THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)

November 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Reitman has proven himself to be an outstanding filmmaker who delivers entertaining stories with insightful commentary often accompanied by biting humor. His excellent films include: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and one of this year’s most underappreciated films, TULLY. His latest is based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” Producer Jay Carson), and it tells the story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and his derailed 1988 campaign for President.

The film begins in 1984 when an idealistic Hart loses the Democrat party nomination to Walter Mondale, who of course, went on to lose the national election to Ronald Reagan. It then picks up as the 1988 campaign is underway and Hart is the party frontrunner, and some say the candidate most likely to win the Presidency. Hugh Jackson plays Hart and is unfortunately burdened with an ill-fitting and distracting wig meant to emulate the lush locks sported by the youthful looking Senator. Vera Famiga plays his wife Lee, and Kaitlyn Dever plays their daughter Andrea. Casting two such fine actresses matters because of what happened during the campaign.

Senator Hart was the favored candidate of the young and the idealistic forces, though the details of his platform were never communicated clearly. Mostly, he was presented as the energetic candidate of hope versus the stodgy Republican Party that had delivered Ronald Reagan for 8 years and was now looking to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everything changed for Hart when rumors of marital infidelity, and possibly even an open marriage, began to circulate. When the media asked him, he was defiant … at times snapping in anger that his personal life was no one’s business.

We are taken inside the campaign via many familiar faces, including campaign manager Bill Dixon played by JK Simmons, and a terrific turn by Molly Ephraim as staffer Irene Kelly. We are invited on board the aptly named party yacht “Monkey Business” when Hart first meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), setting off what could considered be the birth of political gossip-columns. The Herald and Washington Post are key players here, as are editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and iconic journalist Bob Woodward. Apparently this is supposed to show us how politics and the media coverage of politics changed with Gary Hart.

Where the movie lets us down is in not providing any explanation to why Hart was the front runner, whether the U.S. or even the democratic party missed out on a great (or even competent) President, and how in the world Hart was so clueless as to why citizens might have an interest in his personal life activities that included sleeping with a woman (or women) that weren’t his wife. By the way, the reason for the last one is character … and we’ve since learned it’s not as important as what we might have once thought. These are all key issues as to why this is even a story, and whether or not it’s interesting enough to re-tell.

Instead of details, we are bombarded with overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing designed to generate some buzz and energy. The reality is that Gary Hart was really not that interesting, and in fact, by denying the importance of character, he thumbed his nose at his supporters. This blip on American history is simply not enough to justify a 2 hour a movie, and Mr. Jackman never seems able to capture the essence of Hart (whatever that essence might have been). There is obvious relevance to how today’s press treats personal stories, but a bland candidate makes for a bland movie.

watch the trailer:

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BOUNDARIES (2018)

July 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the more recent cinematic trends has been stories involving an adult child facing the plight of caring for an elderly parent. Some have chosen the comedic route, while others lean towards the all-too-real burden carried by care-givers. Writer-director Shana Feste (COUNTRY STRONG, 2010) continues her streak of tolerable fluff in this tale of a stressed single mother raising a challenging teenager while also dealing with daddy issues, and the octogenarian daddy at the source.

The film opens with said stressed mother Laura Jaconi (played by Vera Farmiga) in the midst of a therapy session as she talks through those long-simmering daddy issues … and we get the feeling these same discussions have occurred numerous times over the years. As an actress, Ms. Farmiga is at her best in frazzled mode, and here she’s a perfect fit. Her son Hoyt/Henry (Lewis McDougall, who was so good in A MONSTER CALLS) is a social misfit at his school, thanks in part to his mostly unwelcome and quite vivid artwork depicting faculty (and others) in various unclothed states. When he is expelled, private school becomes the best alternative, and Laura’s need for cash coincides with her estranged father’s (Christopher Plummer) simultaneous expulsion from his retirement center … for morality reasons.

Daughter Laura has her dad listed as “Don’t Pick Up” on her cell phone, and we understand before her that he is a rascal with a criminal streak. He even serves up an extremely rare pedophile joke – at the expense of his grandson. Laura’s ongoing challenges are intensified when circumstances require her to drive her and her son cross country in a classic Rolls Royce that never comes close to blending in with the surroundings. The purpose of the road trip is so the father/grandfather can make secretive pot-selling trips along the way. This allows for cameos from such recognizable folks as Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Bobby Cannavale, the latter of which is Laura’s ex-husband and biological father of her son.

Adding to the frenzy is Laura’s commitment to her real lot in life – that of serial animal rescuer. Dogs are EVERYWHERE throughout the film – to the point that her father labels her the Pied Piper of mange. These type of interactions, along with the ruse of adult diapers and a bow and arrow sequence keep the film on the verge of slapstick; however, we can never accept that we are supposed to get a comedic kick out of Laura’s too-much-to-handle lot, since it’s mostly depressing.

Kristen Schaal as Laura’s sister and insecure California goofball is always a welcome addition to any film, and Yahva Abdul-Mateen II brings a nice touch to one of the few characters we’d like to get to know better. Lousy childhood memories connected to present-day adult troubles just don’t combine for effective humor in the light that the filmmaker seems to be aiming for. Though well-acted, a grown woman still in need of daddy’s approval is just a bit too predictable and too much of a downer to work.

watch the trailer:

 


THE JUDGE (2014)

October 11, 2014

judge Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat a good on screen courtroom drama for tension and conflict. Despite centering around a long time judge accused of manslaughter and being defended by his estranged son, a hotshot defense attorney, this one eschews gritty courtroom action in favor of uncomfortable and explosive family dynamics. And thanks to the acting abilities of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr, that’s a good thing.

Mr. Downey’s Iron Man/Tony Stark character has ingrained in movie goers his motor-mouthed smart-aleck persona that fits very well with the lacking-a-conscience cocky defense attorney who only defends the type of white collar criminals who can afford his unmatched courtroom savvy. When Hank (Downey) returns home for the funeral of his mother, we quickly witness the strained relationship with his demanding-perfection magistrate father (Duvall), and the historical family details slow-drip for the next couple of hours.

Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) was once a promising baseball player whose career was cut short after an automobile accident (with a crucial component). Hank’s younger brother (Jeremy Strong, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland) is a mentally handicapped young man attached to his video camera. Hank also (of course) runs into his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Leighton Meester), as a reminder of what he left behind in his quaint hometown when he chose fortune and big city life.

John Grisham has made a career, actually two (books and movies), dissecting lawyers and courtrooms. As you might imagine, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) doesn’t have Grisham’s eye and ear for the courtroom, so the script often slips into manipulative melodrama during the trial (think Grisham-lite). But the scenes between Duvall and Downey more than make up for the fluffy parts. The kitchen confrontation and the bathroom sequence couldn’t be any more different, or any more powerful. One is the exorcism of a parent-child relationship gone bad, and the other is a vivid depiction of old age and disease.

This is old-fashioned mainstream movie-making. It’s about relationships and family and personality and life choices. There are no explosions or CGI or car chases. Even the key crime happens off screen. It’s also not breaking any new ground, and if not for the acting, could be just another TV movie. A perfect example is Vera Farmiga, who brings an edge to a role that otherwise would be superfluous. Same with Hank’s brothers. Both roles are severely underwritten, but D’Onofrio and Strong somehow make them work. Billy Bob Thornton brings a presence to an otherwise not-believable role as a slick special prosecutor wearing $1000 suits. Even Dax Shepard plays his comic relief country-bumpkin attorney slash furniture re-seller in an understated (for him) manner.

Other support work is provided by Ken Howard as the judge, Emma Trembley (Hank’s daughter), Balthazar Getty as the deputy with a grudge, Grace Zabriske as the victim’s vengeance seeking mother, David Krumholtz as a District Attorney, and Denis O’Hare as Duvall’s doctor.

In better hands, the script could have become much sharper and the film much crisper. Prepare for cheese and schmaltz, but it’s difficult to imagine more fun than watching Duvall and Downey go nose to nose and toe to toe. If you stay for closing credits, you’ll hear Willie Nelson wobbly warble through a Coldplay song.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two excellent actors battle each other as only resentful father and sons can

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: even a single teaspoon of courtroom schmaltz is more than your movie doctor recommends

watch the trailer:

 


THE CONJURING (2013)

July 22, 2013

conjuring Greetings again from the darkness. The overdose and saturation of reality TV the past decade has resulted in at least a couple of Ghost Hunter type shows. Surely you have stumbled on at least one of these. Director James Wan kicks off this latest haunted house adventure with the all-too-familiar “Based on a True Story” and then proceeds to fill the next couple of hours with scene after scene of horror film staples … things we have jumped at many times over the years. However, this one is bumped up a notch thanks to atmosphere, direction and acting ability, and the fact that yes, the ghost hunters are/were REAL.
The Perron family has moved to the country for a “fresh start” and here is what we learn:

1. If the family dog won’t enter the new house, then neither should you or your kids. It’s time to move out. How many dogs aren’t dog-wagging thrilled to follow the kids right in through the front door?

2. If all the clocks (electric and wind-up) stop at exactly the same time, it’s time to move out.

3. If you stumble on a boarded up cellar/basement, just leave it boarded up … and it’s time to move out.

4. If multiple birds fly full speed into your house, breaking their necks, it’s time to move out.

5. If your daughter discovers an antique toy that she carries around while talking to her new imaginary friend … it’s time to move out.  If she brings her “old” imaginary friend with her to the new house … see The Shining.

6. If, over two consecutive evenings, your sleepwalking daughter bangs her head into the armoire left by the previous owners, it’s time to move out.

7. Having 5 daughters seems to make parenting exceptionally difficult, but this in itself is no reason to move out of the house.

8. Playing blindfolded ‘Hide and Clap’ is not an appropriate game when you live in a 3 level home. This is no reason to move out, just find a game that doesn’t require a blindfold … or an Ouija board.

9. If you ever have to call demonologists to your home, don’t get defensive about not being a religious family. Just move out of the house.

conjuring3 Director Wan gives us tastes of the haunted house/possession Big 3: The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. It’s not at the level of these, but it’s certainly better than most horror films of the past two decades … at least we don’t get any stupid teenagers wandering through the woods. In fact, this one plays right off our natural tendency to feel safe and secure while surrounded by our family within the confines of our own home. The biggest scares come from the moments we are most relaxed.

It’s Rated R for being frightening.  There are no spinning heads or pea soup, and the gore factor is exceptionally low considering Mr. Wan directed Saw, the film that kicked off torture-fest movie genre. The acting here is really good for a horror film. Patrick conjuring4Wilson also starred in Wan’s Insidious, and here he plays Ed Warren. With his clairvoyant wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), the Warrens are well known ghostbusters, ghost hunters, demonologists, or whatever label you care to apply. We learn about their most famous case regarding Annaelle the creepy as heck doll, and we also see how they save a trophy from each of their cases … and store it in their home (a seemingly dumb move). Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are also strong in their roles as the Perron parents. Another thing I liked was that the kids seem like real kids … especially the recognizable Joey King and MacKenzie Foy.

conjuring2 Horror and Comedy are both at the mercy of personal taste.  What makes you laugh and what makes you jump is probably different from others, so these two genres are difficult to recommend.  Still, it takes talent to direct a horror movie and not really introduce any new “gotcha’s”, while still keeping the viewers grabbing the armrests. So enjoy the jumps, cover your eyes, and keep in mind … if your dog won’t enter your new house, it’s time to move out!

**NOTE: an interesting side note … Ryan Gosling co-wrote the song that plays over the closing credits

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your favorite horror films are the haunted house types

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have 5 daughters and think moving to the country is a good idea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejMMn0t58Lc


SAFE HOUSE

February 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The action-thriller-spy genre can be quite fun when handled properly. The “Bourne” franchise and Salt come immediately to mind. What we have here is a ho-hum game of cat and mouse between CIA Agents elevated somewhat because they are played by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. It’s ho-hum because of the simplistic and predictable script from writer David Guggenheim.

To offset this formulaic script, director Daniel Espinosa leans heavily on near non-stop, frenzied action sequences. Luckily he has DP Oliver Wood (first two Bourne movies) to bring intensity and variety to the action. Denzel plays the veteran rogue agent who turns himself in to a U.S. Consulate after a decade off the grid. We learn he is a U.S. traitor of the worst degree. Reynolds plays a rookie agent on asignment to a going-nowhere “safe house” in South Africa. To say the action is lacking on his assignment is a bit of an understatement. That is, until Denzel is transferred to his site.

We learn a few things in this movie. First, “Safe house” is evidently CIA verbiage for “all hell breaks loose” in the form of massive gunfire and violent deception. Second, if you are an agent in charge of escorting one of the world’s most dangerous men, you would prefer your bosses not send the two of you into a crowded soccer stadium to pick up a GPS device. Things are likely to go wrong. Third, it’s not wise to walk in on Denzel when he is in a bathroom stall. Fourth, if you are Ryan Reynolds, your on screen girlfriends can be as beautiful as your real life girlfriends, and no one raises an eyebrow.

The film does remind us that it’s always cool to see Sam Shepard and Ruben Blades. Where have you been hiding Mr. Blades (pictured)? The rest of the strong cast includes Brendon Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as dueling Langley operatives, Liam Cunningham as a (surprise!) bad guy, Robert Patrick and Joel Kinnaman (from “The Killing“) as agents, and Nora Arnezeder as Reynolds’ hottie.

Being a fan of this genre, it is quite disappointing to see such an obvious and basic story … even though it has the right look and feel, and a nice match-up of stars. The overload of car crashes, gunfire, and hand to hand combat doesn’t offset the fact that everyone knows early on how this is going to end, and we suffer through quick teases of intrigue regarding the two leads. So even though Denzel makes an enjoyable good guy turned bad, and Reynolds shows he is way above the idiotic Green Lantern, this one just doesn’t offer much more than your average video game.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have a hole that can only be filled with excessive noise, gun fire, car wrecks, blood and frenetic fight scenes.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for something new in the spy thriller genre

watch the trailer:


SOURCE CODE

April 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) was the writer/director for a terrific 2009 film called Moon (highly recommended). Here he stays in the sci-fi realm with a thrilling and brainy script from Ben Ripley. The best, most accessible sci-fi films not only don’t require the viewer to hold a Ph.d, but they also don’t talk down to us. This is a fast-moving script with a smart (though a bit preposterous) premise, and plenty of reality to keep us glued to the screen … and hanging on every word spoken.

It’s impossible to write much about the film and not give away some of the stuff that makes it fun, so my comments will be brief. Trying to figure out what’s happening, how it’s happening, and whether they can stop it from happening again … well, that’s just about all a movie lover can hope for! So I won’t give away any more than what the trailer sets up.

 Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens and he is involved in a remarkable project that allows “time travel” to a parallel universe so that a military contractor can discover the terrorist who bombed a train. The first time he wakes up on the train across from Christina (Michelle Monaghan) he has no idea who she is or where he is. 8 minutes later he is face to face with Captain Goodwin’s face (Vera Farmiga) on a monitor with her voice telling him to calm down. Her boss (Jeffrey Wright) is some type of ambitious genius trying to make a name and a buck for himself.

 The story evolves by Gyllenhaal being sent back and forth between “then and now” on numerous occasions with the mission of uncovering the identity of the train bomber. Of course, Gyllenhaal is a good soldier and wants to go above and beyond the call of duty. With some of the elements of Groundhog Day, the film then spins off and gets tricky and brilliant.

 Director Jones works wonders with the camera and we are treated to some fascinating images – both large (Chicago) and small (Gyllenhaal in a train restroom). Great stuff here. That’s about all I will say on this one. It should be obvious how much I like it. Also, a fun note … the phone voice of Gyllenhall’s father is that of Scott Bakula, who is known for his role in the TV series “Quantum Leap“, also a time travel premise.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have one of those minds that is always asking “What if it were possible to …”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your movies grounded in reality and have no use for any of that stinking hypothetical bunk.