DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT (2018)

July 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being neither an alcoholic, an artist nor a quadriplegic, I found myself wondering if I would be able to connect at all with the real life story of John Callahan. At most, I figured another stellar, oddball performance from Joaquin Phoenix might keep me engaged. It turns out, director Gus Van Sant (GOOD WILL HUNTING, 1999) focuses more on the quite interesting road to sobriety … a road that also happens to lead directly to a reason to live.

Based on Mr. Callahan’s autobiography, the film stars the enigmatic Mr. Phoenix. First seen as a 21 year old (a bit of a stretch) slacker who constantly needs a “fix” of alcohol, no matter the time of day, the talented actor excels after the alcohol-induced car accident that robs Callahan completely of the use of his legs, leaving him only minimal function with arms and hands. Even this doesn’t inspire Callahan to give up the bottle. However, a vision of his mother does. Callahan’s mommy issues are a key element of the story, as she gave him up for infant adoption – leading to many years of drowning his self-pity in whatever type of alcohol was in the glass.

The film picks up some momentum once Callahan begins attending AA group therapy sessions conducted by Donnie (Jonah Hill). Donnie is part Zen sponsor and trust fund guru. It’s a wonderful performance from Mr. Hill, who makes the most of each of his scenes. Others in the group include a terrific (musician) Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth fame), (German icon) Udo Kier, Ronnie Adrian and Mark Webber. Individually they don’t have much to do, but they do make for a fascinating group. Also appearing are Tony Greenhand as Callahan’s attendant, the fabulously talented Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s physical therapist-turned-girlfriend. Ms. Mara is especially short-changed in the script.

It was 1972 and Callahan was 21 when the car accident left him a quadriplegic. Slowly, he discovered his talent as a cartoonist – albeit a controversial and darkly funny one. In today’s climate of political correctness, it’s likely Callahan would find no audience, but at the time, he developed a national following. This was the time of other single panel cartoonists like Gary Larson and Bill Watterson.

Attempting to avoid the traditional and familiar biopic structure, director Van Sant (who has a cameo) chops the movie into bits that work better individually than as a whole. At times it plays like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. But some of the bits are outstanding. The film is somehow both funny and sad, and includes a terrific scene near the end with Callahan and Jack Black’s Dexter reuniting for the first time since the accident. It’s a powerfully honest scene.

A destructive lifestyle doesn’t always lead to good things, and substance abuse is not very entertaining – though, the road to recovery can be. Getting of glimpse of the 12 step program, we see that not drinking is merely the beginning. It’s like a runner who must first lace up his shoes before beginning the actual run. Callahan died in 2010 at age 59, but his impact continues.

watch the trailer:

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A GHOST STORY (2017)

July 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve not previously seen a movie like this latest from writer/director David Lowery. Detractors will likely roll their eyes and ask “and why would we?”, while those who find a connection here will pontificate endlessly on the existential meaning of life, love, loss and legacy. Polarized reactions to the film will lead to some colorful post-viewing discussions … exactly what would be expected from an artsy non-horror movie entitled A Ghost Story.

Yes, there is a ghost. However this ghost is neither friendly Casper nor angry spirit. Instead, for the vast majority of the run time, we see a white sheet covered Casey Affleck (at least we are told it’s him) standing in static melancholic repose. We do initially meet Affleck’s composer character in what appears to be a somewhat normal up-and-down relationship with his wife, played by Rooney Mara. In the midst of a passive-aggressive argument about whether to move from their somewhat dumpy suburban rental, Affleck’s character is killed in an automobile accident mere feet from their driveway. We next see him back in the house, draped in a bedsheet (one way to keep wardrobe costs under control), and watching his grief-stricken wife through blackened eye holes.

We come to understand that the ghost is confined to the home and time seems to bounce from present to future to past. The residents change, but the ghost doesn’t. Periodically the ghost flashes anger or some other act that disrupts the real world, but mostly he just stands and observes longingly.

A word of caution is in order. This is a deep cut, art house indie that features very little dialogue, almost no plot, and numerous extended fixed shots with no payoff for your anticipation. Oh, and it’s shot in the old fashioned almost square aspect ratio. There are no creepy clowns under the bed or in the storm drains, and there is an absence of cheap jump-scares (OK, there is one that is the director’s prank on the audience). This is more abstract experimental filmmaking than traditional horror, so choose your viewing partner accordingly.

Filmmaker Lowery previously collaborated with Affleck and Mara on the critically acclaimed 2013 Ain’t Then Bodies Saints, and this one was filmed in secret just after Lowery completed Pete’s Dragon. It takes a meditative approach to some of the issues we all ponder at times. Lines such as “We do what we can to endure”, and “You do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone” … these provide the clues when you begin to wonder what the film is trying to tell you. In fact, it isn’t telling you anything. It’s encouraging you to think. The film may lack a traditional narrative structure, but if taken with an open mind, it can generate some introspection that most movies wouldn’t even attempt to inspire.

In addition to Affleck and Mara, the small cast also includes Liz Cardenas Franke (the film’s producer) as the landlord, and singer-songwriter Will Oldham as a hipster philosopher/prognosticator who is given entirely too much screen time. Daniel Hart contributes an excellent use of music – especially considering the minimal dialogue and non-existent special effects. The film doesn’t solve the mysteries of the universe, but it does answer the question of whether Rooney Mara can eat an entire pie in one uninterrupted shot. Expect descriptions as disparate as: inexplicable, pretentious, boring, thought-provoking, and existential … whatever your reaction, you wouldn’t be wrong.

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LION (2016)

January 12, 2017

lion Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the real life story is enough. The story of Saroo Brierley is proof. A 5 year old boy from rural India gets stranded at a train station and inadvertently takes a train trip that strands him in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. He is adopted by a Tasmanian couple and later uses Google Earth to systematically track down his village, family, and ultimately his self.

Saroo’s story would be interesting enough had a writer fabricated it; but in fact, Luke Davies adapted the screenplay directly from Mr. Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home”. Director Garth Davis and an exceptional cast bring this incredible and inspirational and touching story to the big screen in a wonderfully entertaining manner.

The first part of the film introduces us to 5 year old Saroo (a bright-eyed and energetic Sunny Pawar) and his beloved and protective older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). The two boys are nearly inseparable and seem oblivious to the hard life provided by the small village they live in – where their mother literally carries rocks all day. A fluke of circumstance causes the train station separation for the brothers, and young Saroo finds himself on a train ride that will forever change his life.

Very little dialogue is found in this first part, but we immediately connect with the young boy, and we feel his frantic desire to return home as a tightness in our chest as he falls into the quagmire of homeless kids in Calcutta. When Saroo first meets Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), he isn’t sure how to react. His assimilation into this unrecognizable new world might just as well have been on another planet as a home in Tasmania.

Once the film jumps ahead, Dev Patel takes over as Saroo and the film turns into a journey for the universal need to understand our identity … where we come from, and who we really are. Rooney Mara has a small but important role as Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy (a composite character), as does Divian Ladwa as Mantosh, another boy adopted by the Brierleys. It’s here where Google Earth enjoys its biggest plug as the tool Saroo utilizes to solve the mystery of his origin.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser, and he perfectly captures the harshness of young Saroo’s home village, the frenzied pace of Calcutta and the beauty of Tasmania … all without losing the emotions of any given moment. To cap it off and to prove the filmmakers never stooped to any ‘trickery’, the film ends with actual footage of Saroo reuniting with his mother, and then the magical moment when his two mothers embrace. Good luck maintaining composure during this part!

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CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

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PAN (2015)

October 8, 2015

pan Greetings again from the darkness. Writer J.M. Barre first introduced the world to Peter Pan just after the turn of the twentieth century. Children and adults alike were enamored with “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”. The stories were filled with the mischief created by Peter and his Lost Boys buddies from their Neverland home, and although there existed elements of danger (Captain Hook), Barre’s story was mostly about holding on to the joy and carefree world of childhood.

Sadly, these days we don’t encourage kids to be kids. Instead, we push them to take on responsibility and act ‘grown up’ … heck, most kids today never really experience free play time with their friends. Everything is organized and scheduled (just check the calendar on the fridge). Writer Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) have created a Peter Pan “origin” story that lacks any touch of whimsy or enchantment from the original books or the numerous film adaptations: the 1953 Disney animated classic, the 1991 Steven Spielberg/Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the underrated 2003 live action version from director P.J. Hogan, or even last year’s Live TV broadcast featuring Allison Williams as Peter.

This one begins with a talented Parkour-enabled Mother (Amanda Seyfried) dropping off her infant son on the steps of an orphanage. She leaves only a note and a pan flute medallion. Flash forward twelve years and Peter (Levi Miller) is questioning the mysterious disappearance of kids from an environment straight out of a Dickens novel, as well as the hoarding talents of the evil Mother Superior (Kathy Burke). Soon enough Peter finds himself, along with scores of other youngsters, slaving in the fairy dust mines belonging to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  Are you depressed yet?

Things only get bleaker as Peter escapes with his new friend James Hook (the name is no coincidence). They soon encounter the tribe that protects the Fairy Kingdom and the fairy dust that Blackbeard so values. Part of the tribe is Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who believes that Peter is “the chosen one” who has come to lead and protect them. Lots of fighting ensues, plus some soaring giant crocodiles, flying pirate ships, and a trio of mermaids (all played by supermodel Cara Delevingne).

Re-imagining the classics is about the closest thing we get to creativity in Hollywood these days, so it’s not the idea of the project that so bothers, but rather the approach. Where is the fun?  Where is the sense of wonderment?  In fact, young Peter’s destiny seems to be an urgency to assume more responsibility as a leader … not live the carefree days of fun and games that Mr. Barre had set out.

Newcomer Levi, who plays Peter, ranks right there with director Joe Wright’s previous discovery of Saoirse Ronan, as child actors with big time screen presence. Young Mr. Miller has a grasp of the script and character and is the best part of the film. Hugh Jackman plays Blackbeard, but can never really reach the necessary level of intimidation or theatricality. For some reason Garrett Hedlund plays Hook as if he is imitating Christian Slater who is imitating Jack Nicholson playing Indiana Jones. It’s so over-the-top that we must assume Hedlund was directed to bring some comic relief to the bleak environment. Much has already been written about the casting of ultra-Caucasian Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lilly, though she performs the role quite well (avoiding the screeching of her lines in the manner of Jackman and Hedlund).  Rounding out the cast is Adeel Axhtar as Smiegel/Smee.

Some of Wright’s action sequences and CGI are quite impressive, though it’s difficult to overlook the obvious influences of Terry Gilliam, Baz Luhrman, and even George Lucas and James Cameron. Particularly painful and out of place are the Luhrman-influenced musical interludes of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramone’s “Blitkrieg Bop”.  Even the pixie dust effect reminds of Dorian Gray, though Jackman only gets one brief scene in which to capitalize.

Devotees of the J.M. Barre source material will be no doubt disappointed and confused, but the theatre was filled with youngsters who couldn’t seem to care less that Joe Wright had taken a classic story in the opposite direction. They enjoyed the visual effects as evidenced by the numerous “oohs” and “ahhs”. So let’s allow that reaction to speak for itself, rather than saying this version just didn’t pan out.

watch the trailer:

 


AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

May 18, 2014

ain't Greetings again from the darkness. Finally catching up with this one after it received such critical raves on the festival circuit last year. It’s one of those films that cause so many “normal” movie goers to question the tastes of critics. It certainly has the look and feel of a terrific independent art-house film, but as they say, looks can be deceiving.

The cast is outstanding and play off each other and the setting exceedingly well. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine are a pleasure to watch … they make it easy to KNOW these characters. Daniel Hart’s score is the perfect balance of haunting and complimentary – understated at its best. The most exceptional thing of all is the cinematography of Bradford Young. The look of the film is right there with the best of Terrence Malick … and that amplifies the film’s biggest problem. The story is highly recollective of Malick’s Badlands, and that’s where the shortcomings jump out. There is just not much substance to this story – it’s really just another in the line of disillusioned criminals dreaming of a clean slate.

Writer/director David Lowery is a definite talent, but his dependency on look and feel prevent this one from reaching greatness. We recognize immediately that this can’t end well. The only question is how badly will it get for each of the main characters. Crime may not pay, but some criminals just seem to keep paying … and drag down others with them. For those that enjoy the indies, this is one to catch up with … and filmmaker David Lowery’s best work is still ahead of him.

**NOTE: This may be one of the worst movie titles of all time

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HER (2013)

January 11, 2014

her Greetings again from the darkness. Well, critics have been raving about this film so strongly the past few weeks that I almost feel guilty going against the grain. Almost. Where they see a masterpiece with insight into love and self, I see an implausible story bordering on ludicrous.

Writer/director Spike Jonze is an incredibly creative filmmaker. His Adaptation and Being John Malkovich are two movies I can watch repeatedly. I was a fan of his film version of Where The Wild Things Are, but this one just brought me nothing but annoyance, frustration and irritation.

Rather than defend my minority stance, I’ll just admit to not being onboard with this one. I have always believed we should each judge a film by how it touches us … how we connect with it. I was neither touched nor connected.

What I will say is the premise of technology replacing human interaction in the near future is not unthinkable and has already happened for some. But to say that a real relationship … that true love … can not just occur, but become commonplace between people and machines just simply contradicts what I believe comprises true love.

The film is extremely well made and visually beautiful. The acting is superb: Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams are all terrific. Voice acting is spot on including Scarlett Johansson, Brian Cox, Kristen Wiig, and even Spike Jonze. But falling in love with an operating system? Maybe what Osgood Fielding III said at the end of Some Like it Hot is really true … “Nobody’s perfect“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a very sad version of what could happen if technology continues to expand its role in our lives OR cyber-sex with Kristen Wiig is appealing to you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your love stories to involve two PEOPLE!

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4