March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously lampooned the political landscape of England (IN THE LOOP, “The Thick of it”) and the United States (“Veep”), writer/director Armando Iannucci turns his skewering pen and clear eye to a bygone era in Russia. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the film takes place in 1953 Moscow at the height (and the end) of Josef Stalin’s reign.

Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces (think ‘Secret Police’) ruled by force and terror for 20 years, and most citizens lived with the daily goal of staying off “the list” – a place which likely resulted in imprisonment, if not death. An opening sequence featuring the live performance of an orchestra drives home the outright fear that hovered over every part of that society. To be clear, Iannucci’s approach is less ominous and more Mel Brooks. It’s slapstick satire with profanity.

Following the death of Stalin (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!), what follows is a Keystone Cops medley of jockeying for power amongst the members of Stalin’s cabinet. Closed-door plotting abounds – though sometimes in full view of others – and alliances come and go in the blink of an eye. It plays out on screen as more spoof than satire, so brace for over-the-top performances from Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrenti Beria), Jeffrey Tambor as dimwitted doofus Malenkov, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Molotov.  Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) offspring, and other supporting work comes from Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, and Jason Isaacs.

I watched this film the day after watching RED SPARROW, and the two films provide an interesting and oddball comparison to different eras of Russian history. Iannucci’s film is nothing short of a full bore attack on Kremlin activities, as well as the self-interested actions of politicians that seems to remain prevalent in modern days. It’s also a reminder that being “better as a committee” has as many flaws as the rein of a tyrant. There is a terrific final shot in a concert hall, where seated behind Khrushchev and his wife is a leering Leonid Brezhnev … foreshadowing future events. And if that’s not enough, the closing credits are as nuts as the film itself.


NORMAN (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the subtitle, ‘The Moderate Rise and Rapid Fall of a New York Fixer’, writer/director Joseph Cedar removes one layer of the mystery that otherwise envelops the lead character Norman Oppenheimer. We find ourselves somewhat sympathetic for the obviously lonely guy, while also accepting this as Cedar’s commentary on today’s real world obsession with networking. “It’s who you know” is the call of the business world, and few stake claim to more contacts that Norman.

Richard Gere stars as Norman, and we immediately notice his usual on screen air of superiority is missing, replaced instead by a fast-talking sense of desperation … in fact, Norman reeks of desperation. Cedar divides the film into four Acts: A Foot in the Door, The Right Horse, The Anonymous Donor, and The Price of Peace. These acts begin with Norman stalking/meeting an Israeli Deputy Minister after a conference, buying him an $1100 pair of Lanvin shoes, and then tracking their relationship over the next few years as Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) ultimately becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and is embroiled in a scandal that directly impacts Norman.

It’s a terrific script with exceptional performances from both Mr. Gere and Mr. Ashkenazi (who also starred in director Cedar’s excellent Oscar nominated Footnote, 2011). Their awkward initial connection seems grounded in reality – despite the expensive gift. These are two men who dream big, but go about things in quite different ways. Other terrific actors show up throughout, including: Michael Sheen as Norman’s lawyer nephew; Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi; Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin and Josh Charles as businessmen; Isaach De Bankole as the shoe salesman; Hank Azaria as Norman’s mirror-image from the streets; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a disconcertingly quiet and calm Israeli investigator.

There are many interesting elements in the film – some are small details, while others are quite impactful. Examples of these include the whimsical music from Japanese composer Jun Miyake, Norman’s questionable diet, the emphasis on “Unnamed US businessman”, the twist on a simple question “What do you need?”, the recurring shot of the shoes, and the creative use of split screen montage during multiple phone calls.

Most hustlers don’t generate a great deal of success, and Norman is often an annoying, even an unwelcome presence. However, it seems clear he is well-intentioned, and despite a proclivity for fabricating facts, his sincerity makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure … one that by the film’s end, has accomplished quite a few favors that should have delivered the recognition and influence he so craved. Norman’s “art of the deal” may not be textbook, but it makes for entertaining viewing.

watch the trailer:



September 8, 2015

time out of mind Greetings again from the darkness. Poverty, mental illness and homelessness collide in this film from writer/director Oren Moverman (Oscar nominated for The Messenger). About the third time I asked myself if something was ever going to “happen”, it dawned on me that it was already happening. This is Moverman’s illumination of how society treats the homeless, and his vehicle comes in the surprising form of Richard Gere.

We follow George (Gere, making good use of his familiar facial tics and mannerisms) around the city as he bounces from vacant apartment to hospital to churches to second hand clothing stores … and finally to one of the city’s homeless shelters. It’s at this point where George befriends the talkative and seemingly helpful Dixon, played by the great Ben Vereen.

One of the key points the film makes is how the homeless are basically invisible to the rest of society. The characters describe this as being a cartoon – meaning, they aren’t even “real” people to the masses of NYC. Supposedly, Gere was in character on the streets and was passed by without anyone noticing. Vereen’s character helps George get on track for re-establishing his identity. See, without any form of ID, there is no welfare, food stamps, etc (except, of course, voting – a topic for another time). The only real sub-plot involves George and his estranged daughter played by the always excellent Jena Malone. She excels in her scenes with Gere, and provides the most sincere and affecting emotion in the film.

It’s a very odd movie, as there are numerous “quick hit” scenes that feature such fine actors as Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, Kyra Sedgwick, Geraldine Hughes, and Jeremy Strong. None are on screen for much time, but each help demonstrate the daily challenges faced by the homeless who are so dependent on the charity of others.

It takes a patient viewer to stick with Gere’s character as he comes to grips with his situation, but the camera work shooting inside/out and outside/in (through windows, doors, etc) provides visual interest, as do the lively and real sounds and movements of the streets of NYC. It may not pack the punch of The Messenger, but it’s further proof that Oren Moverman’s insightful projects deserve attention.

watch the trailer:





March 18, 2013

Incredible Burt2 Greetings again from the darkness. As I sat in a theatre with approximately 80 others, it took me awhile to realize that the only audible laughs were coming from a couple of teenagers near the back. Until that point, I had just assumed that my grumpy old man syndrome had reared its head as I managed only a couple of chuckles.

The best comparison I have for this “comedy” from director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) are the Will Ferrell sports-themed spoofs Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. If you found those to be hilarious, then this one might provide you some laughs. Rather than picking on a sport, the movie focuses on the world of Las Vegas magic shows … big-budget stage productions (David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy) vs. streetwise illusionists (Criss Angel, David Blaine).

incredible burt4Childhood friends Albert and Anton evolve into Vegas superstars Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The influence of Siegfried and Roy are obvious, right down to the costumes, hair and tans. After 10 years of the exact same act, Wonderstone is a pompous womanizer who cares little for the magic act, and Anton is the epitome of the invisible sideman. Casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) threatens to end the act if the duo doesn’t come up with something new to compete against the daring and popular street illusionist Steve Gray (Jim Carrey).

Gray’s “Brain-rape” act is supposed to compare to Criss Angel’s “Mind-freak”. Instead, Gray comes across more like cheap reality TV with masochistic tendencies. Of course, Burt and Anton collapse under the pressure and their friendship and act splatters to a painful end. Burt spirals out of control and ends up performing in a nursing home … a fortuitous turn that introduces him to his childhood idol (Alan Arkin).

incredible burt3 All you really need to know is that this comedy offers few laughs and only shows a pulse when Arkin and Carrey are on screen. Carell seems miscast as a pompous womanizer, so neither trait plays particularly well. Additionally, his bounce back is not believable since his rock bottom lasts about 30 seconds. Buscemi’s only real gag is his poke at celebrity humanitarian crusades. Otherwise, he and Olivia Wilde are bystanders with little to do, which is a shame. Really would have liked to see Carrey’s character with a better, more believable act so that the rivalry might have proved more interesting.

There is an underlying message of friendship and maintaining a passion, but this is no message movie. Heck, it’s barely even a comedy … unless you are one of those teenagers in the back row.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for a glimpse of the past from Jim Carrey or the scene-stealing wonder known as Alan Arkin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking an insightful, funny comedy that takes advantage of a strong cast

watch the trailer:



February 9, 2012

 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 Harrelson OR 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

watch the trailer: