Greetings again from the darkness. The word of the day is “awkward.” Every character, every situation, every moment, and every conversation in this film can be described with that word. An attempt will be made to not overuse that adjective here, but yours truly offers no guarantees. Paul Schrader has had a long and impressive career as both writer and director. His early successes include screenplays for TAXI DRIVER (1976), ROLLING THUNDER (1977), RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988), as well as directing AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980) and AFFLICTION (1997). The past few years have been a bit of a resurgence for Schrader with the excellent FIRST REFORMED (2018) and THE CARD COUNTER (2021).
In his latest, Schrader gives us Narvel Roth, an expert horticulturalist played by Joel Edgerton. Narvel is responsible for the massive gardens on the estate of wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel’s daily rituals are carried forth with his meticulous approach, including daily journaling in his sparse living quarters located on the grounds of the estate. As narrator, Narvel tells us, “a change will come in its due time”, and though he’s speaking of the garden, we understand the words also apply to him. Soon enough, we learn that this current lifestyle represents a significant change from his past, and it’s clear another is brewing.
The relationship between Narvel and Ms. Haverhill is quite unorthodox, and yes, awkward (she has nicknamed him ‘Sweet Pea’). She is filled with entitlement and thrives on her power over others, not hesitating to use Narvel for more than his gardening skills. In fact, his past likely provides quite an enticement for her. Ms. Haverhill soon charges Narvel with taking her estranged and off-track great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, BLACK ADAM, 2022) under his wing and teaching her the profession of gardening. This creates the second and third of the three relationships at play in the film. Narvel and Maya hit it off, as her intelligence and work ethic win him over. However, things aren’t as smooth between Maya and Ms. Haverhill. Their first chat, though long delayed, epitomizes the awkwardness prevalent throughout the film.
Adding complexity to the story is Maya’s personal life which brings a couple of drug dealers to the forefront. It’s this development that uncovers the past Narvel has worked so hard to cover up. After a meeting with his Witness Protection contact (Esai Morales), Narvel begins his process of ‘saving’ Maya … a clear attempt at redemption from his past life, and this is where her being bi-racial is a significant plot point.
The first two acts offer an unconventional form of entertainment. Edgerton nails the Narvel role with his Steven Wright delivery, slicked back hair, SLING BLADE wardrobe, and fastidious procession through the day. Even his posture and stride change along with his character’s shifting outlook. The three relationships between the tormented characters weave quite the web, and as secrets are exposed, the dynamics of these relationships change as well. Schrader includes a few cringy lines of dialogue (perhaps by design?), and the drug dealers seem purposefully cartoonish, rather than intimidating or menacing. There are call-backs to earlier Schrader works, as it seems many of his characters over the years have battled personal demons, yet this one does offer a glimmer of optimism, which could be considered a step forward … even if it’s a bit awkward.
Greetings again from the darkness. I’ll admit that I’m not easily dazzled, and I’m very happy to admit that the thirteen years since James Cameron’s AVATAR was not just worth the wait – this latest one truly dazzled me. While the 2009 film was impressive from a technical standpoint, the new one is awe-inspiring, especially in the underwater sequences. I should disclose that I saw this on a huge screen in a theater with a spectacular sound system, and even the 3D glasses didn’t bother me at all (a first). The usually annoying muted color tones of 3D were minimal here, and the colors still popped as the 3D effects became a part of the presentation rather than the typical gimmickry.
Heading back to Pandora is either something you look forward to or could care less about. For those who have been anxiously awaiting the release, prepare to be amazed and stunned at just how far the CGI has come since Cameron set the standard years ago. On the other hand, one should be prepared for a middling, cliché-driven story with a script by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with story credits to Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno. And since there will be at least one more film in the franchise (filmed simultaneously with this one), and possibly as many as three more, be prepared for unresolved and dangling story lines (that you may or may not care about). The reality is that the magic of the Avatar movies is in the visuals – escapism and fantasy creatures – not in the plot.
A lot has happened since the previous film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi (via genetic engineering) is now a tribal leader on Pandora. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two teenage sons and a young daughter, as well as an adopted teenage girl Kiri (played via stop-motion by Sigourney Weaver, one of the scientists in the original), and a quasi-adopted human son named Spider (Jack Champion). Family bliss in paradise is a pretty darn good life … at least until the evil humans return, scorching the land with their machinery. Since humans have pretty much ruined Earth, the mission is to find a new homeland, and what better place than Pandora. A miscast Edie Falco is the General leading the mission, and her advanced exoskeleton is a nod to Ripley in Cameron’s ALIENS. Her elite squadron of Na’vi Avatars is led Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a human character who died in the first film, but his memories are now implanted in a physically superior Na’vi body and he has revenge on the mind … specifically hunting Sully and Neytiri.
As beautiful as Pandora is (and it is), the island that Sully and family escape to takes beauty to another level. This tribe of Na’vi has evolved to live at one with the ocean. The water people aren’t overly excited about taking in the forest people, especially since bad guys are chasing the newcomers, and what follows is a stream of predictable interactions – though the predictability is quickly forgiven once Cameron takes us beneath the surface. It’s truly breathtaking to see this underwater world filled with wildlife, plants, and coral. The creatures are unique, colorful and exciting, none more so than the mega-whales considered spirit animals by the water people.
The stop-motion technology means we see only a few actual humans, though the cast is often recognizable, and in addition to Worthington, Saldana, Weaver, Lang, and Champion, it includes Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Jemaine Clement, Cliff Curtis, and CCH Pounder. But this isn’t a showcase for actors. Instead, it’s a showcase for Cameron to blend his love of technology with his love of the ocean and commitment to environmental protection. He succeeds in wowing us and reminding us what a true cinematic spectacle can be. Another warning I’ll offer is that at least one-third (maybe closer to half) of the film is either the hour-long battle in the final act, or some other action sequence sprinkled in. Just don’t think this is a relaxing getaway to Pandora! Lastly, for those interested in seeing this, I encourage you to seek out a local theater that is decked out with the latest technology, and don’t shy away from 3D showings unless you are one of those who get nauseous or experience motion-sickness.
Greetings again from the darkness. For many of us, our exposure to whales is limited to learning in school they are the largest mammals on Earth, and browsing travel guides displaying fantastic photographs of breeching whales alongside various tour excursions. National Geographic is on a mission to take us deeper into the world of these marvelous marine creatures. This 4-part docuseries is Executive Produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and award-winning photographer Brian Skerry, and was filmed over 3 years in multiple locations around the globe.
Episode One is titled “Orca Dynasty”, and it explores communication and social structure that occurs within the family pod and community … a recurring theme in each of the episodes, and across the five types of whales covered. Orcas, sometimes referred to as “killer whales”, are the gorgeous black and white whales often featured at water parks … although thankfully not as frequently as in the past. This segment takes us to New Zealand where we see the Orcas work together in hunting stingray, and utilize sophisticated sonar as their guide. We also follow them to the frigid water of the Arctic Ocean, as well as their confrontations with elephant seals in The Falklands.
Episode Two, “Humpback Song”, features a baby learning to “speak”, and again focuses on the culture and communication of the humpbacks. We witness these whales using their large brains for “bubblenet” fishing in Alaska – a highly coordinated effort that has been occurring for 40-plus years. The humpbacks breech and then slap their fin to communicate with each other. Their ‘song of the sea’ is featured in the Cook Islands, and we see the bonding that occurs between mother and calf. It’s awe-inspiring to note that 100,000 whales from around the world simultaneously head to Antarctica for a krill buffet that results in each whale gaining up to 12 pounds an hour!
In Episode Three, “Beluga Kingdom”, we follow along as these creamy white whales and their exceptionally social manner, adopt a stray narwhal whale into their pod so that it doesn’t die alone. The narwhals are the most unusual looking whale in existence, even in comparison to the Belugas. With skin 100 times thicker than humans, Belugas are also known for group births, and generations of Belugas have spent one-third of their summers in Hudson Bay (Canada).
The fourth and final episode, “Ocean Giants” focuses on the massive sperm whales, best known as “Moby Dick”. We learn their brains are six times larger than humans, and they use a Morse Code style clicking sound to communicate with each other. In Dominica (eastern Caribbean) we find 20 sperm whale families who deep dive to feed on 100 squid per day. This segment also includes the often tragic ramifications of human debris in the ocean, as sea turtles are entangled in discarded fishing nets.
Photography throughout the series is stunning and breath-taking. It takes us to places we never knew existed or might have previously only dreamt of. The only downside is the narration from Sigourney Weaver, whose lack of energy in reading, periodically gives this the sound of an old-school educational film. James Cameron provides an epilogue for each episode, but without a doubt, it’s the fabulous creatures themselves that hold our attention. We find the Orcas, Humpbacks, Belugas, Narwhals, and Sperm Whales to be awe-inspiring and mesmerizing, and it’s fascinating to learn how intricate and complex their social structures and cultures are. These intelligent giants of the sea draw us right into their world; and we are better off for it.
Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, premieres Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The three-year project will also be featured in the new National Geographic book Secrets of the Whales, on sale April 6, and the May issue of National Geographic magazine, The Ocean Issue, available online on April 15.
Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of famous reclusive writers. Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon, and even Edgar Allan Poe surely earned the label. Yet, thanks to his book “The Catcher in the Rye”, J.D. Salinger remains the most mysterious of them all. First published in 1951, ‘Catcher’ has long appealed to angsty teenagers caught up in the excitement of relating to Holden Caulfield’s rebellion, and construed from this is that author Salinger must be the only one who understands them.
Filmmaker Phillippe Falardeau (THE GOOD LIE, 2014) has adapted the 2014 memoir of Joanna Smith Rakoff, who recounted her time working for the New York literary agency that represented Salinger. Set in the mid-90s, the film centers on Joanna (played by Margaret Qualley, ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD, 2019), as she leaves school and a boyfriend behind in California to pursue writing in the Big Apple, because, as she states in her opening monologue, “It’s what I want.”
The dream of writing and the reality of earning a living come crashing down on Joanna as she secures a job as a secretary under Margaret (3 time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver), who is protective of her most secretive client, J.D. Salinger, whom she refers to as “Jerry”. Margaret and the agency are “old school” and use only typewriters since she believes computers only create more work. Joanna’s job description is this: read the piles of Salinger fan letters that arrive, ensure there is no threat of violence, categorize said letter, send the appropriate form letter response, and shred the original. Rinse and repeat hundreds of times.
Though she has little time to write, Joanna finds a boyfriend in Don (Douglas Booth, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016), a selfish guy working on his own novel. We see Joanna at home with Don and at work with Margaret, Jerry’s fan mail, and co-workers Hugh and Daniel, played by veteran character actors Bryan F O’Byrne and Colm Feore, respectively. The obsessive fan letters start to get to Joanna, and she breaks protocol by sending a personal reply to one. One writer in particular, played by Theodore Pellerin (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) becomes an illusion that Joanna’s mind brings into real moments of her life. This happens between her phone conversations with Salinger (played with effective elusiveness by Tim Post).
Similarities to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA creep in occasionally, but it’s how likable Margaret Qualley is that keeps us interested, despite us knowing almost nothing about her writing abilities. We only know she’s written a couple of poems and red-lined Don’s first novel. She proclaims she wants to be “extraordinary”, but after seeing the effects of success on Salinger, we can’t help but wonder why she hasn’t adjusted that goal a bit. The iconic photograph of J.D. Salinger hangs on the wall by Joanna’s desk, and though he died in 2010, his work still impacts readers some 70 years after being published. This film isn’t quite so memorable, but it’s easy enough to watch.
Greetings again from the darkness. “From ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-legged beasties/ And things that go bump in the night,/ Good Lord, deliver us”. It’s an old Scottish poem that doesn’t take into account what movies like Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, The BFG, and now this latest from director JA Bayona have intimated this year … not all those ‘bumps’ are necessarily evil.
Lewis MacDougal delivers an incredibly nuanced performance displaying a wide array of emotions as “a boy too young to be a man, and too old to be a child”. His beloved mother (the always terrific Felicity Jones) is bedridden with a terminal illness, and Conor faces relentless pressure for a kid: bullies at school, a dying mom, a strict grandmother, and some rough and vivid dreams/nightmares. As his clock flips to 12:07 am, he watches as a Groot-like giant sprouts from a nearby Yew tree. It’s an intimidating and magnificent beast who, through the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson, informs Conor that he will tell the boy three stories … after which Conor must tell his own.
The meaning behind the three stories (Prince/Queen, Apothecary/Parson, Invisible Man) is not immediately obvious to Conor, but the stories are animated through beautiful watercolors providing depth to the dreams and the lessons. This fascinating film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness who completed the idea of Siobhan Dowd after she passed away from the terminal illness that inspired the story.
I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be a kid’s movie in the style of another featuring the voice work of Mr. Neeson (as Aslan) – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe(2005). Instead, it’s a heavy drama, filled with emotions beyond what most kids experience. Conor is trying to come to grips with living with his stuffy grandmother (a solid Sigourney Weaver) while his mother slowly fades (but not without first introducing her son to the original misunderstood beast in King Kong), and already having a mostly absentee Dad (Toby Kebbell).
As with most tearjerkers (and this certainly is that!), there will be those who describe it as manipulative and obvious, but it’s likely most will find it to be a touching, well-written, superbly acted film with standout special effects utilized for the advancement of the story. Young Mr. MacDougal carries most of the movie and seamlessly bounds from anger to sadness to hopeful. Director Bayona proved in The Impossibleand The Orphanagethat he has an eye for kid actors, and when combined with the voice of Liam and the other fine actors it makes for a powerful experience … and a reminder that dealing with death is difficult for both kids and parents, and we all need a little help letting go (displayed literally here).
**NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will spot a photograph of Liam Neeson as Conor’s grandfather on a shelf in the house.
Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.
Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.
A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.
The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.
Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’sThe Ten Commandments(either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians
Greetings again from the darkness. Dirty cops happen in real life sometimes, and in the movies quite often. It can be an intriguing subject to explore … psychological demons, ego, power-mongering, etc. Typically we see it presented as a cop torn between doing the right thing and feeling like he is owed something. Rarely do we see a cop portrayed as beyond hope … so far gone morally that redemption is no longer even a possibility.
Writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) present to us Officer Dave Brown, known to his fellow cops (and even his daughter) as “Date Rape” Dave. The moniker stems from a vice incident where Brown supposedly dished out street justice to a serial date rapist. With no proof of his guilt, Brown remained on the force and his rogue manner has now escalated to the point where he is a constant danger to himself and others. This guy has no moral filter for everyday living.
Officer Brown is played with searing intensity by a Woody Harrelson you have never before seen. As loathsome a character as you will ever find, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is hated by EVERYONE! Somehow he has daughters by his two ex-wives (who are sisters) and they all live together in a messed up commune where ‘hate’ is the secret word of the day, every day. Most of the time no one speaks to Dave except to tell him to “get out”. He spends his off hours drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having meaningless sex. Heck, that’s just about how he spends his time while on duty as well. Dave’s behavior and the theme of the movie seem to be explained in a scene when he tells the IA Detective (Ice Cube) that he is not a racist because a he hates “all people equally“.
The supporting cast is phenomenal, though most aren’t given but a scene or two. This includes Robin Wright (who nearly matches Dave in the tortured soul department), Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, and Steve Buscemi. The first hour feels like an Actor’s Retreat as most every scene introduces another familiar face.
Still, as terrific as Harrelson is, and as deep as the cast is, the film is just too one note and downbeat and hopeless to captivate most viewers. Some of Moverman’s camera work is quite distracting and the sex club scene was pure overkill and unnecessary. Downward spiral is much too neutral a term to describe this character’s path and ultimately, that prevents the film from delivering any type of message. Harrelson had been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate, but it would not be surprising if the film itself worked to his detriment.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a fantastic performance by Woody HarrelsonOR you are just looking for a way to kill that pesky feeling of joy that’s been following you around lately
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need to like at least one character in a movie
Greetings again from the darkness. I have said many times that comedies are the most difficult of all film genres since no two people have the same sense of humor, and everyone considers themselves to be funny. While many people laughed til they cried during The Hangover, others walked out of the theatre or simply had no interest at all. The same can be said for just about any Mel Brooks movie, as well as his contemporary, Judd Apatow. What we do know, is that a comedy’s chance for success comes down to its characters, and in this area, Cedar Rapids works like a charm.
Ed Helms (Andy in “The Office”) stars as Tim Lippe, the most sheltered, naive mid-western insurance agent ever captured on film. Lippe lives and works in Brown Valley, Wisconsin … the most sheltered, naive mid-western town ever captured on film. He truly believes insurance salesmen serve a higher cause. His only real excitement is found through his “pre-engagement” to his 7th grade teacher played well by Sigourney Weaver (probably the most worldly person in Brown Valley). When an embarrassing accident claims the life of their hot shot agent, the agency owner (Stephen Root) sends Lippe to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids. His mission: to win the coveted 2-Diamond Award presented by industry legend Orin Helgesson (a pious Kurtwood Smith).
Since a lone character can’t generate many laughs, circumstances at the convention cause Lippe to find himself roommates with a very noble Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr from “The Wire”) and fast-talking poacher Dean Ziegler (John C Reilly). These 3 are joined together by Nebraska agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Lippe is quickly introduced to the “real world” (heavy drinking, sexual inneuendo, pranks, etc) by his new friends and after the first 20 minutes of set-up, the lines and settings get funnier and funnier.
As with most comedies these days, the trailer gives away much more than it should; but, unlike most, it leaves plenty of laughs and situations for the film. What really makes this work is that all characters are actually very nice people … they are just a bit exaggerated in their traits. Lippe is a bit too naive. Wilkes is a bit too uptight. Ziegler is a bit too obnoxious, and Fox is just a little too lonely and adventurous. Still, their earnestness is what keeps the film grounded. One of the best parts of the gag is that somehow Cedar Rapids, Iowa is cast as sin city! We aren’t talking Vegas, NYC or Paris … but CEDAR RAPIDS!
Mr. Helms is really a comic force. He has the extraordinary ability to never hold back or worry that he might not look cool. Even as the lead character, he knows when scene-stealer John C Reilly should have the spotlight. This is a tremendous asset for a comic. Mr. Whitlock spouts some funny lines in homage to “The Wire” and Ms. Heche refuses to overplay the lonely wife out for a good time.
I won’t give away much, but will warn that some of the humor is crude … especially most of Riley’s rapid-fire zingers. If you appreciate a balance of outlandish one-liners with humorous real people, then you might want to check this one out. I have only previously known this director, Miguel Arteta, as the guy responsible for Jennifer Aniston‘s best screen performance (The Good Girl). Now I look forward to his next project.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you could use a few good laughs here in the middle of winter
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedies to be a bit more highbrow