WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

watch the trailer:

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FENCES (2016)

December 23, 2016

fences Greetings again from the darkness. Just about any use of words you can think of serves some part in this screen adaptation of renowned playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winning stage production. It first hit Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the leads, and the 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis – both who reprise their roles for the movie version. It’s also the third directorial feature from Mr. Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher).

The story takes place in mid-1950’s Pittsburgh and is a family drama character study centered on patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro League star and ex-con, who now works days on a garbage truck before coming home to his wife Rose of 18 years (Ms. Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo, “The Leftovers”). The Friday night after work ritual finds Troy holding court in his backyard with his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), as they share a bottle of gin and pontificate on the injustices that have landed them in this place and time.

Another regular Friday occurrence is the drop-in of Troy’s son by his first wife. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who shows up on payday for a “loan” from dad. To say there is tension between the two would be an understatement, and it’s the complex relationships between Troy and everyone else that is the crux of the story. Another player here is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who periodically wanders by talking about battling demons and hellhounds. See, Gabriel suffered a severe head injury during WWII and now has a plate in his head but no real place in society.

Troy is a proud and bitter man, unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing. Instead he holds firm to his belief that the white man will always hold back the man of color. It happened to him in baseball (though actually he was too old by the time Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers) and he refuses to believe Cory can succeed in football despite his being recruited by a college. Troy jumps between charming and caustic, and his fast-talking bellowing style can be entertaining, enlightening, condescending and intimidating … sometimes all of the above within a few sentences.

There is magic in the words of Austin Wilson, and as a film, this is a true acting clinic. The performances keep us glued to the screen in each scene. Denzel is a dominating presence, and the single best moment belongs to the terrific Viola Davis. Her explosive release conveys the agony-of-the-years, the broken dreams, and the crushing blow of broken trust. As a viewer, we aren’t sure whether to stand and applaud her or comfort her with a warm hug. The only possible criticism might be that the stage roots are obvious in the film version. The theatrical feel comes courtesy of the sets which are minimal and basic with no visual wow factor. But this minor drawback only serves to emphasize the characters and their interactions.

It’s pointed out to us (and Troy) that fences can be used to keep things out or keep things in. During his pontificating, Troy uses a couple of phrases more than once: “Living with a full count”, and “Take the crooked with the straight”. He often waxes philosophical, and it’s through these words that we realize both he and Rose took their sense of duty and responsibility so seriously that they both lost their selves in the process. Making do with one’s situation should not mean the end of dreams and hopes, and it certainly gives no one the right to hold back anyone from pursuing the path they choose. While watching the actors, don’t miss the message.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LILA & EVE (2015)

July 16, 2015

Lila & Eve Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the era of angry cinematic women, and this time we get Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez as mothers who go on a rampage of violence to gain vengeance for the murders of their sons. In 1991 Thelma & Louise tried to teach abusive and pig-headed men a lesson, and now Lila & Eve face off against neighborhood gangbangers.

Director Charles Stone III is best known for Drumline (2002) and Mr 3000 (2004) and this high-stress thriller seems a departure for him, though he compensates with a talented cast. In addition to Ms. Davis and Ms. Lopez, we get detectives played by Shea Whigham and Andre Royo, and Michole Briana White as the leader of the support group.

Stories of vigilantism always skirt the line between gritty and far-fetched, and unfortunately this one leans a bit too far the wrong way. Watching these two women so easily track down their targets and then so effortlessly ‘take care of business’ is head-shaking when combined with the tricky plot twist. The side story focusing on the support group was actually the most interesting, as it provides a glimpse of the grieving process and psychological effects experienced by mothers of murdered sons. Even this part flies off the rails towards the end of the movie – though it was with the best intentions.

Jennifer Lopez at least seems to take some delight in her character … a role much less restrictive than that of Viola Davis, who is forced to play it straight and angry (and she is very adept at this). Mothers seeking vengeance is a cause I can support, but not more can be said about this film as the first rule of Fight Club …

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (2014)

September 21, 2014

eleanor rigby Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough and probably unfair to write about a film project when key pieces remain unseen. Writer/Director Ned Benson‘s brilliant first take on the story was released at Toronto Film Festival in two perspectives: “Him” and “Her“. A massive re-edit produced “Them“, this version for theatrical release. As you might expect, knowledge that more exists … and in probably a more effective story telling format … renders us a bit frustrated with the blended version. Still, there is plenty here to warrant a look.

This viewer’s frustration stems mostly from the long and winding road we travel understanding something tragic has caused the split between El (the titular Eleanor Rigby) and Conor, but only being teased with details. We are offered a brief glimpse of their happy times, but never get to know them as a happy couple. Instead, Conor is shown trying to re-assemble the pieces, while El tries to move on to a different puzzle altogether.

While the story unfolds in teeth-grinding fashion, it doesn’t offset the powerful emotion and personal intensity brought to the screen by both James McAvoy (Conor) and Jessica Chastain (El). Mr. McAvoy has quietly evolved into one of the more interesting actors working, while Ms. Chastain proves herself to be among the best each time she crawls inside a role and makes it her own. We feel for each of them, before we even really know them at all.

