WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS (2020)

August 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very little outside ‘the norm’ is required for teenagers to ostracize one of their own. Sometimes it’s a haircut or a brand of shoes, or even some other minor detail that sets them apart. But when it’s a mental illness, the tribe can be merciless. Director Thor Freudenthal (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, 2010) takes on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, with a screenplay from Nick Naveda. The film features two rising young stars and addresses some of the challenges brought on by the uncertainties associated with a mental illness.

Charlie Plummer (so terrific in LEAN ON PETE, 2018) stars as Adam, a high school senior who has dealt with the challenges of undiagnosed mental health issues since he was quite young. His father abandoned the family years ago, and Adam’s devoted mother (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) is not only patient and loving, but also committed to researching any possible treatment that would lead Adam to a better life. On the other hand, Adam and his mother’s new live-in lover Paul (Walton Goggins) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on things, leading to more anxiety for Adam.

In an interesting and unique approach, director Freudenthal allows us to not only hear the voices Adam hears, but also see the hallucinations and visions he sees – three of whom are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, THE WAY WAY BACK), a sweet, hippie-ish optimist; The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping, bat swinging he-man; and Joaquin (Devon Bostick), an inappropriately horny ‘best friend from a 90’s move.” On top of that, there is a black mist that periodically manifests, enveloping Adam and bringing on crippling fear and isolation. After a years-long stream of drug therapy, Adam is pronounced “treatment resistant” and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Adam’s only mind-calming escape is when he’s cooking. He knows his way around the kitchen and his goal is to attend Culinary School after graduation.

One day, Adam has a psychotic break during Chemistry class. He gets expelled, which jeopardizes his Culinary School dream. His mother gets him admitted to a Catholic School run by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) at the same time he is accepted into an experimental drug trial. He’s allowed to stay in school as long as he takes his meds and maintains his grades. It’s here where he meets the dynamic Maya (Taylor Russell, WAVES, 2019). Maya is smart and ambitious and proud, and the two quickly form a bond – an interesting bond between two smart high school kids carrying their own burdens and holding their own secrets.

Sister Catherine is balancing the specific needs of Adam with her responsibility to the school, and then there is also prom and graduation to deal with. With the new drug, the voices and visions disappear, but Adam has some issues with the side effects. A desperate plea for help from Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), the school priest, provides a boost as Adam tells him, “It’s nice to be listened to and not just observed.” That line provides significant insight into what it’s like to have this affliction, and that’s really where the movie excels … putting us in the shoes of a schizophrenic and allowing us to experience the good and bad moments. What can Adam trust? His eyes? His ears? His mind?

Adam and Maya are both trying to figure out who they are, at the same time learning what it really means to love someone. Adam refers to his illness as his “burgeoning insanity”, and in fact, schizophrenia does have a history of accelerating over time once it strikes a young person. The movie succeeds in taking away some of the mystique of mental illness, by making it approachable and something we want to better understand. There is a visual reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that might be a bit too “nail on the head”, but Freudenthal’s movie is profound and features two very talented young actors. The humanity beneath the surface of those society would rather pretend don’t exist is effectively compared to those stricken with cancer … those we would do anything for. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled CHEMICAL HEARTS, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students … but quite a treat (although I believe all 4 actors are long past high school age).

Being released on August 21, 2020 in THEATERS ONLY

watch the (entirely too long) trailer:


THREE CHRISTS (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the actual events documented in the book “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by Social Psychologist Milton Rokeach, the film turns ground-breaking work from 60 years ago into a generic, somewhat bland big screen production … albeit with a talented cast. Director Jon Avnet (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, 1991) co-wrote the script with Eric Nazarian, and they evidently believed the strong cast would be enough. Instead, we get what in days past would have been described as the TV movie of the week.

The actual story is quite interesting. Dr. Alan Stone (the dramatized version of Dr. Rokeach) is played here by a blond-haired Richard Gere. Dr. Stone comes to Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital in 1959 to study delusions of schizophrenics. Up to that time, we are informed that only extreme treatments were utilized, with minimal psychoanalysis practiced. Dr, Stone’s approach is through therapeutic treatments. Specifically, he arranges for group therapy consisting of only three patients – each who claims to be God/Christ.

Leon (Walton Goggins) demands to be addressed as God. He is the most perceptive of the three, though it’s quite clear, he mostly wants a friend. Joseph (Peter Dinklage) says he is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, though he speaks with a British accent, listens to opera, and wants only to return to England (a place he’s never been). Clyde (Bradley Whitford) claims to be Christ “not from Nazareth”, and he spends much of each day in the shower attempting to scrub away a stench that only he can smell.

The film is at its best, and really only works, when the doctor and the three patients are in session. It allows the actors to play off each other, and explores the premise of how they go about working through the confusion of having each believe the same thing … while allowing Dr Stone’s approach to play out. Where things get murky and clog up the pacing are with the number of additional characters who bring nothing of substance to the story. Stone’s wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies in a throwaway role) pops up periodically with alcoholic tendencies or a pep talk for hubby. Stone’s young research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “Game of Thrones”) seems to be present only as an object of desire for all the Gods, and to remind us of the era’s drug experimentation. And beyond those, Stone carries on a constant battle with hospital administrators played by Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, and a rarely-seen-these-days Jane Alexander (we shouldn’t forget she’s a 4-time Oscar nominee).

Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” from MALICE is still the best, but it’s always fun to watch a God complex … and this film offers four. The story is bookended with Dr Stone dictating his preparatory notes for a hearing on his professional actions, and the film does serve as a reminder that electroshock therapy and severe drug therapy are likely not as effective as empathy for many patients. It’s rare that God, Freud and Lenny Bruce are all quoted in the same film, but mostly this one just never pushes far enough.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2019 Day 8

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. And now, the end is near … well, it’s actually over … at least as it pertains to the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival. I watched 22 feature films over the 7 days I attended (I missed opening night), and though bleary-eyed, I certainly recommend every movie lover experience the film festival life at least once. If you happen to be travel-averse, there is assuredly one held not too far from home. Of course, the quality of festivals varies greatly, as do the themes and approach to programming.

The final three movies on the final day delivered a very pleasant surprise, a second French comedy in as many days, and a cultish-thriller that was also a mini-reunion for a couple of “Justified” actors.

 

Here is my recap of Day 8 movies:

JUMPSHOT: THE KENNY SAILORS STORY (doc)

 Having played high school basketball, I can honestly say that I never once gave thought to who, when or how the jump shot might have been “invented”. It was ubiquitous to the game … the same as blocking out on defense or coaches yelling from the sideline. Having read the synopsis for this film, I felt a twinge of guilt in not giving any previous thought to the origins of the jump shot. However, since director Jacob Hamilton includes interviews with such hoops luminaries as Stephen Curry (also a producer on the film), Kevin Durant, Bobby Knight, and Dirk Nowitzki, each equally clueless on jump shot history, my ignorance doesn’t seem quite so burdensome.

Of course I had seen the clips of how the game was once played, and director Hamilton includes a fair amount here. Other than the ball, the hoops, and the floor, the old game from the 30’s and 40’s bears little resemblance to what is played today. Although the rules haven’t changed much, the pace of the game and the techniques certainly have.

We are introduced to Kenny Sailors, the man who many credit with originating the modern day jump shot. Mr. Sailors talks of playing his older, much taller brother in games of one-on-one and rarely being able to even get off a shot … at least until that one day when, off the dribble, he rose up and released the ball at the height of his jump – and the ball swished through the basket. A turning point in the sport occurred in Sailors’ front yard.

Included are some photos and clips of Sailors’ high school and college teams – including his having (future Hall of Fame sports announcer) Curt Gowdy as a teammate. There is a bit of Wyoming basketball history detailed, including Sailors’ University of Wyoming national collegiate basketball championship in 1943 at Madison Square Garden. It’s noted that Sailors’ jump shot was nearly indefensible at the time, but he was also an expert ball-handler, tough defender, and above all, a respected team leader.

So yes, this is a basketball story; but it’s even more the story of a very interesting and downright cool gentleman. After college, Sailors left Wyoming as part of the Marines and served in the war. He married and his wife was pregnant when he set out to serve his country – admitting that he assumed he wouldn’t be coming back. Director Hamilton includes interviews with Sailors’ 3 grandchildren and his son, but the most engaging segments of the film allow us to hear directly from the man himself – at the time, well into his 90’s.

Humble, yet proud, Mr. Sailors recounts moving to Alaska as a precaution against his wife’s severe asthma. They lived there 35 years, and he served as both a big game hunting scout and a high school basketball coach. Having two daughters, Sailors worked diligently to develop girls basketball, and he did it not for personal glory (they won a lot of games), but rather for the life lessons the games teaches. He was intent on his daughters having access to the discipline, teamwork and dedication required for a successful team.

We see the iconic Life Magazine photo of Sailors shooting his jump shot, as 9 other players on the court had both feet on the ground, and we understand the impact he had on the game. But it’s the passion he speaks of in regards to life that sticks with us after the film. A very fine athlete who left his mark on the sport, but an even better man who lived a humble and respected life. Director Hamilton’s film uses animation to fill the gaps where no clips or photos are available, and he’s wise enough to know that the greatest impact comes from allowing Mr. Sailors’ smile to light up the screen and our lives. Anyone for a game of H-O-R-S-E?

 

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

 French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003), and has a very loyal group of followers for his films. It should be noted that, despite the title, this is not a sequel to Arcand’s 1986 film THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. This one is a comedy-crime drama that is as cynical as it is witty, and perhaps as much social commentary as satire. It’s yet another rip on capitalism while showing that idealism can work wonders (at least if it’s well funded).

“Intelligence is a handicap.” That’s what Pierre-Paul Daoust (played by Alexandre Landry) tells his girlfriend as he breaks up with her in a café. When she points out that he’s a delivery driver (similar to UPS), Pierre-Paul riffs on a number of famous writers and philosophers who he claims were dumb as rocks. Her inquiry into Trump being elected President leads to his conclusion, “imbeciles worship cretins”. He is the kind of guy that has an answer for everything, and possesses a type of oratory expertise that makes his excuses sound like scientific explanations.

One day while on his route, he stumbles into a robbery gone way wrong. Two thieves were in the process of stealing gang/mob money (and lots of it) when a shooting broke out. In the immediate aftermath, Pierre-Paul makes the snap decision to toss the two huge bags of cash into the back of his truck and take off. This kicks off a chain of events that includes his crossing paths with Aspasie/Camille (Maripier Morin) a high dollar escort whose website features a quote from “Racine”. Pierre-Paul is a Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he takes this as a sign.

Shortly after, Pierre-Paul is meeting with Sylvain “the brain” (Arcand regular Remy Girard), a recently released from prison biker who has become an expert on money laundering. The three form an odd partnership and are followed wherever they go by a couple of police detectives. Camille introduces Sylvain and Pierre-Paul to Mr. Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), her dapper former lover who also happens to be the foremost authority on international tax evasion and high finance.

The running joke here is that Pierre-Paul is an upright citizen who has never done anything remotely illegal in his life. In fact, he regularly doles out money to Quebec’s homeless and those down on their luck. He also volunteers regularly at a shelter that feeds those in need. The obvious statement here is pointing out the great divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Arcand’s film is close to being very good, but falls short in too many areas to reach the height it desires. There is a torture scene that seems totally out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the film, and I refuse to make the link to PRETTY WOMAN – another film where the rich guy wins over the good-hearted sex worker. This film talks about “providence” and just rewards that rarely happen. Is it acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does doing good correct a wrong? Heck, is it even wrong to steal from criminals? What the film actually does is serve up obvious targets with no real solutions offered. The self-congratulatory ending with close-up shots of Quebec’s homeless doesn’t help.

 

THEM THAT FOLLOW

 My final film of the festival was listed as a “thriller”, but is realistically more of a drama set in the harshness of Appalachia. A small community of people are devoted followers of the Pastor Lemuel played by Walton Goggins, and snake-handling is key to their interpretative Pentecostal religion. Co-directors and co-writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage offer up a too-familiar story that tries to walk the line between cult and religious fanaticism. It’s always fascinating to see folks who have somehow become entrenched in such an environment.

Alice Englert is the daughter of Oscar winning director Jane Campion and she stars as Mara, the Pastor’s daughter who tries to fall in line with her father’s preachings, but an independent streak and an attraction to Augie (Thomas Mann) really complicate things for her. Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) co-stars as Augie’s mother, Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) is Dilly, local girl and friend to Mara, Jim Gaffigan plays Ms. Colman’s true-believer husband and Augie’s dad, and Lewis Pullman is Garrett, the boy selected as Mara’s husband-to-be.

Those of us on the outside always look on bewildered at how any person ever builds a following such as this Pastor or any other cult leader. How does any parent lose the inherent protective gene they have for their child, and have it overridden by a Pastor who uses serpents to cleanse sin from the believers … some of which make life decisions based on a quilting group. The movie looks great and has terrific performances, but for whatever reason, we are never really drawn into this world – left instead to observe from a distance (which is fine by me as long as snakes are present).


ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

July 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The mystery of why Ant-Man was not involved with the battle for the galaxy in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has been solved as director Peyton Reed returns to helm the sequel to his 2015 hit ANT-MAN. The reason is very simple: Scott Lang/Ant-Man was under house arrest for his role in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Yep, an ankle monitor sidelined this superhero for the biggest, baddest clash with Thanos. Somehow, this seems fitting for the most “normal” and grounded of all the Marvel characters, as Scott (Paul Rudd) is just a guy trying to overcome his petty thief tendencies while becoming a better father.

The story picks up two years after “Civil War” and Scott has only 3 days of house arrest remaining. An unusual “dream” is the cause of his reluctant reunion with Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). A remarkable laboratory (quite the sight-gag), that could also be carry-on luggage, is the source of Hank and Hope’s mission to bring back mother Janet (the original Wasp, Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm.

It’s at this point, if you are a Marvel Universe fan, that you might ask yourself … so the story is about trying to save one person who has been gone for 30 years?  Yes, that’s a bit less pressure than being charged with saving the galaxy, which is common occurrence in other Marvel films. Look, this isn’t rocket science. Umm, well, it’s quantum physics, which is way more complicated … but the point is, Ant-Man is the Marvel fluff piece. Its purpose is to be light-hearted and entertaining, rather than burdensome and ominous.

There may not be an overabundance of depth to the story, but it is overflowing with entertainment value. There are four new writers (along with Mr. Rudd) for this sequel, and they offer up a nice blend of personal redemption, crazy action sequences, and heart-felt emotion. The villains aren’t even all that bad. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) is Sonny, a greedy dude who just wants the other-worldly Pym technology, and Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is after that same technology, but only for self-preservation. Her own molecules are separating, causing a fast track to death – despite the help of Hank’s old partner, played by Laurence Fishburne.

The age-reversing effects we saw on Michael Douglas in the first ANT-MAN are also used this time on Mr. Fishburne and Ms. Pfeiffer. It’s quite something to behold. Michael Pena returns as Scott’s motor-mouthed partner, and he displays some pure comic genius in the truth serum scene. Randall Park plays the hapless FBI agent in charge of keeping track of Scott, but it’s Abby Ryder Fortson as Scott’s daughter Cassie who steals every one of her scenes … and possibly sets the stage for the Ant-Man franchise to carry on to the next generation.

Only a certain level of seriousness can be attained for a movie that blasts “The Partridge Family” theme song “Come On, Get Happy”. Or that awards Paul Rudd with a certain trophy designation. Or that has a character scream “You got Pezzed!”. However, a level of respect is earned with some terrific action – giant and tiny – as well as an exceedingly creative chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. There is a post-credit stinger that ties the film into AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It’s brilliant, but also caused quite the outburst from my fellow viewers. If you enjoy playful and amusing (and you should), then the team of Ant-Man and The Wasp (comedian and straight man/person) will put a smile on your face – just watch out for the seagulls!

watch the trailer:


MOJAVE (2016)

January 21, 2016

mojave Greetings again from the darkness. The isolation of the desert seems the perfect place for an artist to achieve the existential awakening necessary during a time of personal doubt and crisis. The journey to find one’s true self becomes much more complicated when the one-man desert getaway is interrupted by heavy boozing, self-destructive tendencies, and a serial-killer sociopath. Such is the case with writer/director William Monahan’s (Oscar winner for his screenplay of The Departed) latest film.

Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a very successful filmmaker, who seems to take no joy from his life of luxury … a mansion in the hills, cool cars, a wife and daughter, and endless adulation. Sporting the ultra-cool celebrity look of sunglasses and long hair, Thomas heads off into the desert to either clear his mind or end his life. We aren’t really sure which, and neither is he. Lots of Vodka and reckless Jeep driving leave Thomas in a showdown of wits and machismo across a campfire from a sinister yet articulate drifter.

The drifter is Jack, played by Oscar Isaac, and it’s no surprise when we learn he is a serial killer … the sociopath part we figured out quickly, right along with Thomas. Their under-the-stars confrontation leads to a tragic accident the next day, and pits these two in a B-movie game of cat and mouse with a tone that reminds a bit of Cape Fear (1991) and U-Turn (1997).

Heading back to L.A., Thomas comes up with an incredibly stupid plan to cover his tracks. Being famous “since I was 19 years old” and having financial success with movies hasn’t trained Thomas on facing off against a clever nemesis. Even his discussion with his manager (played by an unusually low-key Walton Goggins) comes across as literary-speak rather than real advice. “Worry about what seems to be” is the advice Thomas rolls with.

Monahan fills the screen with tough-guy dialogue for these two characters that are both simultaneously stupid and smart. Jack and Thomas go at each like a couple of intellects, but it’s the class warfare that stands out. The 99% versus the 1%. The message seems to be that it comes down to circumstance on whether one is an artist or a psychotic felon … and the line separating the two is pretty slim.

It’s also not a very well disguised ripping of the film industry … especially of producers. Mark Wahlberg chews some scenery as a d-bag movie producer who talks loud and fast while accomplishing little. It’s a pretty funny turn for Wahlberg, though unfortunately his character spends limited time on screen. Louise Bourgoin has a couple of scenes, and quickly proves more would have been welcome.

The film may not be much to look at, and doesn’t really make much sense, but some of the dialogue duels and “brother” banter, manage to keep us interested throughout. “Take a left. Take a right.” It doesn’t much matter with these two well-read adversaries from opposite sides of the tracks.

watch the trailer:

 


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

watch the trailer:

 


The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED


DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

January 2, 2013

django Greetings again from the darkness. Well, after two viewings and endless analyzing, it’s time to commit thoughts to the page. Over the years, it has become very clear that a Tarantino movie generates a first reaction, and then proceeds to slither through your mind and morph into something else entirely. It would be very easy to accept this latest as an outrageous peek at slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. For most filmmakers, that would be plenty. The “whole” here is exceedingly impressive, but the real joy for cinephiles is in the bits and pieces.

One need not be a Quentin Tarantino expert to enjoy his movies, but there are a couple of things that help. First, he is at heart, a true lover of cinema and quite the film historian, showing sincere respect to the pioneers of this art form. Second, he loves to bring visibility to issues (large and small) by poking a bit of fun at the evil doers who wield unnecessary influence and control over weaker parties. Morality, vengeance, revenge and come-uppance invariably play a role in django4his story-telling … a bonus this time is the inclusion of the Brunhilde/Siegfried legend from Norse mythology and the Wagner operas.

In his two most recent films, QT has been on a kick for creative revisionist history. Inglourious Basterds made a strong statement against the Nazi’s, while this latest goes hard after slave owners. As you might expect, historical accuracy is less important to him than are the characters involved and the tales they weave. And to that point, it seems quite obvious that where in the past, Tarantino would center his attention on crackling dialogue and searing one-liners, he now offers up much more complete characterizations … these are people we understand, even if we don’t much like them.

The obvious love he has for Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the driving forces behind spaghetti westerns, is plastered on the screen. We even get the beautiful camera work through the snow as a tribute to Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). While this is not a remake or sequel or prequel, Franco Nero’s “I know” response to “The D is silent” generates a laugh and memories django2of a 25 year old Nero in the titular role of Django (1966). The Blaxploitation genre plays a significant role here as well since Jamie Foxx plays Django, a freed slave who buddies up with a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, so that Django can get revenge on those responsible for the torture and mistreatment of his wife.

The details of the stories will not be exposed here, however, I would encourage you to pay close attention to the moments of film brilliance. There is a running gag with townspeople and slaves alike struggling to accept the sight of Django on a horse. You’ll laugh again when Django is offered the opportunity to pick out his own clothes and we next see Foxx in a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit straight out of The Blue Boy painting from Gainsborough. There is hilarious banter django5between Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Betina as he tries to give guidance on how to give Django a tour of the plantation.  The phrenology sequence is not just unusual, but an incredibly tense scene and fun to watch.  Watching the final shootout reminds me of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch … only ten times as violent!

Some of the best moments occur when we recognize the actors in the vital foundation scenes. Don’t miss: bad guy Bruce Dern, Don Stroud (the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story) as the ill fated sheriff, Tom Wopat as a patient Marshal (“Dukes of Hazzard”), father and daughter Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Jonah Hill who struggles with the eye holes in his “bag”, the eyes of Zoe Bell, Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), “Dexter” dad James Remar in two roles, Walton Goggins as a gunslinger, Michael Parks (multiple roles in Kill Bill and Grindhouse), and of course, Mr Tarantino himself (as an explosive cowpoke from down under).

django3 While each of these provide wonderful moments, the real bingo occurs courtesy of the main performances of Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr King Schultz, bounty hunter), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie, plantation owner), and Samuel L Jackson (Stephen, Candyland house slave). Any combination of these characters in any scene could be considered a highlight. It’s especially enjoyable to see DiCaprio cut loose after so many uptight characters recently. Samuel L Jackson has long been a Tarantino favorite, and his delivery as the diabolical Uncle Tom house slave who has some secrets of his own, will bring the house down when he first sees Django and, in a much darker way, when his suspicions are confirmed. Power is a big player in the story, and even as a slave, Stephen knows what to do with power when he has it. Mr. Waltz won an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds performance, and his dialogue here is every bit as rich. It’s obvious how much Tarantino enjoys hearing his words spoken by Waltz. Foxx’ performance could be easily overlooked, but it’s actually the guts of the film. He is quiet when necessary and bold when required.

django - dj We must also discuss the soundtrack. Franco Migiacci‘s original “Django” theme is featured, as are classics and a new song from the great Ennio Morricone. If you doubt the originality of the soundtrack, try naming another western that utilizes a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. How about a spot-on use of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”? The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, and Fred Riskin takes over for Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010.

It should also be noted that the script puts hip-hop to shame by using the “N-word” more than 100 times. It is a bit disconcerting, and you can google Spike Lee’s comments if you care to read more on the topic. Otherwise, dig in to the latest gem from Tarantino and appreciate his approach and genius … either that, or stay away!

**NOTE: I have purposefully avoided the scandal associated with the film.  If you are interested in reactions from the African-American community, there is no shortage of published reports on those who support the film and those who are outraged.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC8VJ9aeB_g


STRAW DOGS (2011)

September 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen Sam Peckinpah‘s classic 1971 original with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, it is impossible to watch this remake without comparing the two films. Because of that, these comments will include some comparative notes. After all, it’s been 40 years and most people watching this new version have never seen the original, though I highly recommend it.

Director Rod Lurie follows the Peckinpah version pretty closely with the obvious changes being a move from the English countryside to the deep south (Mississippi), and the main characters are now a screenwriter and actress instead of mathematical whiz and … well, whatever Susan George’s character was in the original. Those are the obvious changes, but not the most significant. I really missed the subtlety and psychological trickery delivered by Peckinpah, especially in the relationship between David and Amy.

 Lurie chooses to take advantage of the physical screen presence of Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) as Charlie, the local stud and Amy’s ex. Charlie’s past exploits on the football field and his creepy leadership skills with his posse of thugs, provide the yin of physical strength to the yang of David’s intelligence. It’s interesting to note that this version spells out Sun-Tzu’s description of “straw dogs” while Peckinpah left his audience to fend for themselves. But, of course, what the story boils down to is just how far can a civilized person be pushed … and how far is the bully willing to go?

 James Woods is a welcome and terrifying addition to the new version. Since it is based in the small town south, high school football must play a role. Woods is the former high school coach who is now a violent drunk, and still leader of his former players. He is a sadistic type who picks on Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell), the slow-witted brother of Daniel (Walton Goggins) and constantly accuses him of inappropriate behavior with his 15 year old cheerleader daughter.

 James Marsden (Hairspray) and Kate Bosworth (Remember the Titans) play David and Amy. They come back to Amy’s childhood home so she can rest and David can have some peace and quiet while writing his screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad. Well, we couldn’t really have him writing a rom-com, could we? From Day One, the peace and quiet is clearly missing and Lynyrd Skynyrd wins out over Bach in the battle of radio volume. Tension builds and David is tested daily over what it means to be a man … tested by the local hicks and doubted by his lovely wife.

Things turn from bad to worse when the locals invite David to go hunting with them. What happens with Charlie and Amy during this time changes everything. This sequence was the key to the controversy of the original and what caused it to be banned in many cities and countries. Lurie chooses to handle it in a very straightforward manner – plus, times and mores have changed quite a bit in the last 40 years.

For me, the Peckinpah original remains a classic film with brilliant psychological undertones which left me feeling very uncomfortable and questioning what I might do in this situation. Lurie’s new version offered little of that but does work fine as a straightforward suspenseful thriller.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to compare original vs. remake OR you want to see a very creative use of a bear trap OR you want a close up view up Kate Bosworth’s heterochromia (one brown eye and one blue)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are devotee to Peckinpah’s version OR you prefer your thrillers have little violence

watch the trailer:


COWBOYS & ALIENS

July 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With such a wonderful title, creative concept, stellar cast, the director (Jon Favreau) of Iron Man and Elf, and the collision of two distinct film genres – Westerns and Sci-Fi, we had every right to expect cinematic genius. Instead we get OK, just fine, and kind of entertaining. I believe that qualifies as a letdown.

My view of the film is that the western/cowboy portion is outstanding. The setting and characters are realistic and intriguing. Heck, there is steely-eyed  Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan; grumpy Harrison Ford as Col. Dolarhyde who runs the town with iron fist; loony tunes Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s son who is itching for respect; bespectacled Sam Rockwell as a barkeep called Doc; porcelain Olivia Wilde as the not-from-around-here beauty whose presence no one seems to question; and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff trying to do the right thing. We even have the obligatory kid (Noah Ringer from The Last Airbender) and a loyal dog.

 The weakness of the film is with the aliens. Many have said the film would be better without the aliens. Well, wouldn’t that make the title a bit ridiculous? We just needed BETTER aliens. These aliens are smart enough for intergalactic travel but they can’t outsmart a bunch of rustlers? And how many times did they capture Daniel Craig just to have him escape? Not to mention that their power seems to come from gold … and there is a shortage on their planet and ours! The beginning of the film is really, really good. It’s 1837 and Lonergan wakes up in the middle of nowhere, just outside the unfriendly town of Absolution. He is wearing a metallic bracelet/shackle around his wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. Although there are some terrific scenes, the film kind of drifts downhill after that.

 All I will say about the story is that the aliens attack Absolution by kidnapping a few residents and stealing gold. The cowboys fight back with six shooters, Lonergan’s bracelet, Wilde’s knowledge, and some help from the Indians.

What really bothers me about this one is that it should have been so much FUN! Instead, it’s mostly bleak with only a few comic lines tossed in. My guess is having NINE writers associated with the film was a real problem. Each of the characters holds some interest, but the story just kind of meanders with little direction.

 A couple of minor irritants for me: Lonergan wakes up and mugs three crusty old cowboys and winds up with perfectly tailored chaps, pants, shirt and vest; Olivia Wilde wears the same dress all the time but never really gets dirty; the cowboys shoot the aliens with guns, arrows and spears – sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t; and supposedly the aliens don’t see well in daylight. Tell that to the numerous cowboys and Indians who get slaughtered in the climatic battle. Lastly, Olivia Wilde’s character is the only one of her type. Where were her fellow “countrymen” to assist on her mission?

As I said, the cast is spectacular. It’s always nice to see Buck Taylor in a western. Clancy Brown plays the preacher. You will remember him as the prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Brown maintains his top position as the largest cranium of all actors. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) plays one of Lonergan’s old gang, and brings a touch of humor. And the fiddler is played by first time actor Rex Rideout. Nothing to say about that other than congrats on a terrific screen name!

The film is entertaining, but just falls short of what could have been, even what should have been. Watching Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford match wits in the old west is almost enough!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Daniel Craig in chaps and Harrison Ford in full curmudgeon glory are enough to justify the price of a ticket

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think it will be as much fun as the title suggests

Watch the trailer: