SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

watch the trailer:

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LA LA LAND (2016)

December 10, 2016

la-la-land Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.

While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.

As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).

Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.

Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.

Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Cause viewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.

The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


PROMISED LAND (2012)

January 7, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog was set up to provide thoughts and commentary on movies through the eyes of someone who loves and appreciates the art of cinema. Most of the time, these comments focus on the positive aspects of each movie, while also mentioning any particular areas which, by opinion, seem to fall short of acceptable.  It is rare indeed when a movie is so annoying and lacking in merit that I find myself with mostly negative comments to make.   Typically I would just skip the commentary, however, I believe Promised Land deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is.

promised Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, a story about a controversial environmental issue (fracking for natural gas) presented by a respected director (Gus Van Sant) and featuring a strong cast (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook) would be a welcome cinematic contribution, despite an expected slant to the story-telling. Most of us enjoy, or at least accept, a well presented argument that brings light and substance to at least one side of the controversial issue. What no one appreciates is having their time wasted … which is exactly what this ridiculous movie does.

Fluff is fluff, regardless of the subject matter that acts as a backdrop. Matt Damon and John Krasinski combined to write the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. The screenplay is simple-minded, uninformed promised3and amateurish. Did they do any research? It seems more likely they got together a couple of times, sipped a few imports, and threw together an outline. If they had then turned that outline over to a REAL writer, the ensuing mess of a movie could have been avoided. Instead, they somehow tricked Gus Van Sant into becoming the director. This process worked just fine 15 years ago when Ben Affleck collaborated with Damon and Van Sant for the excellent Good Will Hunting. That film shouldn’t even be tarnished by mentioning it here.

There is no shortage of articles available with actual facts on the companies and process involved with natural gas fracking. In 2010, Josh Fox even put together GasLand, a very effective documentary on the subject. So, the idea of formulating a Hollywood dramatic version makes sense. Matt Damon’s name alone ensures better exposure in one week than Mr. Fox’ film has had in two plus years. What doesn’t make sense is a version that is so lightweight and lacking in details, that a convoluted, half-assed love triangle steals the spotlight off what should be the real story.

promised2 What is the real story? A fictional $9 billion company with the generic name Global Crosspower Solutions sends their crack closing team of Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) into rural Pennsylvania to buy up the land leases from the area’s struggling farmers. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Steve, this hotshot rising star, makes two blunders in the first couple of days – allowing the town to vote, and getting blackout drunk in the only town bar. Then, this brilliant executive totally loses his equilibrium when a small time environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up and starts charming the locals with his horror stories of fracking.

Steve walks around telling people “I’m not a bad guy“, McDormand shakes her head at him and says “It’s just a job“, and Krasinski buddies up with everyone … including local school teacher Rosemarie DeWitt, on whom Damon has a bit of a crush. One of the more ridiculous bits is that Damon’s character supposedly grew up in a farm community just like this and saw it shrivel up when the factory closed. He is probably the only guy to ever grow up on a farm who can’t drive a stickshift and has to be chauffeured around by McDormand. As if all of that isn’t ridiculous and lame enough, here comes the most absurd movie twist of all time. Since the first 2/3 of the movie promised4lacks any sense of realism, the twist is not surprising, but rather just plain ludicrous. It’s a cheap writing device.

As for positives, it’s always a joy to watch 88 year old Hal Holbrook on screen. More attention to his character could have saved the movie …he is far and away the most intelligent and interesting character. Also, Damon’s character goes on a heartfelt rant towards some drunken rednecks. It’s his only scene that works and ends, logically, with a punch to nose. Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy and Lucas Black all have moments of support that deserve a better movie. The same can’t be said for Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant … the blame and embarrassment falls at your feet, gentleman.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you shut your eyes and plug your ears for all except Hal Holbrook’s scenes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to reward a couple of Hollywood stars for their lackadaisical efforts

watch the trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo


THE COMPANY MEN

January 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a successful TV writing background (“ER” and “West Wing”), writer/director John Wells tackles the economic downturn in his first feature film. The story offers perspective on how a corporation’s blind focus on profit wins out over employee loyalty when times get tough.

Craig T Nelson stars as James Salinger, who along with Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started the GTX company years ago. The company made its name in ship-making and is now a conglomerate charged with shareholder return despite the economic recession. No mystery how to do that … start cutting employees. Hundreds of them. Get the lawyers involved so the perfect balance of elder statesmen and young guns can be established – gotta avoid those lawsuits!

The initial focus is on Bobby Walker, hotshot salesman played by Ben Affleck. When he gets laid off, his initial reaction is anger followed by denial. While his wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, starts making practical plans on how to get through the crisis, he continues playing golf and driving his Porsche … foolishly believing this makes him look “successful”. He expresses near disgust when his brother-in-law played by Kevin Costner offers him a job on his home remodeling team. Of course, he can’t picture himself “banging nails”.

Next up is self-made man Phil Woodward, played with total annoyance by Chris Cooper. He is the first to realize that the image he had of his value to the company and his family was a total facade, and his reaction is not pretty.

As the film moves forward, we see how the strength of DeWitt’s character not only holds her family together, but also helps her husband realize his self-value is not in his job, but rather with his loved ones … including his parents.

The film is beautifully photographed (Roger Deakins is DP) but really doesn’t offer much other than a reminder that what makes us who we are is really not tied to a title or job description. It’s also an example of how tough times bring out the best and worst in people, and can draw a family much closer … or drive a wedge. Character is revealed when tough choices are forced.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another reason to despise what big business has become OR you just want to laugh at Kevin Costner’s Boston accent

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the many unfortunate ones who have lost their job … you are already living this nightmare.