ITHACA (2016)

September 21, 2016

ithaca Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it’s the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattle co-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.

As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.

Homer’s dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).

Being that it’s war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer’s once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him “You are 14 years old and you’re a man! I don’t know who made you that way.” It’s the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.

The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump’s mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer … we can’t miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.

In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She’s likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.

watch the trailer:

 


MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

March 19, 2016

midnight special Greetings again from the darkness. Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols serves up some of the familiar themes of spiritualism and parenting seen in his first three films: Mud (2012), Take Shelter (2011), Shotgun Stories (2007), but this time he goes a bit heavier on the science fiction … while maintaining his focus on the individual.

An exceptional opening scene kicks off the story, and Nichols makes sure we are alert by forcing us to absorb and assemble the slew of clues flying at us … an Amber alert, cardboard on the windows of a cheap motel, a news report tying us to San Angelo, Texas, duct tape on the peep hole, a duffel bag of weapons, two anxiety-filled men, and a goggled-boy under a white sheet who seems extremely calm in an otherwise hectic environment. We learn a lot, yet many questions remain.

As the boy and the two men speed off down the backroads, the setting switches to an eerily calm Calvin Meyer (the always great Sam Shepard), who is the leader of a religious cult similar to the Branch Davidians. “The Ranch” is desperate to get the boy back, and we learn they worship the numbers and words the boy has “received” from above. An FBI agent (Paul Sparks) leads the raid on the compound and takes us to an interrogation of Calvin by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

Alternating between sci-fi special effects and an “on the run” story line, we slowly pick up more details about the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as well as the men with him – his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It’s not long before they reunite with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and we really start to comprehend just how different and special Alton is.

It’s easy to see the influence of such films as Starman, E.T.: The ExtraTerrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. We are reminded that our society inevitably assumes the worst when something we don’t understand appears right in front of us. The Ranch sees the boy as a savior, and the government labels him a weapon. But it’s Shannon who captures the protective determination of a father trying to do the right thing for his son. Shannon again flashes the best ‘pained’ expression in the business, but it’s young Lieberher (so terrific in St. Vincent) who allows us to accept the father/son story in spite of the bright white lasers shooting from his eyeballs.

There are plenty of unanswered questions – not the least of which is, how did two “normal” parents end up with this “special” son? The visuals near the end are impressive to see on screen, but don’t appear to have much impact on the final questioning of Lucas or our understanding of how it all happened. It should also be noted that the piano score is especially impactful during both the quiet and thrilling moments. Director Nichols is a talented idea man, but he does leave us wanting more details.  (That’s his brother singing the song over the closing credits.)

watch the trailer:

 


PARIS, TEXAS (1984) revisited

June 21, 2014

paris tx Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 30 years. The movie hasn’t changed. I remember every scene. So that means it’s ME that has changed. While I really liked the movie on its 1984 release, it’s only now that I truly appreciate the brilliance of the script, the music, the direction, the photography and the acting … much less the wide range of emotions released in the smallest ways possible.

Director Wim Wenders has long been a favorite at Cannes Film Festival, and this one took home the prestigious Palme d’Or. Since then, the film has often been mentioned as one of the best movies of the 1980’s, and after this most recent screening (courtesy of the Dallas Film Society), I wholeheartedly concur.

Opening in a most unusual manner … the lead character comes stumbling out of the Texas dessert and doesn’t utter a word for the first 20-25 minutes … this film immediately strikes you as something unique –definitely not cookie cutter. Trying to outguess the script is a waste of time. It’s best to just watch it unfold in a believable and sometimes awkward way.

In a rare lead role, long time character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis. We soon enough learn that Travis disappeared four years ago leaving behind a wife and young son. We also learn that his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clement) have been taking care of the boy, and Hunter (Hunter Carson) considers them his parents (his mom ran off too).

Walt and Anne invite Travis to stay with them and re-connect with his son, but they are caught off guard when the two really click and they take off to find Jane, the wife/mother. Their charming (but less-than-professional) stakeout leads to the discovery that Jane is working in a sex shop, spending her days talking to a 2 way mirror with lonely men she can’t see. One of the most remarkable on screen soliloquies ever seen occurs on Travis’ final trip to see Jane (Natassja Kinski). He tells her a heartfelt story that plays out as an explanation, an apology, and a plan for moving forward. She slowly realizes it’s their story he is telling. It’s his way of making reparations and finally doing the right thing (as he sees it).

As with most classic films, the backstory offers some interesting tidbits and the players are fun to catch up with. This story was originally written by the great Sam Shepard. Mr. Shepard is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an award winning playwright, and well known actor (Oscar nominated for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). Director Wenders then brought in L.M. “Kit” Carson to add and revise the script while on set. Carson’s son (with actress Karen Black) Hunter plays the boy in the film, and he delivers one of the best, least affected, child performances of all time. Kit went on to write the screenplay for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and had a significant acting role in Running on Empty (1988). His son Hunter is still a working actor today. Mr. Wenders was one of the German New Wave of directors along with Herzog and Fassbinder, and his Wings of Desire (1987) would make a terrific double feature with this one. Mr. Stockwell was a very successful child actor in the 1940’s and is best known for his work in Blue Velvet and TV’s “Quantum Leap“. Ms. Kinski is the daughter of Klaus Kinski and is fondly remembered for her roles in Tess (1979) and Cat People (1982), though she still works today as well.

Harry Dean Stanton is now 88 years old. He served in WWII and was present during the Battle of Okinawa. His acting career began in the 1950’s and he still works periodically today. In addition to nearly 200 acting credits, he has had a pretty nice career as a musician. His band built a large cult following. Some of his most popular acting roles have been in Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather II, Alien, Repo Man, Escape From New York and, of course, as the dad in Pretty in Pink.

The music in the film is provided by Ry Cooder, who is a tremendous slide guitarist and has worked with some of the all-time greats in the music business – The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Neil Young, among others. Cooder is a multi-Grammy winner and re-teamed with Wenders for the Oscar nominated Buena Vista Social Club a few years later. The music is an exceptional compliment to the movie, as is the camera work of Robby Muller, who also works frequently with Wenders.

This story of loss and loneliness is an easy one to overlook, but when a film holds up well for 30 years … and affects you differently depending on your own lot in life … its legacy is secure.

***NOTE: those of a certain age will get a kick out of the use of a Muse Air jet

watch the trailer:

 

 


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

December 15, 2013

furnace1 Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).

furnace3 The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).

Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting furnace2is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.

The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.

**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.

SEE THIS MOVIE: if you are looking for a movie that absolutely should not be viewed over the holidays, but you get a kick out of hillbilly evil

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the family is looking for a light-hearted, feel good flick for group viewing after a day of feasting on the Christmas beast and opening presents.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E


SAVANNAH (2013)

August 13, 2013

savannah Greetings again from the darkness.  Beginning with “Based on a True Story”, the movie takes us on a bumpy ride known as the life and times of Ward Allen, a silver-tongued duck hunter with a free spirit like few others.  Director Annette Haywood-Carter utilizes Jack Cay Jr’s “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter” as her source material, and the marsh lands of Savannah make for a beautiful setting.

Jim Caviezel dives into the role of Ward Allen and it’s initially quite startling to see him play such a loqacious character … we are so accustomed to his normally quiet and stoic nature. Caviezel seems to revel in the courtroom scenes where he recites Shakespeare and charms the judge (Hal Holbrook) and gallery.  Flip a switch and the next scene will have Allen exchanging familiar glances and verbal jousts with his duck hunting buddy Christmas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed slave who is the perfect companion for Allen.

Evidently the real Mr. Allen was smart and engaging, but drank too much and constantly pushed the limits of legal hunting. His loyal dog, Rock, follows him everywhere and seems to anticipate his every need. This odd life takes a turn towards normalcy as Allen falls for a beautiful socialite played by Jaime Alexander. The two hit it off and get married, against the wishes of her father played by the great Sam Shepard. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the movie gets convoluted and loses focus, trying to be too many things at once.

Caviezel and Ejiofor have a really nice screen presence together, but the interjections of home life between Caviezel and Alexander just stomp out any flow to the story telling.  The attempts to make Mr. Allen a legendary, larger-than-life figure fall short because of the clunky script structure. The bookend with Christmas telling the stories to both a young and adult Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford) just beg for continued focus on the bond between kindred spirits Allen and Christmas.  The enigmatic Ward Allen was clearly an interesting man and I look forward to reading Cay’s book … it’s just disappointing that the script was not sharpened prior to filming.  It should be noted that there are a few tremendous songs throughout, including two very different versions of “Wade in the Water”.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsvg_zgbB1c

 


MUD (2013)

April 28, 2013

mud1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his very strong Take Shelter is a grounded, rustic look at what it means to become a man. While that may be enough, it also works as a chase movie, a buddy movie, a family drama, and a look at small town dynamics … all seen through the eyes of 14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life).

Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud, a drifter who quickly captures the fascination of Ellis and his earnest buddy Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) as their worlds collide under a boat in a tree just off the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. Turns out Mud is a bit of a smooth-talking philosopher who wins Ellis over spinning life yarns that come just as Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Sarah Paulson from Martha Marcy May Marlene) are hitting a rough patch and he is trying to figure out just how the female species fits into the whole big picture. Mud lays out a beautiful story mud2of how he killed a man protecting his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Now Mud is being chased by the man’s family (brother Carver played by Paul Sparks, and father King played by the too-rarely seen Joe Don Baker – looking great at age 77).

Michael Shannon has a few scenes as Neckbone’s Uncle who makes a living by diving for mussels in the river. You might remember how terrific Shannon was in Nichols’ Take Shelter, and he has become quite an interesting and dependable character actor in various projects. Even more impressive is Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship … the father figure for Mud, and a quiet mud3river guy with quite a colorful past. Shepherd’s first scene with Ellis is brilliant and could generate a campaign for Best Supporting Actor if this film can reach a wide enough audience.

The story is filled with numerous little realistic touches and it’s so original that there is no perfect comparison … though it does have some of the feel of Stand By Me, which is quite a compliment. It is difficult to remember another film where Beanie Weenies were such a valued prop, or where a boat in a tree became a negotiating point, or where the unhurried pace led to such tension. Tye Sheridan delivers a strong and rare performance for such a youngster, and McConaughey deserves special mention because he has clearly broken free of his early career Him-Bo roles, and can now be considered a legitimate actor. He is simply outstanding in the role of Mud. We sense the danger that follows him, but are enchanted with his connection to the boys. David Wingo’s score is the perfect cap for this little gem.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy quiet little indies that pack a whallop OR you want to see excellent work from a great cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: deliberate pacing and sparse dialogue taking place in a quiet rural community equates to nap time for you

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m9IFlz2iYo