WAKEFIELD (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for her screenplay to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Robin Swicord’s directorial debut of The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) was not particularly impressive. However, she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle and one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that’s ever hit the silver screen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold?” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing the world unnoticed through the small window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while clinging to his previous life in a voyeuristic way.

Ms. Swicord’s screenplay is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story and it’s sneaky in the way that it questions how we go about our daily life, and how one can “snap” emotionally if feeling unappreciated. It’s a showcase for the other side of upper middle class white privilege, as well as suburban alienation that is so prevalent (and ignored) today. By dropping out but staying close, Cranston’s character actually pays more attention to his family than he usually would if sitting next to them at the dinner table.

We are accustomed to a mid-life crisis involving a sports car, marital affair or sudden career change. It’s highly unusual for someone to actually “disappear”. It’s at that point where the narration really shines … it’s insightful, observational and thought-provoking. Beyond that, the comedic edge is laden with sadness. The story humanizes this pretty despicable guy – or at least a guy who does a pretty despicable thing. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience. This is one to see for Cranston’s performance, as well as for Ms. Swicord’s commentary on today’s way of life.

watch the trailer:

 


THE PROMISE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve said this before, but mixing romance with historical war time dramas is fraught with peril – it’s a difficult line to navigate for a movie. Writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and co-writer Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have delivered a sweeping historical epic that is immensely watchable by not over-blowing the romantic triangle, the war atrocities or the courage and bravery of the main characters.

The one-too-many lovers are played by the talented Oscar Isaac as medical student wannabe Mikael; Christian Bale as Chris, an American war correspondent; and blossoming international star Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, an American tutor based in Constantinople. These are three varied and distinct characters we accept because they have admirable qualities, as well as human flaws.

Mikael marries a local girl (Angela Sarafyan who was the robot with hypnotizing eyes HBO’s “Westworld”) for the sole purpose of using the dowry to pay for medical school. His “promise” is that he will return and learn to love her (so romantic!). Chris is a hard-driving and hard drinking journalist who is not welcome most anyplace he goes and finds himself in quite a predicament with his job, girlfriend and life. It’s not until later in the story that he flashes a caring heart underneath his armor of brash. Ana is nearly angelic at times in her goodness and with a smile that lights up the screen. Her devotion to Chris is as odd as her attraction to Mikael, but seeking logic in matters of love is often a journey without merit.

The story is based around the time of WWI and specifically highlights the Armenian Genocide – something the Turkish government denies to this day, referring to it instead as a “relocation” of nearly 1.5 million Armenians. The film began as a passion project for Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman, philanthropist and the once owner of MGM Studios. He raised the money and helped assemble the team, but unfortunately passed away just before production began. He would undoubtedly be proud of the finished film, and find some solace (if not humor) in the fact that it hits theatres only a few weeks after The Ottoman Lieutenant, a Turkish government backed project that purposefully ignored the atrocities and leaned heavily to a singular view of history.

The cast is deep and includes (one of my favorites) Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael’s wise and courageous mother, Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager”) as a fellow prisoner of the Turks, James Cromwell as an American Ambassador, Rade Serbedzija as a leader of the Armenian resistance, and Jean Reno as a commander of the French Naval fleet that plays a vital role in 1915.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresorobe captures some breathtaking vistas and desert landscapes, while also delivering the intimacy and urgency of both the romantic and dangerous moments (including a spectacular rain-drenched train sequence). The acting is superb throughout, with Bale dialing back his sometimes over-exuberant traits, Isaac giving us someone to pin our hopes on, and Ms. Le Bon bringing the compassion to an area when it’s so desperately needed. Expect to see her explode in popularity and respect when the right leading role comes along. Lastly, it’s rare that I would think this, but the film’s 2 hour and 14 minute run time might have benefited from an additional 10-15 minutes of detail towards the Turkish military strategies, and both the Armenian resistance and slaughter. It’s a part of history that should be neither ignored nor glossed over.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2017: Day One

April 2, 2017

The 2017 Dallas International Film Festival runs March 30-April 9

 The usual excitement of festival Day One was tempered somewhat by this incessant cough that I can’t seem to shake, and the realization that I will be a nuisance to others in the theatre. However, my goal of 30 movies in 10 days will not be stopped so I loaded up on Robitussin, cough drops and a giant bottled water, and headed off to my first scheduled movie. Of course, it was Friday afternoon so Dallas traffic forced me to into a fall-back plan before I had even seen one movie. Pulling off to the Angelika rather than continue creeping on Central expressway towards the Magnolia ended up as a fortuitous turn of events. The three movies I watched are recapped below.

WAKEFIELD

While I wasn’t a big fan of Robin Swicord’s directorial debut (The Jane Austen Book Club, 2007), she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle with one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that I’ve ever seen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Most everyone has had the impulse to put their life on hold.” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing unnoticed through the stained glass window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while staying close to his previous life in a voyeuristic way. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience.

 

TOMMY ‘S HONOUR

Jason Connery (Sean’s son) directs this story about old Tom Morris and his son Tommy written by Pamela Martin from the book by Kevin Cook. It’s a bit surprising that the story focuses as much or more on the melodrama and personal story of the younger Tommy than the historical influences, but there is links action to give us a feel for the times.

Jack Lowden and his dimples portray Tommy, while Ophelia Lovibond plays his love interest Meg. Their relationship drives the story, and we are reminded that small-minded people were every bit as prevalent 140 years ago as they are now. Tommy’s mother, their community, and even the minister of the Church pass harsh judgment on Meg and her unfortunate past. Combine that with the element of “Gentlemen”, which are anything but, and we get an understanding of how Tommy’s actions changed not just the game of golf, but also influenced the softening of the class difference. His push to bring respect and fairness to professional golfers erased the similarities with how race horses and golfers were treated the same from a wagering perspective.

This was the time of the original “13 Rules of Golf”, and when rowdy crowd hovered right next to the golfers as they played. Other than the closing credit graphics, Old Tom Morris (Peter Mullan) isn’t really given his due as a course designer, but this is really the story of his son, and though the film is a bit too long, it’s a story that deserves to be told.

 

CITY OF GHOSTS (documentary)

Oscar nominated director Matthew Heineman delivered the stunning documentary Cartel Land in 2015, and here he once again proves his expertise as the messenger of important stories that need to be told.

The film begins in the Syrian city of Ragga in 2012, and we see the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. The sayings “Death is Death” and “Danger has a special taste” come into play, and by the end of the film, there is a clarity that is devastating.

The courageous and dedicated Citizen Journalists are divided into two groups: the internal who risk their lives in Ragga uploading news stories and videos of ISIS actions and, the external who are based in Turkey and Germany and post regularly to social media outlets. Their combined efforts and risk taking allow the real story to be told from their home city mostly cut-off from the outside world – as evidenced by the satellite graveyard.

RBSS (Ragga is Being Silently Slaughtered) is the movement spreading the truth about ISIS atrocities – including public beheadings, shootings, and bombings. It’s a terrifying story, never more so than during the professionally produced recruiting ISIS videos featuring young children. These brave folks have had friends, family and neighbors slaughtered which inspires them to continue fighting the guns and bombs with the power of words. It’s breathtaking.