Other superb work comes from a sterling supporting cast that includes screen vets William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds; as well as Bill Hader, Jess Weixler and Nina Arianda. That’s seven characters (plus the two leads) of which we yearn to learn more. Ms. Davis is especially effective in her all too brief appearance as a professor cutting El very little slack. And Mr. Hurt delivers a terrific monologue that strikes a chord.

So all of these wonderful pieces make for an spell-binding what-if that possibly gets answered in the dual-perspective version. The coldness and lack of understanding in the first 45 minutes can’t offset the emotion and sadness that each character feels. Rumor has it that “Him” and “Her” will get their release this year, and if so, I’ll be there in an attempt to complete both puzzles.

watch the trailer:

 


PRISONERS (2013)

September 23, 2013

prisoners1 Greetings again from the darkness. This film is one of those goldmines for discussion and debate. Each successive scene begs the viewer to judge the actions of those involved, but even beyond that, the movie is screaming to be picked apart by those of us prone to do so. It’s actually the best of both worlds for film lovers … it challenges us on a personal and moral basis, and also as one who analyzes scripts, acting choices, and filmmaking techniques.

Having seen the trailer, I was very much aware of the foundation of the film … two young girls are kidnapped and, frustrated with the lack of progress by the police, one of the dads seeks his own form of justice. So I couldn’t help but cringe with the obvious metaphor opening scene where Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) experiences one of those life-bonding moments with his teenage son Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette). Once past that, the set-up is expertly handled … two middle class families sharing friendship and Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and his prisoners4wife Holly (Maria Bello) have two kids: Dylan and their young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimokovich). Their neighborhood friends Franklin and Nancy are played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Perfect families and perfect friends shattered by a horrific ordeal when the young girls go missing. The main suspect is a simplistic man-child who drives a ratty RV. Alex Jones is played by Paul Dano in the most uncompromising manner possible.  He lives a simple existence with his aunt, played by Melissa Leo.

prisoners3 Enter Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki is an odd bird who never lets a case go unsolved. His quirky personality and facial ticks and buttoned-up shirt provide us with enough backstory that we understand his dogged pursuit and need to work alone. As the story unfolds, we are overwhelmed with an abundance of terrific story lines. In fact, there are so many that we feel downright cheated at all the deadends and dropped-cold sub-plots.

As a father, I certainly could relate to Keller’s relentless, stop-at-nothing pursuit of the first and only lead. Exactly where would I draw the line for my own actions? I can’t answer that other than to say that I totally understood his approach. That’s not to say I condone such actions, only that I fully empathize. Holly’s reaction to the ordeal is to curl up in bed with prisoners2meds. That too is understandable. Loki’s frustration with his own department and the false leads is also understandable. So while each character’s actions make sense, the viewer’s frustration is palpable, not just because of these things, but in the mis-use of such fine actors as Mr. Howard, Ms. Davis, and Ms. Leo. Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Dano dominate through much different methods, yet we viewers constantly find ourselves wanting to know more about the teenage kids, the priest played by Len Cariou, and of course, the Howard and Davis characters.

You will pick up on some thematic similarites to films such as The Lovely Bones, Primal Fear, Ransom, and Mystic River.  The film’s message is not vague; it’s even overly obvious. Keller is a survivalist … the kind of guy who is prepared for any disaster. No matter how prepared one is, the loss of a child will test your morals, faith and inner-strength. What would you do? How far would you go? Is there a line you won’t cross to protect your family? Those questions are much simpler until real life forces you to answer.

One thing you will quickly notice is just how stunningly beautiful this film is. The credits provide the answer in Director of Cinematographer Roger Deakins, probably the best in the business. French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve gave us the exceptional Incendies, and while this one has plenty to offer, I believe some fine-tuning with writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) could have elevated this one to Oscar worthy material. So take your friends and be prepared for post-movie discussion. Everyone will have their own thoughts and opinions. That doesn’t make this a great movie, but it serves the purpose of getting us to question our faith and beliefs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are willing to question your own moral bounds when the safety of your family is at stake OR you enjoy personal thrillers in the whodunnit mode.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer taut thrillers with few loose ends and easy puzzle pieces to assemble along the way

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpXfcTF6iVk

 


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

January 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ten years since the September 11 attack, and it’s still difficult to talk about, write about, or make a movie about … and certainly difficult to critique any of those attempts. Since I haven’t read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also wrote “Everything is Illuminated”), my comments will be related only to this film directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and the script by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Two positive things stand out for me in the film. Young Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell is an interesting and talented newcomer, and someone I enjoyed watching on screen for most of two hours. Approximately 70 years his senior, Max von Sydow is captivating as the speechless “Renter” from Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. The two are quite an entertaining pairing on their road-trip through NYC.

 The basic story is that Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) is one of the victims of the WTC attacks. Through flashbacks we see that he was a world-class father to Oskar, who may very well be inflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Either way, Oskar is intelligent way beyond his years and possesses quite a curious and analytical mind. When his father dies, Oskar is convinced he can make sense of things by finding the lock that fits a key he found in his father’s closet. He assumes it’s another puzzle his father laid out for him with the only clue being “Black” written on the envelope.

While it is interesting to see how Oskar organizes his mission of contacting the 472 Black’s noted in the NYC phone book, it seems mostly a writing trick to get this unusual youngster mingling with “normal” citizens. When he teams with von Sydow, the energy level picks up, but we can still feel the wheels turning on the machinery to create tear-inducing moments. These moments are EVERYWHERE and include Oskar being oblivious to his hurtful ways with his mom (Sandra Bullock).

 The support work is excellent and includes John Goodman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. Young Mr. Horn is best known for his winning Jeopardy during “Kid’s Week”, so he is obviously real-life smart as well as on screen talented. This story is just too preposterous to take seriously. How many parents would let their 11 year old wander the streets of NYC? What reaction would this kid receive as he confronts strangers while jingling his tambourine so as to calm his nerves? Just too much melodramatic storybook stretching to make this a story worth telling in regards to the September 11 events. However, if you are need of a few good cries, this one tees it up for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an exciting newcomer in Thomas Horn OR it’s just been too long since you had a good cry (or 3 or 4)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movie/story manipulations not be quite so obvious

watch the trailer:


THE HELP

August 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the controversial best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It was controversial because it is the story of Jim Crow-era maids written by a white woman. Yes, the book is actually the fictionalized story of a white woman getting black maids to discuss their lives as maids for white folks. Rather than get into some politically correct dissertation on the book, movie or story, I will only comment on the film itself … this very entertaining movie that also manages to deliver a timeless message.  I would call it this year’s The Blind Side, only I like this one more.

 Let me first start by saying that this movie is incredibly well acted. It is quite rare to have so many developed characters in one movie. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while others draw our ire each time their face appears or their mouth opens to speak. The script and these fine actresses utilize humor to point out the shameful behavior of those who saw themselves as superior. The humor doesn’t soften the ignorance or abuse, but it does make the film infinitely more watchable and entertaining. Please know this is not a documentary.

Ms. Stockett’s novel has a very loyal following in addition to the naysayers. A two hour film must, of course, take short cuts and trim story lines. Still the key elements are present. Based in Jackson, Mississippi during Governor Ross Barnett’s term, we see the social shark, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), in her full glory of ignorance, entitlement and superiority. We see her minions and followers emulating her moves while trying to gain her approval.

 The story takes off when Skeeter (Emma Stone) graduates from Ole Miss, returns home and takes a job at the local newspaper. Possessing observation skills and humanity that her lifelong friends can’t comprehend, Skeeter desperately wants to tell a story from the perspective of the maids. As expected, the maids are hesitant, but Aibileen (Viola Davis) finally relents. The stories begin to flow and soon the robust Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins in. Others soon follow their lead and Skeeter’s education goes to an entirely new level.

 That’s really all of the story I care to discuss. The brilliance of this one is actually in the details … individual scenes and moments of acting genius by most of the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Jessica Chastain plays Celia, the “white trash” outcast who so desperately wants to be allowed back into the girls’ club. Ms. Chastain was seen a few weeks ago in the fabulous Tree of Life in quite a different role … I would venture to say no actress will have two roles of such variance this year. Also, Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother, and Sissy Spacek is Hilly’s mother who gets tossed aside before she is ready to go! The great Cicely Tyson makes a brief appearance as Constantine, Skeeter’s childhood maid who was done so wrong after 29 years of service. Mary Steenburgen has a couple of scenes as a big NYC book publisher.

 As I said, this is pure acting heaven, but I must single out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Viola is so powerful at the beginning and end of the film, and Ms. Spencer is a force of nature during the middle. This movie is really their story and these two ladies make it fascinating, painful and a joy to behold. They both deserve recognition at Oscar time.

There are so many fantastic details to the film. At times, it is like watching a classic car show … the late 50’s and early 60’s models are works of art. The wardrobe, hair and make-up are perfect in setting up the class differentials. The TV and radio segments provide context and timing with the deaths of Medger Evers and JFK. Even the books on Skeeter’s shelf make a statement: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Native Son, and Gone With the Wind.

This story takes place 50 years ago and director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of bringing Stockett’s novel to the big screen. Mr. Taylor is a longtime friend of Ms. Stockett’s and was quite fortunate to get the directing rights. He doesn’t disappoint. Sure the story is a bit glossy at times … it is geared towards the masses. If you are looking for more depth, there are numerous documentaries and books available on the Civil Rights movement. If you are seeking a very entertaining movie that uses humor to tell a story and send a message, then this one’s for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the book OR you enjoyed The Blind Side OR you want to see quality entertainment presented with humor and a message.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth history lesson OR you are the type that worships all things politically correct.

watch the trailer: