April 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For true sports fans, movies about sports tend to be disappointing. It’s not possible for actors to perform athletically at the same level of sports icons, and inevitably, the writer or director is simply unaware of the nuances and details that make an event or player memorable. The 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was not simply a marketing dream between two polar opposite personalities; it was also a bravura performance by two competitors fighting for their sport’s pinnacle. It was a transcendent event for those of us (including yours truly) who couldn’t take our eyes off the TV screen.

The debut narrative feature film from director Janus Metz and the script from Ronnie Sandahl never really grasp the impact of the match, and instead turn this into psycho-babble about how parents and coaches may damage the person as they create the player. Sverrir Gudnason plays Bjorn Borg and Shia LeBeouf takes on the John McEnroe role. With roots in Denmark, director Metz likely finds the Borg story more interesting and devotes most of the attention to the cool Swede superstar, and Gudnason performs admirably. However, it’s LeBeouf as Super Brat McEnroe that comes across as a much more intriguing character … and we are left wanting more (and better).

The psychological analysis shows a young Borg (played by his own son Leo at ages 9-13) as an uncontrollable hothead on the court. Sound familiar? Yep, we are informed that the young Borg was a mirror image of the McEnroe he would later face across the net. We see that Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin (in yet another solid turn by Stellan Skarsgard) drives him to bury his emotions and use them as internal fire for intensity on the court. We also glimpse Borg’s legendary OCD tendencies with his rackets, room temperature and even his interactions with fiancé Mariana Simionescu (played by Tuva Novotny).

For McEnroe, we see how his parents pushed him and were never satisfied (a 96 on your Geography test?  What happened?). We see a young man obsessed with tennis and competition. He charts the tournament bracket on his hotel room wall and refuses to speak to a close friend who happens to be his opponent that day. And of course we witness the on court outbursts … some of which are memes almost 40 years later. His dad, played here by Ian Blackman, strikes the familiar pose in the stands of arms crossed while wearing the white floppy hat.

Presenting this as Muzak (Borg) versus Rock and Roll (McEnroe) is really unfair to both men. Cool and collected versus raging madman underscores the amazing tennis talent. Baseliner versus serve-and-volley was the on court battle. The prim and proper traditions of the sport being dragged into the contemporary world by a young up-and-comer is fascinating and was culturally important. It was a rivalry that rejuvenated professional tennis and it deserved better treatment that armchair psychology.

watch the trailer:

MAN DOWN (2016)

December 3, 2016

man-down Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps this movie and story would have hit me harder had I not recently watched Michael King’s documentary When War Comes Home. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the focus of both films, but the reality of the three soldiers in King’s film simply packs a bigger emotional punch than the fictionalized version of one soldier in this latest from director Dito Montiel. That said, the dramatization offers a few worthy moments.

The story/stories revolve around a new Marine named Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf). We are bounced between three timeframes: a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world; the time Gabriel is serving on the frontlines of Afghanistan; the pre-Marines time when we see Gabriel as a loving father, husband and friend … he’s the kind of dad who surprises his son with a birthday puppy, and creates a secret phrase so he can tell his son he loves him without embarrassing him at school.

An interrogation sequence between Gabriel and the military counselor (played by the great Gary Oldman) provides the film’s best scenes … the two actors go head to head in what is really psychological warfare in a trailer office. There is an “incident” that occurred, and the counselor is attempting to figure out Gabriel’s mental state. Once we are provided the details of the incident, we fully understand why Gabriel is an emotional mess, and basically shut-down from conversation and life.

Kate Mara appears as Gabriel’s wife and Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic) as his son. The film probably would have benefitted from more attention on the family foundation prior to Gabriel being shipped out. Jai Courtney stars as Gabriel’s close and lifelong friend, though when Gabriel asks his friend to “watch out for my family”, we know where things are headed. It’s here where the film just stretches too far. The effects of war provided plenty to make the point director Montiel is going for, and the cheap/clumsy gimmick only distracts.

LaBeouf is in fine form and in quite a different role than his quick-with-a-quip charmer in this year’s American Honey. This latest film probably has more in common with A Beautiful Mind than with Born on the Fourth of July, or any other film dealing with post-war challenges. The statistics posted prior to the closing credits make it obvious that Montiel meant this as a message movie – making the melodrama and extreme visuals all the more misplaced. Montiel made some festival noise with his 2006 debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and it seems he is destined to make a really good movie at some point.

watch the trailer:





October 13, 2016

american-honey  Greetings again from the darkness. Movies are often classified according to genre: comedy, thriller, romance, drama, etc. Writer/director Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, 2011) pays little attention to such labels, and seems to take immense pleasure in spotlighting a segment of society that rarely gets the silver screen treatment. Rather than bring us yet another lawyer, cop, teacher or writer, Ms. Arnold demands we pay attention to a group of misfits.

Our introduction to Star (Sasha Lane) comes from inside a dumpster as she and her young siblings are diving for food behind a grocery store, and afterwards hitchhiking for a ride back home. A chance parking lot meeting with an energetic young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads Star to take some drastic actions … including joining Jake and his traveling troupe of free-spirited cohorts as they drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions and staying in cheap hotels. In between fabricated sales pitches, there is much alcohol, drugs, hip hop, and sex.

Jake is the top salesperson, but it’s Krystal (Riley Keough) who supervises the group with threats, punishment and insults. She understands this is a captive audience with few options … even asking Star “Will anyone miss you?” That question is at the core of what keeps this group together. The van gang is the only community to which they belong – the closest thing to family they have. The handbook’s stated purpose may be to “make money”, but fundamentally, these folks just want to fit in somewhere.

Director Arnold takes a quasi-documentary approach (similar to last year’s Tangerine) that delivers a realistic feel to a world most of us have little knowledge of. Seeing these scam artists bounce through suburbs and rural areas, willing to take advantage of most anyone along the way, generates both empathy and disgust. By design, it’s Star with whom we most relate. She clearly has a conscience, but is as naïve to the world as she is sensitive to her own desires. A simple question (used twice) is a kick in the gut to viewers, and the dreams and hopes of these misfits are most puzzling of all.

The use of music is exceptionally well done, leaning heavily on hip-hop and Rihanna (twice). The titular Lady Antebellum song has its moment, as does Darth Vader philosophy and a few flying creatures. Though the run time is entirely too long for an indie that really doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, we don’t mind too much since we are watching the birth of a new star. Sasha Lane makes an incredible debut, and though the director “discovered” her on spring break in Florida, the natural talent here runs deep. I’m not sure of the market for this film, but it seems obvious Ms. Lane has a much brighter future than her character – or any of the others riding along in the van.

watch the trailer:



July 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pride myself on being a fan of many different types of films – everything from World Cinema to Super Heroes.  However, it would be unfair to analyze, critique or compare a Transformers movie to any “normal” movie. Being somewhat limited in scope by the source material, director Michael Bay, delivers what the fan of the series want … full scale noise and all-out action.

While Mr. Bay admitted that part two of this trilogy was lacking much (an understatement), it appears his efforts to improve part three come not from a script doctor, but rather by tossing in some familiar Hollywood faces: John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and Ken Jeong. Oh, and we also get Bill O’Reilly, an odd sequence with legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon), and the best surprise – Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime.

 Most of the same key players are back: Shia LaBeouf as Sam (friend to Optimus Prime), John Turturro (having cashed in on his 10 min of fame), Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as soldiers, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents in a couple of throw away scenes that cost much less than the CGI that dominates the movie.

While I remain an avid opponent to 3-D, this film offers a few of the best uses since Avatar. Unfortunately the dimmed coloring offset the benefits and continue to annoy me. Just remove your glasses periodically and you can easily see how much brighter the colors are without the 3-D muting. Such a shame.

 Michael Bay knows explosions. And there is no shortage on display here. We get plenty of rock ’em sock ’em action and the military is on full display, especially with some pretty cool skydiving tactics. Heck, we even get Frances McDormand as a power-hungry bureaucrat. For those who know Chicago, the familiar sights abound. The Wrigley Building plays a vital role, though it still bothers me a bit to see a skyscraper destroyed. I will say the tilted office is not even close to the cool factor of the rotating hallway of Inception, though the effort is appreciated.

 The battle of the robots is what (lots of) people pay to see and the 40 plus minute final battle is something to behold, even if it drags on entirely too long. And I can’t fail to mention that the lack of presence of Megan Fox‘ character is explained a couple of times as having “dumped” Sam. Sam has rebounded nicely with Carly, played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks just fine in a $200,000 Mercedes, a slim white dress or conversing with an injured villainous robot. Yes, one must maintain a sense of humor during this movie.

The use of slo-motion, the ties to the space program, and the connection to Chernobyl are all a bit heavy-handed, but this is a Transformers movie, not a documentary. And the actual transformation of these guys is still one of the coolest on screen moments you can find … even if the story and dialogue will have you desperate for brain resuscitation when the movie finally ends.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Bay-splosions!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t believe the same guy (Peter Cullen) who voices Optimus Prime, also voice Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame


September 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The much anticipated sequel to the 1987 original has Oliver Stone back in the director’s seat for one of the most iconic characters in movie history, Gordon Gekko.  Michael Douglas is back as GG and the film opens as he is being released from prison … with no one there to pick him up. He is truly on his own.

Skip ahead a few years and we see Shia LeBeouf as Jake, a Wall Street hotshot working for Frank Langella, a Wall Street legend. It is very obvious that this legend, and Jake’s mentor, is in deep trouble and the entire market is pretty wobbly. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s 2008. Ahh yes, the juicy part … Jake is getting engaged to the lovely Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who just happens to be Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter. Now we’re rolling!

Turns out, the dirty tricks and back room deals didn’t stop while Gekko was incarcerated. Josh Brolin plays a high roller for a thinly disguised firm that most will recognize as Goldman Sachs. Brolin thinks he was wronged a few years back by Langella, and can’t wait to get even when the opportunity presents itself in a meeting with the Treasury Secretary. Sound deliciously nasty? Well not so fast.

The movie steers away from much of the back-stabbing and dirty deal making that was so prevalent in the original. It even avoids much commentary on the scuzzy financial services industry leaders who managed to profit while all of our retirement plans and home values were plummeting. Instead, we get an overabundance of melodramatic, sappy conversation about feelings and family and time. Apparently Gekko found a semblance of a soul while in prison. He’s certainly not perfect, but this is not the wheeler-dealer that was so much fun to hiss in part one.

Oliver Stone tosses in some touches that help: Charlie Sheen reprises his Bud Fox role for a brief encounter with Gekko, there are some terrific shots of NYC and we get Sylvia Miles back as the Realtor – this time helping Jake dump his loft in a soft market. We even get 95 year old Eli Wallach whistling his way through a power role, complete with Jake’s ringer playing the theme song to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. All fun aspects, but they don’t offset the inordinate number of times we must endure people choking up and crying. Had to check the credits to see if Nora Ephron was co-director.

Bottom line, if you enjoyed the original, you probably owe it to yourself to see how Gekko has come full circle. The ride is fine, just not at the same level as we were treated 23 years ago.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1987 original OR you have been waiting to see Shia LeBeouf play grown-up

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking tips on stocks or revenge OR your idea of fun is a steady stream of plastic surgery and “money room” jewelry