ADRIFT (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock captured the intensity of being stranded at sea in LIFEBOAT (1944), there have been numerous films, with varying levels of success, taking advantage of this fear shared by many folks: ALL IS LOST (2013), LIFE OF PI (2012), OPEN WATER (2003), THE PERFECT STORM (2000), DEAD CALM (1989), and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). While some of these feature elements of true events, it’s this latest film, adapted from Tami Oldham’s memoir “Red Sky in Mourning: The True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea”, that tells the remarkable true story of Tami and her boyfriend Richard.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has had a hit and miss career (EVEREST, 2 GUNS, CONTRABAND, THE SEA), and this one mostly works on many levels: romance, adventure, suspense, natural catastrophe, and survival. Beyond that, it’s fantastic to look at thanks to the work of Cinematographer Robert Richardson (9 time Oscar nominee, 3 time winner: HUGO, THE AVIATOR, JFK).

Even though Tami’s remarkable saga occurred in 1983, it took all these years for the film to get made – further proof that it’s a new day in Hollywood!  The story of a woman isolated in nature, fighting the odds to live another day would have (and this one often has) previously been back-burnered or shifted to have yet another manly man in the lead. Not this time. Shailene Woodley plays Tami and it’s her most physical role to date.

The opening scene shows Tami waking up on the damaged boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Raymond. It then flashes back 5 months to her arrival in Tahiti and her initial introduction to Richard (Sam Claflin), a charming solo sailor who is nearly, but not quite, her equal in free-spiritedness. The 3 co-writers, twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell (MOANA) and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST) wisely opt against a first half romance followed by second half survival tale. Instead, the bits and pieces are doled out in segments that allow us to connect with the soul-bonding without losing the intensity of the stranded at sea tale. It’s a delicate balancing act that works thanks to the performance of Woodley and the camera of Richardson.

For many of us, the concept of sailing from Tahiti to San Diego with someone we’ve known for a few months would be a bit overwhelming. But these two lovebird and adventurous spirits head off thinking of it as fun and an opportunity to fund even more fun. It’s a story of the power of love and the strength of survival instincts. Rarely (OK, never) have a sextant, Skippy Peanut Butter and Tom Waits music combined for such vital roles in a movie, and it’s nice to see Ms. Woodley gain a Producer’s credit since she was a driving force in getting the film made.

The 41 day ordeal is told from Tami’s view (it is, after all, based on her book), and the strength of this 23 year old gets the treatment it deserves with some absolutely terrific sequences filmed at sea. Though Tami doesn’t battle sharks or have Wilson the volleyball to keep her company, her coping mechanism is even more mind-bending. It may not be the light-hearted summer fare we are accustomed to, but it’s one worth watching.

watch the trailer:

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SNOWDEN (2016)

September 15, 2016

snowden Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never really understood the artistic benefit to filming a biography after a spectacular documentary on that person has already been produced, made the rounds, and racked up awards. But then, I guess the point has little to do with art, and more to do with economics (documentaries are historically a money losing venture). Renowned director Oliver Stone brings us the story of Edward Snowden just two years after filmmaker Laura Poitrus won the Oscar for Best Documentary for her Citizenfour.

Much of what Ms. Poitrus documented in real time at the Mira Hotel in Japan is re-enacted here as one of the three core storylines in Mr. Stone’s film. To his credit, he fills in much of the backstory and Snowden’s resume by starting with a failed attempt at joining Special Forces (tumbling off the top bunk is automatic disqualification if it shatters one’s leg).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Snowden’s low key mannerism and measured vocals, while also fiddling with his eyeglasses during key moments. As a sought-after role for an actor, Snowden ranks a few rungs below, say Howard Hughes or Franklin Roosevelt or most any other person who has had an impact on America … just not much personality to work with – though his actions have created some of the most interesting discussions over the past few years.

Joining Snowden in the hotel room are Melissa Leo as Ms. Poitrus, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson showing off a Scottish accent as journalist (from The Guardian) Ewen MacAskill. The second storyline takes us through the initial recruitment and subsequent rise through the CIA and NSA, as we see how Snowden continually uncovered more about how the government was spying on citizens. His interactions along the way – such as Rhys Ifans as his CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian and Nic Cage as disgruntled agent Hank Forrester – provide a spark of energy on screen. The third piece of the pie revolves around Snowden and his politically-polar-opposite girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

Since it’s an Oliver Stone movie (he co-wrote the screenplay with Kiernan Fitzgerald), we fully expect his political views to be on full display. It’s clear he is sympathetic and fully supportive of Snowden’s actions, and does his best to paint him as a patriot who had no choice but to go public with his belief that the spying had nothing to do with terrorism, but was instead a form of social and economic control. Based on the books “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kutcherena and “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding, the film portrays Snowden as increasingly disenchanted and disappointed, beginning in 2003 and moving through 2013.

Stone’s feel for visuals come into play as we track Snowden through Virginia, Geneva, Hawaii, Japan and finally Russia. Along the route, familiar faces pop up in almost every new scene – Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 10), Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Ben Schnetzer, and Joely Richardson. There are a couple of sequences in which Stone applies his stamp … a party with drones hovering overhead (until they aren’t), and an impactful full wall Skype with Rhys Ifans’ face looming larger than Snowden’s entire body.

Whistleblower or turncoat? Hero or traitor? Most people fall pretty clearly on one side of the debate, and there’s no doubt where Stone stands. Just prior to the voice of Peter Gabriel over the closing credits and clips of the real Ed Snowden, there is a fancy edit where Stone shows him at his computer in his current home in Russia. Stone’s movie makes a nice companion piece to Citizenfour, but if you are only going to see one, choose the documentary.

watch the trailer:

 


THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

June 8, 2014

fault Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read John Green’s book, and missing his targeted demographics by gender and a few decades, the narrator’s very early criticism of my favorite teen movie Say Anything … had me quickly questioning whether I was going to make it through this one. The greatness of Shailene Woodley soon won me over and I was all in.

The story revolves around a teenage girl named Hazel (Woodley) who was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and has remained alive and active thanks to an experimental drug. She is an exceptionally perceptive girl and carries the burden of worrying about how (or if) her parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammell) will carry on after her death. She attends a teenage support group to keep her parents happy, and bumps into a friendship with a spirited young man named Gus (Ansel Elgort) … a self-labeled one-legged 18 year old virgin cancer survivor.

You guessed it … this is a tear-jerker. But it’s even more of a love story. Specifically, it’s a story about the joy in finding someone to love. While the cancer is ever-present, it’s the love story that captures our interest. When the story veers from that, it suffers. The trip to Amsterdam and the segment with Willem Dafoe seems out of place until even that is eclipsed by the final scene at the Anne Frank house. I understand the point, but it struck me as forced emotions … in a movie that was not lacking emotion.

Regardless of all of that, the reason to see this is the genius of Shailene Woodley. Neither she nor Elgort are real life teenagers, but they perfectly capture the adorable balance between awkward and witty. Woodley’s range is staggering (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, Divergent) and she and Jennifer Lawrence should be blessing us with their talent for many many years to come.

Director Josh Boone benefits not just from the presence of Woodley, but also the screenplay, co-written by Scott Neustadler and Michael H Weber who also co-wrote both (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. Their feel for dialogue and budding relationships is spot on, delivering a level of respect to both sexes. This film is very sweet and filled with grace, and tainted only by the saccharine musical choices and the Amsterdam sequence.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to follow the career of the amazingly talented young actress Shailene Woodley OR you are due for a good tear-jerker OR you need visual proof that a Rik Smits jersey plays a vital role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe summer movies should be filled with special effects and big budget actions and superheroes and mutants and aliens.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)

August 16, 2013

spectacular1 Greetings again from the darkness. Coming-of-age teen dramas with a comedic flair that speak to that tumultuous period of life are rarely worthy of discussion. The exceptions hover film greatness: Rebel Without a Cause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, and Say Anything … Along comes young director James Ponsoldt and his adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel. While not perfect and falling just short of the level of those classics, it is nonetheless a welcome addition and quite interesting.

It’s tempting to call Sutter (played by up-and-comer Miles Teller) a happy-go-lucky kid. He’s the frat boy type – quick with a quip, smooth with the parents and girls, and the envy of the masses. However, that term would be misapplied to a kid who not only is never without his flask, but also gives them as gifts. He uses his wit and booze to dull spectacular2the pain of his aimless existence. We see his lackadaisical efforts at completing a college admission form, and it’s used as a plot device to track Sutter’s progression/maturation through the film.

Brie Larson is terrific as Sutter’s perfect match … right up until she decides that his philosophy of living in the now (even spectacularly) doesn’t leave hope for much of a future. After an extreme night of drinking and partying, Sutter gets awakened while laying in a neighbor’s front yard. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) is bookworm Aimee Finicky, who recognizes the popular Sutter, even though he has no idea who she is. Slowly, the two connect on a level previously unknown to either … some good, some not so wise (just like real teenagers).

spectacular3 This couple of opposites learn much from each other, and soon enough, Sutter is confronting his long last father (Kyle Chandler). No real surprises what he discovers, but it’s a life lesson that must be learned. Sutter seeks more from his remaining family – a big sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who escaped the grind, and a workaholic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doing her best to provide hope for Sutter.

The script is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who also wrote (500) Days of Summer. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe proved they could present teen dilemmas in an entertaining way, and this one follows the same structure. This is a dialogue-heavy story as Sutter and Aimee struggle alone and together to figure out life’s next steps.

I will say that for the first few minutes of the movie, I found Sutter to be the kind of guy that I would typically have no interest in. Tip of the cap to the filmmakers and Miles Teller for turning that around. It should also be noted that Shailene Woodley is so naturally affecting, that her character never comes across as anything but sincere. Given the state of today’s mainstream coming of age stories, this one definitely deserves a look and could gather some attention come awards time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a smart, mostly believable (Shailene Woodley would never go unnoticed in a high school) story about coming to terms with yourself at age 18 (we’ve all been there!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: teen movies with raunchy comedy are the only teen movies you want to see (there seems to be an endless supply)

watch the trailer:

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

 

 


THE DESCENDANTS

November 19, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh … finally! I was beginning to wonder if 2011 was going to produce a film that I could whole-heartedly recommend to both cinephiles and casual movie goers. Writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered a gem. And in a giant surprise, it stars George Clooney as a guy going through real life stress, and in his own words, “just trying to keep his head above water“.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who is also the trustee of a family land trust. Only this is no typical family land trust. It involves thousands of pristine Kauai acreage that has been left untouched for hundreds of years. The endless stream of “cousins” want him to sell to a developer for enough gold to make them all filthy rich. The locals don’t want him to sell as they believe in the spiritual nature of land, not the green backs of hotels and beachfront homes. And Matt only wishes this was his biggest problem.

 Matt’s fun-loving wife has been injured in a speed boat accident. She is in a coma and the prognosis is not bright. She also has a living will that states no life-support, which is another of the problems Matt must face. Additionally, he must re-connect with his two daughters. See, Matt has been the workaholic attorney that has left the child-rearing to his wife. The two daughters prove to be more than a hand full for the clueless Matt. Scottie (Amana Miller) is the youngest and is struggling with how to react to the state of her mother. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is off at boarding school in hopes that she can be tamed from her wild ways. These three must come together and really bond for the first time.

 Those three problems would be enough for any one man to handle, but Matt receives one more bit of information. Turns out his wife was having an affair at the time of her boating accident. So, “having a bad day” seems a little insufficient for Matt’s situation. At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn turn and almost becomes a mini-road trip movie. Matt, his two daughters and Alexandra’s odd friend Sid (Nick Krause) take on the mission of informing friends and relatives, while also tracking down the “other guy”.

It may seem like I have given away much of the story, but in fact, all of that has been discussed in one of the trailers. What sets this film apart is how this web of stress is handled by Matt and daughters. The story is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the screenplay is co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Watching Matt as he struggles through each decision and situation makes us pull for him, even though he really isn’t anything special … he’s not all that friendly or charming (a rarity for a Clooney character), and certainly not a polished parent.

 Alexander Payne has given us About Schmidt and it’s been 7 years since his last feature, Sideways. Both of those excellent films, and this one, give us a character on the brink … full crisis mode. Some of his characters lash out (Paul Giamatti in Sideways), while others turn to introspection (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). Here, Clooney’s character seems to have many decisions to make, but the biggest one is reconnecting with his own soul and being the kind of man he needs to be, for himself, his daughters and the sacred land.

 In addition to Clooney’s fine work, I was very impressed with Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter.  Veteran Robert Forster turns in a macho role as Clooney’s father-in-law, who harbors some resentment towards him.  Matthew Lilliard and the underrated Judy Greer play the crucial roles of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Speer. Beau Bridges plays the leader of the cousins, which also includes Michael Ontkean (from The Rookies in the 70’s).  You might also recognize surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Troy, the driver of the boat when Clooney’s wife is injured. The other two key characters are the beautiful state of Hawaii and the pitch perfect guitar and island music throughout.

The characters and story are so effective that you will find yourself tearing up in the same scene where you laugh out loud. And that will happen more than once. Few filmmakers can walk the high wire between comedy and drama better than Payne. We connect with these character as they are real people … we KNOW these people. And we know excellent filmmaking when we see it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a multi-faceted script with realistic characters and dialogue that sounds like something any of us might actually say OR you would like to see Clooney’s best performance to date (even better than Syriana).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to lean towards slapstick and your drama to be a bit less real-world scenario

watch the trailer: