REBEL IN THE RYE (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Holden Caulfield is dead.” So states Jerry’s letter to his mentor. You likely know Jerry better as J.D. Salinger, and he wrote that while hospitalized with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after WWII. Of course, we know this proclamation is premature, as Holden Caulfield is the main character from Mr. Salinger’s famous (and only) novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” … a high school literature staple for decades.

Imagine your dream is to become a great writer, but your own father continually reminds you that “meat and cheese distribution has been good for this family.” Your restlessness often works against you, and though you are hesitant to admit it, a mentor for writing and life direction is desperately needed if you are to avoid the family business. Enter Columbia professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

This is Danny Strong’s first feature film as a director, though you would surely recognize his face from his frequent acting appearances – often as a weasly character. He is also the creator of TV’s “Empire” and wrote the screenplays for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY (Parts I and II) and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. Strong does an admirable job in showing the commitment required to hone one’s writing skills and proving “the difference in wanting to be a writer and actually being one.”

Jerome David Salinger is played well by Nicholas Hoult. His scenes with Spacey’s professor are the film’s best, and Hoult also shoulders the responsibility of Salinger’s writing frustrations, personal life challenges, military service, and finally, his decision to become the most famous and long-lasting recluse (by comparison, Howard Hughes was an amateur).

We learn that Burnett was instrumental in getting Salinger’s first short story published, which finally gave Jerry the answer needed for a writer’s most dreaded question, “Have you been published?” Quite a bit of time is devoted to his odd romantic relationship with Oona O’Neill (Eugene’s daughter and the future, long-time wife to Charlie Chaplin). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) plays Oona as an enigmatic lover attracted to Salinger’s genius, but incapable of being patient for his career that might happen (and might not). She opts for the sure bet.

Salinger’s military service included Utah Beach on D-Day, and nearly as remarkably, his toting the tattered manuscript ‘Catcher’ pages throughout his tour. He returned home in 1946, and in 1951 “The Catcher in the Rye” was published. It’s been referred to as the Great American novel and a rite of passage, while also being banned and derided for its whiny Holden.

Director Strong emphasizes Salinger’s turn to Zen Buddhism and his sessions with Swami Nikhilanda, as well as his evolving distrust of stalking fans and two-faced media. Support work is provided by Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s salty agent, Lucy Boynton as his wife, Victor Garber as his father, and Hope Davis as his supportive mother. Just as in real life, we get nothing of Salinger’s later years of solitude and isolation in New Hampshire, where he died at age 91.

The book has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues to sell well today. In a shift from the recent documentary SALINGER by Shane Salerno, and the book “J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High” by Kenneth Slawenski, this dramatization doesn’t dig too deep, but it does allow a new generation to personify the legend. Perhaps it even paints a picture of a better/nicer man than what his real life actions showed. Regardless, the older Salinger certainly seemed to embrace the cause of “write and get nothing in return”.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ARGO (2012)

October 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.

The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.

 This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Wars rip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.

 This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condor or Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.

The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.

There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy.  However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.

 Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly.  Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.

Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0

 


TITANIC (1997, 3D-2012)

April 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Of course I saw this one a couple of times when it was first released in 1997. Having only watched it once since, I was happy to hear it would get a re-release on its 15th anniversary … even if the marketing hook was the post-production 3D. My thought was with James Cameron working his technical magic, the 3D would be fine, and maybe even add to the spectacle of the sinking ship. After all, he was the mastermind behind Avatar, which with Hugo, are the only two films (in my opinion) that haven’t been weakened with 3D technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t overstate my disappointment in the 3D for Titanic. The colors and lighting are destroyed. When we first see young Rose (Kate Winslet) arrive to board the majestic ocean liner, her lavender hat appears almost gray through the 3D glasses. And later, the stunning crimson Renault, where Rose and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) get to “know” each other, appears dull and darkened. Additionally, so many face shots are darkened, rather than illuminated by the beautiful fixtures that adorn Titanic. I was so saddened to see such dullness on top of such greatness. Sure, there were a couple of times where the 3D gave a boost to a special effect, but the film is so beautifully made and such a technical marvel, that the impact is minimal to the positive.

What I will say is that despite my frustration with the technology, I do hope a new generation is introduced to the film. Personally, I am no fan of the love story between Jack and Rose. However, it is such a delight to see the young, eager versions of Little Leo and Kate as they go about their antics. They were 22 and 21 respectively during filming, and we now know them as mature actors and major movie stars. That wasn’t the case when Titanic first premiered.

The real genius of this film is two fold: the story-telling and the technical achievement. Gloria Stuart stars as 101 yr old Rose and she is used to perfection in telling the personal story of Titanic. Her love story with Jack allows director Cameron to show off the amazing ship from all angles … first class, third class, dining rooms and engine rooms. She also allows the viewer to connect with the characters on a personal level. The technical aspect is even more astounding. Sets, models, CGI, and documentary footage are all blended to form a cohesive presentation of one of the most dramatic events of the past 100 years.

Here are a few notes of interest regarding the movie and those involved. The movie was number one at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks and grossed more than $1.8 billion … a record that stood until Cameron’s Avatar eclipsed it. Cameron was already an established sci-fi director with Terminator I & II and Aliens, but he almost had the plug pulled by the production company due to cost overruns. Matthew McConaughey was the producer’s first choice for Jack, but (fortunately) Cameron held firm for DiCaprio. The elderly couple hugging each other in bed as the ship sinks were based on the Strauss’ who owned the Macy’s department store chain. And yes, there were Astor’s and Guggenheim’s onboard when it went down.  Kate Winslet (Best Actress) and Gloria Stuart (Best Supporting Actress) received nominations for playing the same character (Rose). If you have seen the movie before, pay particular attention to the secondary characters … the wardrobes and acting are tremendous: Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Kathy Bates as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Billy Zane as the fiancé, David Warner as his henchman, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the architect, and Jonathan Hyde as the sleazy ship owner. Also catch Suzy Amis in one of her last acting jobs before becoming Mrs. James Cameron … she plays the granddaughter to “old” Rose.

This is an historic film version of an historic event and should be seen by all movie lovers. Some of it is a bit hokey, but if you doubt the technical achievement, compare it to A Night to Remember, the 1958 version of the Titanic story.  And depending on your taste, crank up the closing credits and listen to Celine Dion belt out the Oscar winning Best Song.  She is, after all, “the greatest singer in the world” (an SNL gag).

watch the trailer for “the ship of dreams”: