REBEL IN THE RYE (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Holden Caulfield is dead.” So states Jerry’s letter to his mentor. You likely know Jerry better as J.D. Salinger, and he wrote that while hospitalized with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after WWII. Of course, we know this proclamation is premature, as Holden Caulfield is the main character from Mr. Salinger’s famous (and only) novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” … a high school literature staple for decades.

Imagine your dream is to become a great writer, but your own father continually reminds you that “meat and cheese distribution has been good for this family.” Your restlessness often works against you, and though you are hesitant to admit it, a mentor for writing and life direction is desperately needed if you are to avoid the family business. Enter Columbia professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

This is Danny Strong’s first feature film as a director, though you would surely recognize his face from his frequent acting appearances – often as a weasly character. He is also the creator of TV’s “Empire” and wrote the screenplays for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY (Parts I and II) and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. Strong does an admirable job in showing the commitment required to hone one’s writing skills and proving “the difference in wanting to be a writer and actually being one.”

Jerome David Salinger is played well by Nicholas Hoult. His scenes with Spacey’s professor are the film’s best, and Hoult also shoulders the responsibility of Salinger’s writing frustrations, personal life challenges, military service, and finally, his decision to become the most famous and long-lasting recluse (by comparison, Howard Hughes was an amateur).

We learn that Burnett was instrumental in getting Salinger’s first short story published, which finally gave Jerry the answer needed for a writer’s most dreaded question, “Have you been published?” Quite a bit of time is devoted to his odd romantic relationship with Oona O’Neill (Eugene’s daughter and the future, long-time wife to Charlie Chaplin). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) plays Oona as an enigmatic lover attracted to Salinger’s genius, but incapable of being patient for his career that might happen (and might not). She opts for the sure bet.

Salinger’s military service included Utah Beach on D-Day, and nearly as remarkably, his toting the tattered manuscript ‘Catcher’ pages throughout his tour. He returned home in 1946, and in 1951 “The Catcher in the Rye” was published. It’s been referred to as the Great American novel and a rite of passage, while also being banned and derided for its whiny Holden.

Director Strong emphasizes Salinger’s turn to Zen Buddhism and his sessions with Swami Nikhilanda, as well as his evolving distrust of stalking fans and two-faced media. Support work is provided by Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s salty agent, Lucy Boynton as his wife, Victor Garber as his father, and Hope Davis as his supportive mother. Just as in real life, we get nothing of Salinger’s later years of solitude and isolation in New Hampshire, where he died at age 91.

The book has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues to sell well today. In a shift from the recent documentary SALINGER by Shane Salerno, and the book “J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High” by Kenneth Slawenski, this dramatization doesn’t dig too deep, but it does allow a new generation to personify the legend. Perhaps it even paints a picture of a better/nicer man than what his real life actions showed. Regardless, the older Salinger certainly seemed to embrace the cause of “write and get nothing in return”.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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BLUE JAY (2016)

October 8, 2016

blue-jay Greetings again from the darkness. Mark Duplass is the master of awkward. As a writer he excels in awkward encounters, awkward conversations, awkward situations … and awkward people. He can even create awkward out minimalism – two people in a simple and normal environment.

A bearded Mr. Duplass stars as Jim, a seemingly normal guy who has returned to his small hometown to pack up his mother’s house after her passing. While at the local market, he bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda, played by Sarah Paulson, who just happens to be in town visiting her expectant sister. Their awkward grocery aisle reunion leads to a very unusual … and yes, awkward … evening.

First time director Alexandre Lehmann uses his extensive experience as a cinematographer, and a black & white motif, to create a beautifully filmed story that is both simple and layered. Only one other actor appears in the movie … one scene with the great Clu Galager (“The Virginian”, The Last Picture Show) as a local merchant who provides a link to the past for Amanda and Jim. The bulk of the time is spent in Jim’s mother’s house – a literal time capsule that allows for reminiscing for the two former lovers.

Amongst the old familiar clothes, photos, letters, books and audio tapes, Jim and Amanda somehow progress to a bizarre form of role playing/play acting as if they had married young and were now celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. You guessed it … awkward. Dinner, dancing, acting silly, jelly beans, Annie Lennox and cutting loose leads them to an awkward bedroom encounter. This moment finally produces an explosion of emotion which uncovers the long-buried source of their break-up … shutting down their fantasy game of recapturing the past.

It would be pretty easy to compare the film to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) or Before Sunset (2004), and though it has more in common with the latter, this one comes across more raw and melancholy than those more celebrated films. We never once doubt this situation could play out, but the only word to describe two former lovers exploring “what could have been” is … awkward. It’s a captivating movie to watch and yet another feather in the cap of Duplass Productions.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodward, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

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


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


GAME CHANGE (2012)

March 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. One sided films can be made about race, gender, religion, occupations and hobbies. One sided films about politics, however, tend to wreak as much havoc as the actual politics. HBO’s latest from director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong (the team behind Recount) is based on the bestseller from political writers Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Just as the book did, the film will bring enjoyment and confirmation to the left wingers and much pain and anger to the staunch right wingers … at least those who are unable, even 4 years later, to view the story with a hint of objectivity.

I am not here to debate the political sides of the story, but rather to address how it is presented. The thing that really stands out are the Emmy-caliber performances of Ed Harris (as John McCain), Julianne Moore (as Sarah Palin) and Woody Harrelson (as Steve Schmidt). McCain comes across as a man with true ideals and integrity, who gets caught up in the ambitious push to become President. Palin is presented as the “high risk, high reward” gamble that initially pays dividends, but ultimately backfires. Schmidt is really the key to the story as the campaign strategist who accurately reads the climate, but then fails to do his homework before turning in his assignment.

 The story follows the evolution of the Palin story. McCain’s campaign needs a “WOW” factor and the Alaska Governor provides an energetic, charismatic woman who quickly captures the imagination of the public and media. She then fades under the pressure of being separated from her family, having family secrets publicized, and most crucially, her lack of depth on basic foreign and domestic issues. The note-card budget for this movie must have set a record.

We get a peek behind the curtain of a Presidential campaign, and see the shock on the faces of Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson) as they realize too late just what they are dealing with in Palin. It was painful enough to watch what was presented to the public during this actual campaign, but to see what was going on behind the scenes is pure agony.

 Where the movie does its best work is in capsulizing what really happened in this 2008 campaign. We hear Schmidt ask, do you think the people want a “Statesman” (McCain) or a “Celebrity” (Obama)? That really is the key observation on the race. One candidate lacked real a connective personality, but fought for his country and served more upon his return. The other had few accomplishments, but had a dynamic personality that drove him to quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. McCain mentions “the dark side of the American populism“.  Schmidt understood the need for celebrity and poof … Palin appeared!

The last segment of the film provides a glimpse into the power-hungry, or at least celebrity-enjoying phase of Sarah Palin, and it looks like that persona is still going strong four years later. Even at this stage of the primaries, she mentions that she is open to being President.  The film does provide some insight into the pressures of managing a campaign on the highest stage and I found it quite interesting … even though I had to relive the chagrin I felt as each layer was peeled back on Palin in 2008.

watch the trailer:


MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

August 27, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one has been on my radar since the Sundance Festival and all the raves about Elizabeth Olsen‘s performance. After attending a screening last evening, I find myself at a loss to adequately describe not just her stunning turn, but also this unusual film from writer/director Sean Durkin.

On the surface, this sounds like just another movie peeking inside a dreadful cult that brainwashes, and psychologically and physically abuses women, and is led by a charismatic and creepy religious style figure-head. There are many similarities to the Manson-family story of which much has been published, but Mr. Durkin takes the film in a much different and very creative direction by focusing on what happens to Martha (Olsen) AFTER she escapes the cult.

 In the Q&A, Durkin stated he did much research and found the most fascinating story to be that of a cult escapee and what she went through during her first three weeks of freedom. Martha sneaks out early one morning and places a panic call to her older sister, whom she hasn’t communicated with in two years. Settling in to the lake house with big sis and new brother-in-law, it becomes quite obvious that Martha doesn’t know how to fit in society, and has absolutely no interest in discussing her recent past.

The sister is played very well by Sarah Paulson, and her husband is Hugh Dancy (so very good in Adam). This seemingly normal yuppie couple is trying to do right by Martha, but the fits of paranoia, outbursts of anger, and societal goofs are just too much for them.

 The genius of this film is in the story telling. The cinematic toggling between today and moments of time at the cult farm house leads the viewer right into the confused mind of Martha. We don’t get much back story but it’s obvious she was “ripe” for cult world when she was chosen. We see how Patrick, the quietly charismatic leader, sings her a song and steals her heart … she wants so much to belong. We also see how she bonds with the other women at the farm house, and ends up in a frightening situation that seems to snap her out just enough to find the strength to leave. The editing of scenes between these two worlds is outstanding and serves to keep the viewer glued to the screen.

 Last year I raved about an independent film called Winter’s Bone. I chose it as one of the year’s best and it ended with some industry award recognition. I am not willing to say this film is quite at that level, but I will say that the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth, delivers an incredible first feature film performance, and Sean Durkin deserves an audience for his first feature film as writer/director. Another bond between the two indies is that John Hawkes plays the cult leader Patrick, and Hawkes is once again captivating, just as he was in Winter’s Bone.

There will undoubtedly be some debate about whether this is cutting edge independent filmmaking or just another snooty art-house mind-messer. All I can say is, I hope the film grabs enough audience for the debate to matter … it deserves it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you liked Winter’s Bone OR you want to see a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the most talented of the sisters).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you struggle with methodically paced films that are designed around specific moments of insight OR your motto is “enough with the films on cults”.

watch the trailer: