LAST FLAG FLYING (2017)

November 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Apprehension and trepidation are the emotions that strike whenever anyone compares a movie to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby/ Jack Nicholson film THE LAST DETAIL. That holds true even if the novel the film is based on was written by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) who wrote “The Last Detail” (1970), and even if the new film is directed by one of the finest directors working today – Richard Linklater. This latest doesn’t play like a true sequel, but the reuniting of three men who served together in Vietnam does hammer home a couple of interesting statements while also delivering the type of dramedy that 2017 audiences tend to connect with.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy medic, has had the type of year that no one deserves. It’s 2003 and he has just been notified that his Marine son was killed in action while on duty in the war in Iraq. This comes only a few months after Doc lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. It’s too much for him to handle on his own, so he embarks on a mission to ask his Vietnam buddies from three decades prior to accompany him to claim his son’s body at Arlington National Cemetery.

His two buddies are former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne). Sal is a washed out dive bar owner and Mueller is now the Reverend at a small church. The three men share the burden of a war secret that each has tried to forget, and they begin what’s basically a road trip movie of middle aged men bonding during what is the absolute low point in life for one of them. Simultaneously, it also seems like an opportunity for all three to rejoin the living.

Lost idealism is the shared trait now among the three men, though their levels of cynicism vary. Edwin Starr sang it, and the characters in this movie openly question: War … What is it good for? Doc, Sal and Mueller have separated themselves from memories of war in three distinct ways – family, booze, and God. It’s only by reconnecting with each other that they begin the long overdue process of reflection. TV’s are tuned to the capture of Saddam Hussein from the spider-hole, and the similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are contemplated. These are patriotic men who once trusted the government, but are now so disenchanted they ask “what’s the point?”

Mr. Cranston has the showiest role, but it’s Mr. Carell who shines as the still-in-shock father. J Quinton Johnson also excels as the young Marine charged with accompanying the gentlemen, and the best scene of the film features Cicely Tyson as the mother of a long ago fallen soldier who crossed paths with the three leads. As you might expect in a Linklater movie, the musical choices are unusual and spot on. Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Eminem (“Without Me”), and Levon Helm (“Wide River to Cross”) are all included.

The film is certainly an unusual blend of comedy, tragic drama, and contemporary political commentary. Unfortunately, the contrivances are too many and too frequent to allow the film and characters to breathe and achieve the greatness of a true message movie. It teases us with flashes us brilliance and then pokes us in the ribs with another goofy sidebar as if to say “just kidding”. It seems this would have been better served as an intimate portrayal of these three aging men who were willing to die for their country than as a giant political anti-war statement and an accusation of how evil the government is. The ultimate message Linklater drills home: be a good friend, and be a good person. We can never have enough of those.

watch the trailer:

 

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

watch the trailer:


CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

watch the trailer:

 


THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer:

 


FREEHELD (2015)

October 2, 2015

freeheld Greetings again from the darkness. A touching story based on the struggles of two people in love … that description fits, but leaves out the crucial details that make the saga of Laurel and Stacie so poignant and important. Laurel Hester was an Ocean County, New Jersey police officer who, like most non-heterosexual people of the era, went to extremes to conceal that part of her life for fear of personal and professional reprisals.

We catch up with Laurel (Julianne Moore) and her police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) while on a drug bust in 2002. This scene is meant to quickly establish that Laurel is an excellent cop who is fully trusted by other cops. Soon after, we find Laurel and her god-awful volleyball skills flirting with Stacie (Ellen Page), a much younger auto mechanic. The two strike up a romance that leads to buying a house and jumping through the legal hoops required under the Domestic Partnership Act.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, the battle for her pension benefits begins as she goes up against the Freeholders who control Ocean County. While Stacie holds out hope for a cure and full recovery, Gay activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) swoops in to generate media attention through protests and chants against the County. His cause is Gay marriage, while Laurel simply wants equality. It’s an odd differentiation that the movie dwells on, but never quite explains.

A significant social issue, a stroll on the beach, a pet dog, and a terminal illness … this sounds like the TV Guide synopsis of the latest Lifetime Channel movie. Perhaps that was the goal of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, 1993), whose next movie is a sex-change love story. Fortunately, the extremely talented cast elevates the material to an emotional level that allows viewers to connect. Those opposed to the issue include the macho cops from Laurel’s own squad room, and the ultra-conservative faction on the County board – who predictably runs and hides when the conflict reaches its peak.

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page do outstanding work in allowing us to accept a romance that at times looks more like a mother/daughter relationship due to the age difference. Humor is injected with a rare drywall joke and possibly the first ever on screen tire-rotation contest.  However, this isn’t a story for laughs.  Rather, director Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 2008) shows one of the many personal stories that have led to the legal authorization of gay marriage and rights. We view this acceptance through the eyes of Laurel’s partner Dane, and Michael Shannon’s low key performance prevents the role from being too clichéd. The film suffers a bit with Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of the over-the-top Goldstein, but it does ring true in that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Certainly the film suffers from technical and script issues, yet the true story and the emotional subject matter, along with the fine performances, provide a clear look and reminder of some of the obstacles faced by good people over the years. Be sure to watch the closing credits for photographs of the real Laurel, Stacie, Dane and Goldstein – each (except Laurel, of course) have cameos in the film.

watch the trailer:

 


FOXCATCHER (2014)

November 30, 2014

 

foxcatcher Greetings again from the darkness. The 1996 newscast remains vivid in my mind. It was captivating due to the bizarre circumstances and the tragedy involving an athlete whose Olympic career I had followed closely. Initially, I had trouble reconciling the story of this popular world class athlete and the mentally troubled billionaire who was part of one of America’s richest and most iconic families. This movie fills in some of the gaps.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is a meticulous filmmaker and is never in a hurry as a story teller. He allows the characters to develop on screen at their own pace … and this time the pace is excruciatingly slow – in a brilliant, yet painful to watch manner. The lead characters are a diverse trio of men. Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) won Olympic Gold in 1984, but he is shy and withdrawn to the point of being socially awkward and unable to capitalize on his victory. His older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) also won a Gold Medal in 1984, and is very engaging family man who helped raise Mark, while building endorsements and job opportunities for himself. The triumvirate is completed by the incredibly odd billionaire John duPont (Steve Carell), who proclaims himself a wrestling coach after building a state of the art training facility on his family estate. The ultra rich can do such things.

John duPont was never able to live up to his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) standards. She even paid the chauffeur’s son to be John’s friend as they were growing up. With Mark always in the shadow of his more popular brother, duPont seizes the opportunity to capitalize on Mark’s vulnerability and invite him to lead his Foxcatcher wrestling team (named after the family estate which is near Valley Forge). duPont’s ultimate goal is to also have Dave join them, but it’s a tougher sell for various reasons.

The mommy issues and brother issues drive the need for validation and are at the core of story here, as are ego, “patriotism”, and ultimately delusion. Steve Carell sports a nose apparatus that captures the reason DuPont nicknamed himself the “eagle”. He also kicks his head back, while slumping his shoulders, in physically capturing duPont’s unorthodox movements. But that’s nothing compared to the eerie aura he puts off whenever he must deal with another person. He sends up red flags to anyone even minimally aware of their surroundings, but to a lost soul like Mark, he becomes a father figure and “coach”.

A wrestling movie would figure to be male dominated, but even with that, Sienna Miller (as Dave’s wife) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Jean duPont) are almost non-existent as the only female characters. Anthony Michael Hall has a brief supporting role, and it’s nice to see Guy Boyd back on screen as well. However, most every scene is some mixture of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, and they each deliver. It’s a side of Carell we have never before seen (many of the greatest comics have a dark side), and Tatum is spot on as the hulking, sulking Mark, while Ruffalo captures the easy charm and sensitivity of Dave.

The story offers further proof that life can be stranger than fiction … especially when it involves an insecure and mentally unstable billionaire who envisions himself as a leader of men.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are familiar with the 1996 story OR you want a lesson in how not to act once you become a billionaire

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a typically comedic Steve Carell performance (he is creepy in a not-funny way)

watch the trailer:

 


ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (2013)

December 29, 2013

anchorman Greetings again from the darkness. Will Ferrell has been everywhere the past few weeks making promotional appearances as the golden voiced, perfectly coiffed Ron Burgandy. He clearly enjoys this character and is proud (deservedly so) of the franchise he created with business partner and director and co-writer Adam McKay. The first Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy was released in 2004 and nine years is an unusually long period to wait for a comedy sequel. But it’s not like either Ferrell or McKay need the money, and the golden rule of comedy … timing is everything.

The original movie has reached both classic comedy and cult status, and is one of the most frequently quoted movies from the past decade (“I’m kind of a big thing“). Having such a loyal following means guaranteed box office success for this sequel. So while I found this one somewhat lacking, the true Anchorman fans will embrace it … as proved by the loud laughter throughout the theatre.  And in a movie year strong on drama and somewhat lacking in comedies, it’s nice to hear laughter again.

The gag to get the doofus gang back together centers around the 1980 development of fictional Global News Network – the birth of 24 hour news (and a lightly veiled reference to CNN). The Ron Burgandy gang is all back: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, David Koechner as Champ, and Steve Carell as Brick. Christina Applegate also returns as Veronica Cartright, though sadly she has very few scenes. Newcomers include James Marsden as Ron Burgandy’s professional competition and Meagan Good as the station manager. Kristen Wiig weirds out as the soulmate for Brick, and the bus load of cameos arrives for the gang fight at the end … kind of a spoof of the 1979 cult favorite The Warriors.

I will never criticize a movie that makes so many people laugh. However, I will admit to finding only a few giggles in the two hours (including the Dan Issel reference). It did strike me that many of the best jokes and gags would be difficult for anyone under age 35 to “get”. Period humor abounds. The best jab at the news industry occurs when Ron Burgandy says “Why do we need to tell people what they NEED to know? Why can’t we tell them what they WANT to know?”. That kind of approach would have fit the cerebral humor I could appreciate.

**NOTE: if you are somehow unfamiliar with Anchorman humor, know that nothing is off limits.  There is plenty of humor based on racism, sexism, disabilities and most any other politically incorrect topic you can name.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the first movie and/or Will Ferrell OR you want to see the most star-studded gang fight in movie history

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are confused by the laughter of others brought on by such movies as Step Brothers, Semi-Pro, or Blades of Glory

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VdGI5-z_hg