FINAL PORTRAIT (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Geoffrey Rush is such a uniquely talented performer that I wouldn’t hesitate to walk into any of his projects with little hint as to the subject matter. He is simply that good at what he does. Here he plays renowned Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, a man Rush seems destined to play given their quite similar physical appearances. It’s a 90 minute joy ride (though it’s not really joyful) for anyone who enjoys watching an artist work … or in this case, an artist working as an artist.

Writer-director Stanley Tucci is best known for his acting career, and he also has an eye for the camera and clearly admires Giacometti and his work. Set in 1964 Paris, most of the film takes place in Giacometti’s shabby little compound that includes his studio and a bedroom he sometimes shares with his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). Occasional forays take us to his favorite café, or walks through the city by his latest portrait subject, the American art writer James Lord (Armie Hammer). In fact, the film is based on Mr. Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait”, which details his experience posing for the master … a task that was originally promised to last a couple of hours, and turned into 3 weeks.

Also appearing are Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother and assistant, and Clemence Poesy (IN BRUGES) as Caroline, a local prostitute who also serves as Giacometti’s muse. It’s a fine and talented cast, but this just as easily could have been a one-actor play. Rush plays the lead as a typical artist in shambles – one who cares as little for relationships as he does about money, clothes and appearances. He’s perpetually rumpled with mussed hair and a dangling cigarette being his sole accessory.

He is both charming and miserable, sometimes in the same breath – unwittingly pitting his forlorn wife against his more pampered muse … never more obvious than when comparing gifts of a new dress versus a new BMW. Much of the time on screen is spent in the daily ritual: adjusting the chair just so, Lord sitting down and assuming the pose, an artistic gaze cast, followed by the careful selection of a particular brush. More often than not, Giacometti mutters an “Ahh F***”, and proceeds to start over (and over and over). An honored yet frustrated Mr. Lord is forced into numerous flight reschedules, as time means nothing to an artist.

Director Tucci shoots through the smudged window panes more than once, and when Giacometti tells Lord, “I’ll never be able to paint you as I see you”, it really captures the tortured madness and brilliance of such an amazing artist. He doesn’t see the world the way most of us do, and that’s what sets his art apart. Of course the personal toll on the man and those around him is quite high … Giacometti passed away less than two years after the Lord portrait.

watch the trailer:

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


SPOTLIGHT (2015)

November 12, 2015

spotlight Greetings again from the darkness. Faith. A word that easily could have been the title of this gripping and heart-wrenching film. Faith can be defined as trust and belief. Faith can also be defined as religion and ideology. Few things are more devastating than broken faith … the core of this “based on actual events” story of The Boston Globe’s exposure of rampant child molestation by dozens of Catholic priests, and the systematic cover-up by “The Church”.

It’s challenging to name a movie that is as well-made as this one, while also being as difficult to watch. We know the story … we even know how it snow-balled globally … but the raw emotions of disgust and sheer anger permeate much of our being as we watch it unfold on screen. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) and it’s worthy of favorable comparison to other investigative newspaper films like The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007), and even the granddaddy of them all … All The President’s Men (1976).

The opening scene takes place in a 1976 Boston police station. A priest has been accused of molesting a child. Within a couple of minutes we witness the empty promises, the intimidation, and the cover up. So much is conveyed in this brief opener, not the least of which comes courtesy of the ambivalence of the veteran cop as he shrugs it off as ‘just another day’ in front of an idealistic rookie cop. This is accompanied by Howard Shore’s spot-on score, with the best parts featuring only a piano and bass.

Flash forward to 2001 as we meet the investigative journalist team called “Spotlight”. It’s led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They report to Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery), whose father was the editor of The Washington Post during the Woodward/Bernstein/Watergate era. New to The Globe is managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Unlike the others, Mr. Baron is neither a Boston local nor a Catholic. In fact, we catch him reading Dan Shaughnessy’s book “The Curse of the Bambino”, just so he can get a better feel for the community and its people.

What is most fascinating about the movie is that it focuses on the investigative aspects – just how diligent the reporters were in putting the story together – and how fluid the process was … the story led them, not vice versa. There was no media agenda to “get” the church. Instead, the reporters experienced natural shock as each piece of the puzzle was discovered. One of their key sources was a priest-turned-psychologist (voiced by Richard Jenkins) who helped them put scope to the numbers. Another was Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the leader of a victim’s group, who had tried before to provide documentation to the press. Saviano is the perfect example of how someone so passionate about a cause can be viewed with such skepticism … right up to the point when they are proven correct. Three attorneys add perspective to the cover-up. Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) made a career of settling cases (and silencing victims) for the church. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the polar opposite – he fights vigorously to get the victims heard, while Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) is caught in the middle – settling cases for the church and struggling with his conscience. Other interesting characters include Paul Guilfoyle as Pete Conley, a smooth-talking power-broker for the church, and Len Cariou as Cardinal Law – the man at the top who eventually apologized and was rewarded with a high-ranking position at The Vatican.

The film is so well crafted and acted that it features more than a few “best scenes”. Sacha has a brief encounter with a former priest on his front door stoop. The priest freely admits to molesting kids and his rationalization will certainly deliver chills to most any viewer. Since this is Boston, it makes perfect sense for the reporters to be so distracted by the story, that it supersedes the Red Sox game they are attending at Fenway Park. Being that the investigation lasted well into 2001, it’s quite informative to watch a news agency shift directions for the September 11 tragedy, and along with the nation, put all else on hold. Finally, there is a point in the movie where we as viewers have just about had our fill of extreme emotions – we either need to hit something or throw up – and reporter Rezendes comes through with exactly what is needed: an emotional outburst and release of exasperation rivaling anything previously seen on screen. It’s a wonderful moment for Ruffalo as an actor, and a peak moment for viewers.

The story hit the front page of The Boston Globe in January 2002. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its superlative investigative journalism. The report vindicated so many who had been taken advantage of, and exposed the colossal arrogance of the church. The innocence of a child vs the power of God. The story broke the faith that so many once held, and started a global (as evidenced by the closing credits) reckoning and awakening that was desperately needed. The film offers a line of dialogue, “It takes a village to raise a kid … or abuse one.” In other words, it took the often silent actions of so many to allow this despicably evil horror to continue. In a tribute to the newspaper profession, it took a small group of dedicated reporters to pull back a curtain that should never again be shut. Let’s have faith in that.

watch the trailer:

 


WILD CARD (2015)

February 8, 2015

wild card Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us know what to expect when we hear “it’s a Jason Statham movie”. However, when you add to that “written by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman”, it generates a bit more excitement and higher expectations than normal. This becomes slightly complicated when the Jason Statham part stretches his acting, but it’s the script that is essentially a letdown.

The film is a remake of the 1986 film HEAT with Burt Reynolds, and both movie versions are based on Goldman’s novel of that title. This time it’s Jason Statham as Las Vegas security expert Nick Wild, who possesses a particular set of skills … to go along with a drinking and gambling problem. Known for such films as CON AIR (1997), THE MECHANIC (also with Statham, 2011), and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (also with Statham, 2012), director Simon West is no stranger to action sequences and cool guys with baggage. There are a couple of outstanding fight scenes that capitalize on Nick Wild’s preference for non-traditional weapons, including a huge finale at The Silver Spoon Diner where he utilizes, well, silver spoons.

Statham gets an opportunity to do something besides fight and drive, as he is cast as the emotionally handicapped warrior with a big heart. He protects his friends and does favors for those who are weaker. In fact, the banter between he and Michael Angarano (as Cyrus) is some of the best work of Statham’s career. The noir-speak dialogue allows Statham to have some fun with vocabulary words, but the script never really lets him connect with anyone other than Cyrus. Instead we get too many scenes of guzzling vodka and an extended blackjack scene that is so predictable, it’s actually kind of annoying to watch.

The biggest downside to the film is the steady stream of recognizable and pretty well-known actors who pop up for only a brief scene or two. The list includes Sophia Vergara sporting a sweater that flaunts her assets, Max Casella as her conniving boyfriend, Jason Alexander as an office-sharing attorney, Hope Davis as a blackjack dealer, Dominik Garcia-Lorido (Andy Garcia’s daughter) as Nick’s call girl friend in need, Milo Ventimiglia as bad guy Danny DeMarco, Anne Heche as the supportive diner waitress, and a wonderful, but all too brief, Stanley Tucci as a hotel/casino owner modeled on a few real life owners and mobsters.

Although the film skips the traditional Statham car chases and love-making, we do get many flashy shots of him driving a classic Pontiac GT. The old school Vegas setting is a welcome diversion from the glitzy new Vegas we more often see in movies. Keeping with the retro feel is Dean Martin crooning “Blue Christmas” in the opening moments, and other classic songs carefully coordinated throughout the story. Statham’s struggles with alcohol and gambling, and his stated intent to leave Vegas forever provide the film with an incredibly disjointed and lightweight story from the pen of someone as decorated as William Goldman.  It’s nice to see Statham sport a bit of emotional depth, but the film likely doesn’t offer enough fight scenes for his true fans. The dark and humorous moments provide enough entertainment to encourage those fans to give it a shot, but please be careful with those spoons.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8

 

 


JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2012)

March 2, 2013

jack Greetings again from the darkness. As a kid, I always enjoyed “Jack and Beanstalk” as a bedtime story. However, I never quite understood why Jack was a hero for stealing from the giant. Was I the only kid who felt a bit sorry for the giant? Along comes director Bryan Singer and frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie and the backstory clarifies things for me. The humans and giants had a long ago battle that ended when King Eric banished the giants to a land between heaven and earth. King Eric is either referred to as “The Great” or “The Evil” depending on whether you are a human or a giant.

The prologue offers up simultaneous bedtime beanstalk stories for young Jack, living with his widowed dad, and the young Princess Isabelle, who lives in the castle. Flash forward 10 years and Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is living with his grumpy uncle (his dad died), and Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is a young lady being forced to marry the King’s (Ian McShane) trusted adviser Roderick, played as a scoundrel by Stanley Tucci. Isabelle is a bit too adventurous for the King and jack3the next thing we know, she has escaped from the castle and stumbled into Jack’s humble abode. Of course, this happens on the same day that Jack traded the horse for the magic beans. The beanstalk appears and the real fun begins.

Ewen McGregor leads the King’s army and is in charge of the rescue party that must climb the beanstalk. Of course, Jack gets to go because of his inside information, and Roderick goes because he is in the midst of an ill-fated power play … a requirement in Fairy Tales! The best CGI in the film occurs in the land of the giants. Their first appearance is very impressive and we get to sit back and enjoy the special effects wizardry. This is action-adventure at a very satisfactory level and the creepy giants add a new level to what we have seen on screen. The battle scenes are a great deal of fun and provide some visuals that are quite intense.

jack2 Which leads to the main point here … who is the movie made for? It’s entirely too frightening for young kids who might enjoy the bedtime story, but I’m sure most teens are way too cool to see a movie about a kids’ book. This is terrific entertainment that many ages would enjoy, but my guess is very few will venture to the theatre for it. Support work is also provided by Ewen Bremner, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy (who voices the two-headed giant). There will be comparisons to The Princess Bride, but that’s a bit unfair. While they both have princesses and farm boys, Rob Reiner’s film is a classic.

This is a wonderful story with terrific visuals, interesting characters, unique humor (pig in a blanket), and wild battle scenes … there is even a quite clever ending that made me laugh. Director Bryan Singer has received a lifetime pass from me thanks to his classic The Usual Suspects, but he definitely injected some spice into a traditional tale, and it deserves a look.

What’s that smell?  Ahhh … it’s the blood of an Englishman

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the bedtime story as a kid OR you want to see the best movie giants yet

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are scared of giants OR you have a magic bean phobia

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng9rjC8MOgU