HOSTILES (2017)

January 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.

watch the trailer:

 

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A UNITED KINGDOM (2017)

February 23, 2017

a-united-kingdom Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes I just know immediately that I’m going to be out of touch with popular opinion on a movie, and this historical-romantic-biopic from director Amma Asante (Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is one of those times.

It’s a crowd-pleaser featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in a real life story with some similarities to last year’s Loving (the chronicle of Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial marriage). Mr. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a 1947 university student in London when we first meet him. Ms. Pike is Ruth Williams, a local Londoner working clerical at an insurance company when the two meet at a local dance. The attraction is immediate.

Not long after, Seretse discloses to Ruth that not only is he in love with her, but he’s also the King-in-waiting for Bechuanaland in Africa. The marriage is met with dissent from all fronts: family (racism), Seretse’s people (cultural and societal reasons), and Great Britain (mostly concerned with appeasing its ally South Africa and the growing notion of Apartheid). Seretse and Ruth believe their true love is strong enough to win over those dissenters. The backlash is much worse than anticipated.

A very cool element with the film is the use of the actual house Ruth and Seretse lived in, and the locals were more than willing to contribute. While the strength of these two individuals remains inspirational to this day, the film falters in a few ways. Both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are stuck playing British foils in the overwritten manner in which we would expect from a 1940’s movie on TCM. Again acknowledging my out of step opinion, Ms. Pike simply lacks the range for such a role. Her deer-in-the-headlights go-to facial expression is a slap to the courageous woman she is portraying. However, the biggest issue with the film is its lack of continuity … its choppiness, if you will. So many scenes abruptly end right as the substance is beginning. Multiple times we are left hanging, wondering why we don’t get to finish a conversation or finalize a conflict. There are some terrific moments that are torn apart by the numerous butchered scenes, though the strong performances of Oyelowo and Terry Pheto (Tsotsi) as his sister shine through.

This is a terrific and interesting piece of history that deserved a better film. In 1966, Bechuanaland gained its independence and became what’s known today as Botswana, and the story of Seretse and Ruth is one that needs to be told. Most viewers likely won’t be bothered by the things that irritated me, and that’s probably a good thing.

watch the trailer:

 


HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014)

October 8, 2014

hector Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients?  What about when he loudly humiliates one of those patients for expressing her feelings? We are supposed to want Hector to be happy. But do we? Personally, I didn’t give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can’t help his patients because he isn’t even trying … he is a narcissist and a jerk who can’t appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn’t know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (so he can use it).

Along the way, Hector’s OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to “Africa” – quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector’s approach even blatantly borrows from the “Tintin” stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is. In all fairness, the movie is directed by Peter Chelsom, who also directed Hannah Montana: The Movie, so perhaps any expectations were too high.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness … maybe sweet potato stew.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always root for the spoiled, rich guy to win in his battle against a mid-life crisis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your local cinema has a rule against throwing items at the screen during especially annoying parts

watch the trailer:

 


GONE GIRL (2014)

October 5, 2014

gone girl Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher‘s version of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn’s novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less “whodunit” and more “did he do it?”, at least for the first half. When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy’s voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick’s perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and conversations with his sister (Carrie Coon).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher’s fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting, we witness elevated   technical filmmaking. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck’s character.

Much has been made of the critically acclaimed performances of Affleck and Pike, so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick’s twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note is Missi Pyle‘s obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep (everything we hate about the media, but continues to draw big ratings). Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry‘s slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy’s former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It’s nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that’s off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it’s not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary … especially on the current trend of media speculation in place or reporting. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

***NOTE: for those who read the book, this would be considered a faithful adaptation … unlike some of the early rumors led us to believe

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you enjoy your thrillers with a dose of social commentary OR you want a glimpse of the new Batman body in progress.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  an exceptionally gruesome and bloody murder scene is something you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WORLD’S END (2013)

September 7, 2013

worlds end Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in the unofficial Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and my guess is if you know that, you have already seen this one. Director Edgar Wright has previously delivered is parody of Zombies (Shaun of the Dead), his parody of buddy-cop-action films (Hot Fuzz), and now takes on Sci-Fi in this latest … a worthy conclusion with the trademark quick cuts and rapid fire witty/silly dialogue.

I love the premise of this one. 5 buddies reluctantly reunite after 20 years to try and finish what they failed to in their youth: 12 pubs/12 pints … an epic pub crawl. It touches on the male transition to middle-age and also reinforces the old saying ‘you can’t go home again’. Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) stars as Gary King, a recovering addict who is quite simply struggling with adulthood. His manic energy reunites the boys and carries the early movie. Nick Frost really shines here and takes on a different persona from the previous two movies.

worlds end2 As I have stated many times, comedies are the most difficult genre to review as everyone’s sense of humor varies. What I can report is that I laughed quite a bit at the dialogue, but didn’t have much love for the sci-fi portions, despite some similarities to Westworld and The Stepford Wives. Oh, and Rosamund Pike reminded me again why I am no fan of hers (yes, I realize I’m in the minority).

Hardcore Wright fans will enjoy the steady stream of regular faces, and yes, we do get the expected failed fence jump. This one won’t stick with me for long, but I appreciated the laughs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Simon Pegg – Nick Frost – Edgar Wright offbeat British parody films. It’s one of their best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your comedy tastes lean toward the conventional … a territory Edgar Wright avoids at all costs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk

 


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


BARNEY’S VERSION

February 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ordinarily, a film with Rosamund Pike and Bruce Greenwood in key roles would be sufficient for me to stay home and watch The Weather Channel. However, Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, as son and father, in a story based on Mordecai Richler’s novel was motivation enough for me to buck up and give this one a shot. And what a pleasant surprise this film is.

Giamatti has mastered the role of cynical, self-absorbed, frumpy schlub and his Barney is every bit that. The story is told through extended flashbacks after we learn a detective has written a book accusing Barney of killing his best friend (Scott Speedman). No charges were brought and it’s not until the end, in an extremely creative reveal, that we understand what really happened that day at the lake. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure if Barney ever understands, but that’s a whole different topic.

Barney’s first marriage comes about because his girlfriend gets pregnant. This one ends in tragedy and betrayal and drives Barney to spend much of his life on the path of cynicism, alcoholism and cigar-chain-smoking. He is no pretty sight – from inside or out. He stumbles into his second marriage, this one to Minnie Driver. Ms. Driver is wonderful as the Jewish princess with a Master’s Degree. How do we know? She continually reminds us of both facts. Ever known anyone that just constantly reminds you of how smart they are? How this marriage ends leads to the whole suspicion of murder and loss of best friend for Barney.

The real key to the story occurs at his wedding. Instead of worshiping his new bride, Barney watches hockey, does shots with his Dad (Dustin Hoffman) and experiences love at first sight … not with his bride, but with a guest played by Rosamund Pike. This encounter puts Barney on a singular mission of winning over Ms. Pike, despite his marriage to Driver. Can’t really give anything away here other than the story is very clever in how it handles the pursuit, failed marriage and subsequent true love story.

 The only thing is, Barney never really “gets” what true love is. Pike has a wonderful scene where she explains that life and love are in “the seconds, the minutes, the routines”. Barney nods but is clearly in over his head in so many ways. Part of the genius in the script is that we somehow find ourselves pulling for Barney, despite his long list of faults and none-too-impressive quirks.

The other thing I really appreciate about this story is how there are so many relationships that seem to spring from reality … people we know in situations we’ve been in. The title, of course, refers to Barney’s version of reality. How he sees things. We could each replace his name with ours for a movie on our life. Do we see reality, or is reality how we interpret these seconds, minutes, routines? The answer seems pretty clear.

 The film is directed by Richard J. Lewis (not the comedian) but is really a product of the amazing story and talented cast led by the extraordinary performance of Giamatti. Dustin Hoffman’s scenes are all excellent, and his real life son Jake, plays his grandson in the film. Don’t miss the quick scenes featuring standout directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Ted Kotcheff. It’s also character actor extraordinare Maury Chaykin‘s final film. And I certainly can’t omit mention of the fabulous, spot on soundtrack featuring T-Rex, JJ Cale, Donovan and others. Leonard Cohen‘s “I’m Your Man” plays over the closing credits so don’t leave early!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thrill to well told stories that are extremely well acted OR you just want to admire Giamatti’s god-awful posture.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need a “good guy” lead character OR you are concerned that the sight of Paul Giamatti in boxers could lead to nightmares.