NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro anxiously await his new projects knowing full well that each will have a stylish atmosphere, a certain fantastical creepiness, and characters a bit outside the norm (whatever normal is these days). Beyond that, the mystique derives from whatever new approach the extraordinarily talented filmmaker will surprise us with this time. For his first follow-up to his Oscar winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan have adapted the 1947 cult noir classic by director Edmund Goulding (starring Tyrone Power), which itself was adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

Bradley Cooper (an 8 time Oscar nominee) stars as Stan Carlisle in what is a terrific opening sequence. We witness Stan leaving his past in ashes, then catching the bus out of town, until he steps off and follows a dwarf into the heart of a carnival where sideshows and freaks are the attraction. Through this progression, Stan utters nary a word for quite an extended period. Soon enough, Stan has become part of the fabric of the carnival, thanks to Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) giving him a job, and mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) giving him more than that. Stan is a quick study and takes in Clem’s history of “the geek”, and more importantly, he absorbs all secrets and the code from the telepathy show Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) constructed. They not only pass along their trade secrets, but also a warning to avoid “spook shows”, which involves bringing up the dead for audience members.

Stan takes to the con quite naturally, and soon he is teaming with ‘electric girl’ Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to fine-tune their own psychic shows. Their relationship grows and within a few years, the two are performing at swanky hotels for high-society audience. It’s at this point where the movie transitions abruptly from the raunchy carnival setting with tattered tent flaps, floors of hay, and freaks and gadgets, to stunningly sleek Art Deco, fancy dress, and fancier words. One evening, Stan battles wits with an audience member, and his life path is altered again. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) is a psychologist who stays a step ahead of Stan, though he never realizes she has drawn him into her scheme, leading him to believe they are working together.

For those who have not seen the 1947 film, you won’t know that the central idea that folks need to believe in something is minimized, while Cooper’s differing approach to the role will not matter. However, for fans of the earlier film, it seems clear his intentions are less sinister, and he merely views his new skill as a path to wealth. Additionally, his aversion to alcohol too obviously foretells a role in his ultimate downfall. Ms. Blanchett relishes her role as a most intelligent noir femme fatale, and at times, simply overpowers Cooper in their scenes … although these scenes are gorgeous. This cast is absurdly talented and deep, and also includes Richard Jenkins, (Oscar winner) Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Ron Perlman, and Peter MacNeil. Mr. Cooper and Ms. Blanchett are the featured performers, although my preference would have been more Dafoe and Collette.

Perhaps the real stars of the film are the technical team members: Production Designer Tamara Deverell, Art Director Brandt Gordon, Set Director Shane Vileau, and Costume Designer Luis Sequeira. In fact, one of Ms. Blanchett’s dresses is designed cleverly for one scene which reveals something from Lilith’s past. It’s rare for a film to offer two such contrasting and brilliant looks as what we see here with the carnival in the first half, and the Art Deco of the second. Nathan Johnson’s music is a good fit, especially for the first half.

Surprisingly, it seems as filmmaker del Toro has softened the edges of the characters and story for a more accessible film, though it still features less-than-admirable human beings. It lacks the final packaging regarding the reason the pieces are all related, and we never experience the nerve-jarring intensity of a true noir, though that final scene with Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson is stellar. The director seems to love the shadowy look and feel of the carnival and characters, and not so much the glossy bits of the second half. Still, how good is a filmmaker when one that is not his best work, is still at a level many filmmakers can only dream of? The letdown is like the “geek” job … it’s only temporary.

Opening in theaters on December 17, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DON’T LOOK UP (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What happens if Chicken Little was right, and the sky really is falling? Writer-director, and Oscar winner, Adam McKay proved with THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018) what occurs when he turns his unique commentary towards a target. Two questions remain. Is political or social satire just too easy these days? Has insanity permeated our globe to the degree that pointing out the lunacy has become ho-hum? McKay wrote the script from journalist David Sirota’s story, and it’s even more extreme than his previous work, and likely meant as a wake-up call to all of us.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence stars as Kate Dibiasky, a student (with a Carl Sagan figurine on her desk) who discovers a large comet speeding towards earth. Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, and we can see on his face what his calculations mean. The two head to Washington DC to inform the President of their findings. President Orlean (a nod for movie buffs) is played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and her Chief of Staff is Jonah Hill, who also happens to be her son. President Orlean is too concerned about her slipping rating in popularity polls to pay much heed to the scientists, opening the way for Jonah Hill to be the most Jonah Hill he’s ever been. It’s an outrageous scene … yet … it feels all too possible.

Dibiasky and Mindy are so shocked and frustrated at the blow-off, they decide to take the story to the media. Appearing on the vacuous and highly-rated morning talk show, “The Rip”, they are guided to “Keep it light. Keep it fun” while on the air with the entirely too-upbeat co-hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. At this point, Dibiasky is unable to control her frustration. This results in her becoming a social media meme, while Dr. Mindy becomes the “hot” astronomer – labeled an AILF. This is an obvious take on Dr. Fauci’s popularity during the pandemic. Other opportunities for Mindy includes getting closer with Blanchett’s talk show host, despite his wife (Melanie Lynskey) taking care of the home front.

Obviously most of these characters are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the point. Once the media pressures the President into taking action, an ARMAGEDDON type mission is planned, only to be scratched at the last moment and replaced by a more profitable option. Peter Isherwell (Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) is a tech billionaire and President Orlean supporter, and his plan involves mining the meteor for precious metals while also saving the planet.

Although Dibiasky has dropped out of the ‘spread the word’ campaign, she’s still tracking the approaching asteroid via her diet app as she hangs with a philosophical stoner played by Timothy Chalamet. It started as 6 months and 14 days, and we only get periodic updates on how much time remains. Instead, the focus is on the bumbling antics of those involved and the zany reactions of the general public. We even get President Orlean with a speech from the deck of a battleship in yet another dig at past politicians. Pop star Arianna Grande shifts her celebrity support from manatees to a hit duet with Kid Cudi entitled “Just Look Up”, while Himesh Patel plays an opportunistic reporter-boyfriend. Also, Rob Morgan is excellent in his role as supportive scientist Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perelman goes a bit off the rails as the pilot on the first mission.

It’s an incredible cast and what a joy to see DiCaprio in a role so far removed from his usual characters. He even gets a NETWORK scene here, and overall he makes us understand how serious the science is, and how easily someone can go off track. Jennifer Lawrence gets the film’s best recurring gag, while Jonah Hill fits right in as the impetuous benefactor of nepotism. With the abundance of tooth veneers flashed by a multitude of characters, we can assume the film’s dental budget was sky high.

McKay uses the oncoming meteor as a stand-in for the global warming issue, and his tendency to lean heavily left does shine through. However, it’s crucial to note that no one, no thing, no organization, and no affiliation is safe during this one. Whereas ARMAGEDDON took pride and patriotism of blue collar folks and turned them into heroes, McKay examines the other side which is all about feelings, discussions, social media, and popularity. He blends Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE with Judge’s IDIOCRACY (which has proven much too accurate), and delivers a disaster movie that uses an asteroid to point out the real danger … which is ourselves. Is it too much? Too silly? Too angry? Too long? Simply playing to the home crowd? It’s likely to be criticized for not being smart enough or clever enough, but seriously, have you looked around at society lately? McKay delivers loads of comedy here, and maybe by laughing at ourselves, we can find a way to improve things. His final scene is more grounded than the rest of the film, and quite touching on its own. Stay tuned for the credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Netflix beginning December 24, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


CLOVER (2020)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. These days, B-movies don’t get the respect they deserve. In the age of massive, hundred million dollar (and more) budget blockbusters, the low-budget movies produced purely for entertainment purposes get brushed off as being undeserving of screen time. The truth is, the best ones are easy to watch … and can be a fun way to while away the hours if, say, one is forced to stay in their home for an extended period of time. Writer-director-actor Jon Abrahams’ movie fills this role just fine.

Mr. Abrahams (MEET THE PARENTS) and Mark Webber (GREEN ROOM) star as the Callahan brothers, Mickey and Jackie, respectively. These are the type of Irish brothers who only stop bickering long enough to wrestle each other to the ground. While most of their spats may be typical brother stuff, this latest involves Jackie’s inept card playing, and the subsequent loss of the money they needed to pay back a mob loan shark. Missing this payment means Tony (Chazz Palminteri) assumes ownership of the Irish bar their late father opened, and it could mean even worse news for the brothers.

I would pay triple ticket price just to watch Chazz Palminteri chew scenery like he does here as Tony. When he makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse, they end up in the basement of a house with Tony’s son Joey (Michael Godere) telling them to shoot the man tied to a chair (another of Tony’s loan customers). Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, and the next thing we know Mickey and Jackie are on the run with 13 year old Clover (Nicole Elizabeth Berger), dodging Tony’s men, in addition to the 2 female assassins (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) and Julia Jones (WIND RIVER) they aren’t even aware of!

As a quasi-framing device, we find Ron Perlman holed up in a fabulous mansion that we view with the film’s opening aerial shot. Mr. Perlman is afforded his own chance to ‘let loose’ and emote like he’s participating in an acting seminar … while play-calling the wolf video running simultaneously. Other characters that cross paths with the brothers and Clover include Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Angie (Jessica Szhor), a befuddling rescue ‘scientist’ played by Jake Weber, and a bar owner played by Tichina Arnold, who like Perlman and Palminteri, was clearly directed that it’s not possible to go “too big” in a scene.

Humor, most of it pretty dark, is around every corner. A bowling pin has a use outside the lane, the lady assassins drive a car with a fitting sign, we are treated to a good old fashioned death scene, and there’s a shootout accompanied by melodic jazz. As a cherry on top, the bar patron that the brothers leave in charge is Larry, played by the director’s dad, Martin Abrahams. There is a definite 1970’s vibe to the story and film, and we can’t help but be a little disappointed when the conclusion does in fact, “end the chaos.”

watch the trailer:


MOONWALKERS (2016)

January 14, 2016

moonwalkers Greetings again from the darkness. Provided you don’t subscribe to a particular conspiracy theory, it can be ripe for comedy. So unless you are one who believes Apollo 11 did not succeed, and neither Neil Armstrong nor Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon’s surface that historic day in 1969, you will probably find this wacky farce worthy of a few laughs. The first feature from director Antoine Bardou-Jacquet and writer Dean Craig (Death at a Funeral, 2007) seems to enjoy poking fun at the U.S. military, the CIA, the swinging 60’s in London, movie directors not named Kubrick, and Brits in general.

The film opens with a vivid dream of PTSD-stricken CIA agent Kidman (Ron Perlman) complete with Vietnam flashbacks and horror-movie level visions of zombies. This is followed by an opening credit sequence featuring Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam-type animation that certainly gets our hopes up for a different kind of movie experience.

Mr. Perlman’s hulking presence is kind of a recurring punchline, and he’s up for just about any gag as his character Kidman agrees to follow orders delivered by a slightly looney military officer (Jay Benedict), reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This is fitting because Kidman’s mission is to fly to London and convince famed director Stanley Kubrick to direct a “staged” lunar landing as precaution in case Apollo 11 goes awry.

When circumstances cause his meeting with Kubrick’s agent to create a case of mistaken identity, Kidman is soon enough handing over a briefcase full of money to failed band manager Jonny (Rupert Grint) and his stoned buddy Leon (Robert Sheehan).  As things progress, a mafia-type group is involved as is a trip to a drug-fueled stay at a hippie commune/castle run by a cocky movie director who took 3 years to film a fat guy bouncing on a trampoline.

Perlman is a pleasure to watch here, and Grint is working hard to shake off the clingy dust of the Harry Potter movies. Their scenes together offer plenty of laughs, but most of the scenes are hit and miss, and the film does lose some steam during the over-the-top violence and gore moments. Other Kubrick references include Lolita, A Clockwork Orange (the coffee table in Derek’s office), and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For full enjoyment, one must embrace the heavy stoner-comedy mode as well as a farcical look at London in the late 1960’s. It easy to compare this to Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog, but in fact, it probably has more in common with “Laugh-in” or some of the Peter Sellers comedies of the era (minus anyone as talented as the great Sellers). And beyond that, you best not believe the United States fooled the world with a fake lunar landing. “We didn’t. Did we?”

watch the trailer:

 


STONEWALL (2015)

September 24, 2015

stonewall Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatized versions of real life events are always a bit tricky, and hindsight often proves it’s best left to the documentary format. However, sometimes, a dramatized version helps us more easily relate to, and empathize with, those who were involved. That seems to be the approach taken by director Roland Emmerich in his re-telling of events so important to him and the LGBT movement … the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are often cited as the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. Of course, there had been many previous clashes between gays and police, as discrimination was so extreme that these folks were labeled as mentally ill, and it was actually unlawful for gays to be hired for many jobs. On the streets of many big cities there existed a melting pot of minorities and the LGBT community. Many were young and homeless, and did whatever necessary to survive. So how best to tell this story?  Director Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz put blonde, white, Midwestern, pretty boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) front and center.  How insulting to those involved.

To his credit, Emmerich does cast actors of various races in many roles, and he does seem to treat this as a sincere tribute or homage to those street kids who finally pushed back. Unfortunately, it’s these characters that seem to be the drag on the story. Despite such names as Queen Cong, Little Orphan Annie, Quiet Paul, and the inclusion of real life activists as Marsha P Johnson (Otoja Abit), Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) … and other key players like Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) and Deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) … the film comes off more like a staged musical sans music. Street life here is more gloss than grit, and the closest thing to a developed character is Ray, played with aplomb by Jonny Beauchamp (“Penny Dreadful”).

Having the Columbia University-bound pretty white boy as the focus might make it easier for mainstream audiences to connect, but it skims over the real struggles going on at the time. We see Danny at home with his worried mother, observant little sister (Joey King), and macho football coach/father (David Gubitt). Everyone is uncomfortable over what is not being said, and the breaking point occurs when a tryst with the star quarterback becomes public knowledge. Just like that, Danny is booted from home (Indiana, not Kansas) and lands on the streets of New York. The comparisons to Dorothy (gay icon Judy Garland) and the Land of Oz are obvious, and repeated numerous times for those a bit slow on the take.

Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn are the main settings. The mob involvement is noted, as is the desperation of the community, the use of flop houses, and the long-standing “quiet” demonstrations. Even the practice of gays trying to “fit in” to society – to prove they belong – by wearing suits and acting “normal” is addressed. The riots are reduced to a single evening in the movie, and of course, the pretty white boy gets to heave the first brick. As a ‘roots of the movement’ film, it’s hard to believe this film won’t create more anger and frustration than thanks and awareness. Fortunately, there are many exceptional books and yes, documentaries that provide a better perspective on the events that occurred more than 45 years ago. We do see the first Gay Liberation Parade held the following year in honor of the riots – a tradition that continues today. The closing credit sequence catches us up on the key activists, and even provides a startling statistic: 40% of today’s homeless youth are LGBT.

watch the trailer:

 

 


PACIFIC RIM (2013)

July 15, 2013

pacific rim1 Greetings again from the darkness. Plain and simple … this is not my kind of movie. I fully understand there exists many movie-goers who are thrilled that director Guillermo del Toro‘s latest has finally hit theatres, but I really struggled with this mash-up of Transformers, Battleship and Godzilla, as well as what I believe to be a new world record for noise level. That being said, I do have some positive comments to make.

The technological aspects of the movie are exceptional. It has a unique look with some of the best CGI ever seen. There is no shortage of action, which is typically good for an action movie … but here, it seemed that one monster vs robot fight led right into the next one, and the next. The cast is very talented and represent some of the most entertaining shows on TV: “Sons of Anarchy”, “True Blood”, “Homeland”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Justified”. The downside is many of them don’t seem overly excited to be spouting some of the worst dialogue of the year.

pacific rim4 The basic story is a war between mankind and the Kaiju – monsters from another world. World leaders work together to develop the Jaeger program … fighting robots co-piloted by two people who are drift-compatible (a kind of mind meld that let’s them fight as one). After years of struggling against the Kaiju, the world leaders decide instead to build a security wall around the main cities. Clearly they had not seen World War Z or read any of the “fence” stories from the US/Mexico border. No surprise, but the robots have to be reactivated for the climactic battle scene.

pacific rim3 Iris Elba runs the Jaeger program and commands the pilots that include Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Max Martini, and Robert Kazinski. Hunnam is battling inner demons after the death of his brother (Diego Klattenhoff). For some reason, Hunnam plays his part with an overdose of bland. He seems to have been cast for his effectiveness in his shirtless scenes. Martini and Kazinski stand out here, probably because competition is so uninspired … oh and they have a dog. Ms. Kikuchi seems to be under the impression that her scenes were rehearsals as she can’t quite hash out a consistent approach (translated: she is painful to watch). The usually great Elba alternates between a mumbled whisper and a full-out yell … neither working too well. His “canceling the apocalypse” speech seems to be right out of Independence Day.

pacific rim2 The comedy relief is provided by the shared scenes of Charlie Day and del Toro favorite Ron Perlman. Day is at his screechiest and Perlman at his most flamboyant, but it’s not enough of the story to salvage much hope. Instead we get an endless number of hand-to-hand combat scenes  the Jaeger and Kaiju. And they mostly all look the same fight: waist deep in water while its dark and rainy. Unless they happen to be completely underwater, where it’s even darker.

For all the negatives tossed out here, it must be ended with the reminder that the movie is a technical marvel to look at. I much prefer del Toro in the Pan’s Labyrinth mode, and I would even prefer the old Japanese Godzilla monster-fests to this, but he has raised the bar for robotic and monster CGI. Maybe that’s enough for your eyes and ears.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of CGI and prefer your movies BIG and LOUD!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t have ear protection

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef6vQBGqLW8

 

 


DRIVE

September 17, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. An art-house crime drama. That’s the best description I can come up with. Danish film auteur Nicolas Winding Refn takes the James Sallis novel and presents it like an art gallery opening … with operatic tendencies … and electronic music thumping straight out of the 80’s. Confused yet? My apologies, but I am trying to make the point that this one is different. No wonder it got such a strong reception at Cannes, where creativity has always been rewarded.

 Ryan Gosling stars as the nameless driver. He is a movie stunt driver by day and hired lead foot in his spare time. He partners with hustler Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) for the odd-jobs and they both dream of going straight by entering the racing world. To do that, they need a capital infusion from bad guy Albert Brooks. Yep, I said BAD GUY Albert Brooks. We all know Mr. Brooks as the wry comedian who makes us laugh at the world. However, trust me when I say he plays a really bad man. If you have seen Out of Sight, you have seen this side before. If not, you will be shocked.

 Gosling’s character is quite the loner, but he falls for his neighbor played by Carey Mulligan, who has a cute young son. Gosling’s dream of normal include not only racing, but also a domestic home life with these two. Small obstacle: Mulligan’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is getting out of prison in a week. When he arrives, Gosling agrees to help him square a debt with some bad guys. Things don’t go so well and Gosling’s dream of domestic bliss goes straight to Hades. Well, actually not all that straight.

As they tend to do, the bad guys (including Ron Perlman) run a double-cross and things get really messy. The middle 60% of this movie is as intense and thrilling as you could ever ask. Some terrific driving stunts as expected, but also some very nice “little” scenes as these most interesting characters try to make sense of many tattered loose ends. Refn’s camera work and lighting are very stylish, providing a noir look and the perfect feel.

 My mind was racing as I watched this oddly paced, minimal dialogue, intense story unfold. A few films flashed in my mind and I have decided there are elements of each: Bullitt (1968, Peter Yates), The Driver (1978 Walter Hill), Thief (1981 Michael Mann), To Live and Die in LA (1985 William Friedkin), and Heat (1995 Michael Mann). Additionally, Gosling’s character shares some traits with Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’. Now I am sure you are confused. How about one more: Gosling wears a jacket similar to Kurt Russell‘s Stuntman Mike in Death Proof, only this one has an embroidered scorpion and sure enough, we get the scorpion and frog story.

 Gosling gives a very solid strong, silent type leading man performance, and Mulligan has very little to do. Albert Brooks will probably get some well deserved attention at Oscar time. There are a couple of scenes that more and make this one worth seeing. One is the fantastic chase scene after the pawn shop robbery and the other is the most beautifully choreographed and violent elevator scene ever filmed, complete with mood lighting!

This one will be loved or hated by those that see it. Hard to imagine it falling in the gray area. If you are up for a twist on the traditional approach to crime dramas, and can handle some brutal violence, I would encourage you to check it out.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of any of the movies I listed above OR you want to see Albert Brooks’ Oscar worthy performance as one really bad man

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: anything described as an art house crime drama prompts an eye-rolling OR you think the hoodlum movie genre should have died off in the 70’s

watch the trailer: