December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:




JFK (1991)

November 22, 2013

jfk1 Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.

When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.

jfk2 Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.

Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.

jfk3 In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.

Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.

This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.

**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald

**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)

**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know


LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:



August 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I often give extra credit to filmmakers for trying something challenging and different, even if the final product might fall a bit short. What I refuse to do is ignore the opposite … a lazy attempt by a filmmaker who thinks they can skate by simply because they picked a interesting topic. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) takes the screenplay from Vanessa Taylor and then seems to sit back and bank on the strength of three lead actors to make a statement.

Meryl Streep is the greatest living actress and maybe the greatest of all-time. She can turn any character into a subject of interest and doesn’t disappoint here as Kay, the disenchanted wife of Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones (himself an excellent actor). In an effort to save a marriage gone stale after 31 years, she books a week of intensive marriage counseling with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Grumpy Arnold reluctantly agrees to attend despite his belief that all is “fine” with their marriage for the singular reason that it’s lasted 31 years.  Besides that, he has golf to watch on TV … well, “watch” with his eyes closed.

What follows is not the laugh-fest promised by the trailer, but rather a semi-serious look at marriage for the over-60 generation. I say semi-serious because intense and thoughtful topics are raised, but the film continually makes U-Turns at each fork in the road so as to avoid coming up with any real solution or digging deeper into cause/effect. Instead, some prime opportunity is wasted for this to be either a riotous look at marital frustration or an intriguing dive into what makes men and women of this generation unable to communicate.

My contention is that just because this is a movie about marriage for 60-somethings, we shouldn’t give the filmmakers a gold star for effort. The great John Wooden said, “Never mistake effort for results“. There are some humorous moments … some laugh out-loud moments, but not very many. There are some serious topics broached, but only by skimming the surface. Mostly, the scenes are obvious and predictable and Streep and Jones carry the burden of lifting the material.  As a movie lover, I demand more.

 The three leads are excellent. Mr. Carell does a nice job of playing the understated counselor role. He is smart enough to know that this film belongs to Streep and Jones. There is also minor support work from Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Mimi Rogers and Elisabeth Shue. All of these characters seem tossed in for variety only. None really drive the story. though it seems either one more or one less scene with with Shue in the bar would have made sense. The first 20 minutes of the film has three songs that just overpower the scenes.  I guess this is to ensure that every viewer recognizes the mood of the characters.  It’s as if the director recognized the material was lightweight.

I have labeled this genre Gray Cinema, and have previously stated that I expect we are on the front end of this trend as baby boomers demand more movies about themselves. The trend is commendable, but again I say, we should demand more and better.  Showing up is half the battle … now let’s see the other half.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy watching the great Meryl Streep brilliantly craft another of her cinematic characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find the raising of issues to be a starting point, not a finish line for a story

watch the trailer:



June 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Uninspired sequels often prove quite annoying for a true movie fan. However, dedicated followers of a franchise often overlook the flaws and are just happy to see their familiar heroes back on screen. Back for a third time in 15 years, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) show they can do this in their sleep … actually I think Mr. Jones really did doze off a couple of times.

Fortunately there are a couple of things that make this one entertaining enough. Josh Brolin‘s spot on imitation of Tommy Lee Jones may be better than the real thing. Brolin seems to be enjoying himself and realizes he is the featured attraction here. There is also a very creative segment that takes place at Andy Warhol’s Factory … with Bill Hader pulling off the Warhol look and voice quite well.

 Obviously with the Warhol segment, time travel is involved. That’s the real disappointment here. Outside of the Apollo 11 segment and listening to Status Quo play “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, the trip to 1969 is really a wasted opportunity for plot and humor. Also scarce is the use of aliens that were so prevalent in the first two. This time around, we get an overdose of Boris the Animal played by the always interesting Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”).

Also back is Emma Thompson in a couple of brief scenes as Agent O. In addition to Brolin, we get new life from Alice Eve (a young Agent O) and Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin … a less annoying version of Joe Pesci from the Lethal Weapon series. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has stuck with this franchise for all three entries. Let’s hope it’s now allowed to rest in peace.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a huge fan of the MIB franchise OR you want to see Josh Brolin’s impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you were hoping after 15 years, there might be something new … heck, even Will Smith looks exactly the same!

watch the trailer:


TMI (1-1-2012)

January 1, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 ABRAHAM LINCOLN is the subject of Steven Spielberg‘s next film.  With two films currently in theatres (The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse), Spielberg is already deep into production of Lincoln, which is based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The film features an incredibly deep cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis (left) as Honest Abe.  The supporting cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.  Anticipated release date: Christmas 2012



July 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If it seems to you as if the past three years have provided an overload of superhero and comic-based movies, you are absolutely correct. There have been too many. There are a few I would be willing to toss out, but Captain America is not one of them. This ranks right with the first Iron Man as the closest to a real movie … one with a story to go with the action and CGI.

It begins with the present day discovery of an exposed plane wing jutting from the frozen Arctic tundra. The search team quickly finds the Captain America shield visible beneath the ice. Flash back to WWII and we are introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with Benjamin Button FX) who wants nothing more than to fight for his country. Unfortunately, this 90-pound weakling might as well have 4-F stamped on his forehead, as the size of his heart far exceeds the size of his biceps.

His tenacity at trying to enlist is noticed by a powerful scientist named Erskine (played with sheer smirking joy by Stanley Tucci). Erskine happens to be working with Col. Phillips (a perfectly grumpy Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret plan to develop super-soldiers with the injectable cocktail Erskine has invented. As you might guess, the plan is thwarted immediately after scrawny Steve Rogers is transformed into a super soldier yanked from the cover of “Men’s Fitness”.

 Working with Col Phillips and Erskine is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Her main purpose seems to be adorning the brightest red lipstick and flashing her legs in front of the soldiers. She falls for Rogers and spends most of her scenes staring somewhat scarily into his eyes. Actually, their scenes together are pretty good and her character helps us remember that Captain America is still just a regular good guy … not a Norse God.  It was humorous to watch the early song and dance routines to sell war bonds.  Seeing the super soldier cast as a traveling side show could be seen as a commentary on the military.

 Personally, I thought the movie lagged just a bit in the fight scenes between good and evil. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) to be a terrific bad guy. Nazi’s still make for the perfect adversary. Although, I found myself laughing on occasion as Weaving’s German accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. I was quite impressed with the infamous Captain America shield, though I never quite figured out how he trained it to “return” to him … I am sure this is better explained in the comics.

 What makes this movie work is the fact that Captain America remains Steve Rogers. He is always a good guy wanting to do the right things. He is deeply affected when he thinks his actions may have caused the death of his best friend Bucky. But he also manages to keep his ego in check and his patriotic duty in the forefront. Also, the film is directed by Joe Johnston. If you are unfamiliar with his work, let me recommend two of his earlier films: The Rocketeer and Hidalgo. You are probably familiar with his Jumanji and October Sky. He is a director that creates a specific look and feel to his films, and the texture helps make this one work.

Since this is entitled Captain America: The First Avenger, it is obviously another step towards The Avengers movie slated for 2012. So don’t miss Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man). And don’t miss Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the odd ending to this film … and the obligatory “bonus” after closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always viewed yourself as the 90 lb weakling in those old Charles Atlas comic book ads OR you just never miss a chance to see nazi’s get thier asses kicked … especially by a guy in tights.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a comic book flashback to WWII seems about as appealing as having your air conditioner go out during this crazy heat wave

watch the trailer: