher roams the beautiful city of Pittsburgh asking questions and piecing together the puzzle left behind by creepy villain The Zec (Werner Herzog) and his henchman Charlie (Jai Courtney). We get three Reacher fistfights, a Bullit type car chase in a muscle-bound 1970 Chevelle, and some military sharp-shooting from the depths of a quarry. What we don’t get is the Hollywood jack5tradition of a Cruise sprint. Not once do we see his trademark all-out dash to or from something. In fact, his attempt at moving like a larger man often reminded me of his Stacee Jaxx strut from the recent musical Rock of Ages.

Director Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar, and my ever-lasting respect, for his The Usual Suspects screenplay. This story is infinitely less-complicated, but it does offer some fun moments thanks to the Reacher character. Maybe things would be a little better if a guy like Reacher really existed … totally off the grid and taking down the bad guys that the cops can’t quite catch. Sounds a bit like “Dexter”, only Reacher’s code includes doling out physical pain and then moving on to the next town … with a new set of Goodwill duds and a fresh toothbrush.

Caleb Deschanel (Director of Photography) provides a really sharp look to the film and, thankfully, doesn’t cheat on the action scenes. Herzog (a highly respected director) has a great look for a bad guy, but is painfully under-utilized here. Rosamund Pike jack3may simply be my least favorite actress working today. Bug eyes and long legs do not an actress make.  Even Reacher had little “interest” in her. Robert DuVall makes a colorful appearance as the late-arriving character that breaks open the case, and he seems to relish the reunion with his Days of Thunder co-star. The most interesting character and actor to me was Jai Courtney (pictured, left), who will be seen next as Bruce Willis’ son in A Good Day to Die Hard.

If you haven’t read the Lee Child books, you will probably readily accept Cruise as Reacher. If you are a fan of the franchise, your eyes and brain will have massive conflicts for the first hour, but then acceptance creeps in, and you’ll probably agree that it’s a simple, effective piece of entertainment … far superior to most Nicolas Cage movies these days!

**NOTE: don’t miss Lee Child as the policeman who releasaes Reacher’s personal items back to him.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of investigative thrillers that are sprinkled with actions scenes and car chases OR you just want to see and hear a very cool ’70 Chevelle

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are such a devoted fan of Lee Child’s books that you refuse to accept the 5″7 Tom Cruise as the 6’5 Jack Reacher OR like me, you hope the kidnappers had struck much earlier on Rosamund Pike’s character.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK7y8Ou0VvM


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