LUCY IN THE SKY (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Space – the final frontier.’ Well, that wasn’t the case for real life astronaut Lisa Nowak. In 2007, Nowak made the national news for her cross-country, diaper-wearing road trip that ended with her being arrested in Orlando for attempted kidnapping. Nowak had been a Navy pilot and conducted spacewalks as an astronaut. She had been married and divorced from a NASA contractor, and the purpose of her long drive to Orlando was to kidnap the astronaut she had an affair with and the astronaut that she had been dumped for by that astronaut (the other one she was kidnapping). Noah Hawley’s feature film directorial debut is “inspired by true events”, and about the only thing missing is those diapers.

OK, that’s not the only thing. Also missing are a coherent story, believable dialogue, a realistic Texas accent, a competent psychologist, and an inspiring story of girl power. Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, and the film opens with her being filled with awe during a spacewalk that will forever make life on Earth seem small … even while her dreadful accent (with San Angelo gun joke) tortures the ears of every viewer. Jon Hamm co-stars as astronaut Mark Goodwin, the “action-figure” prize in the eyes of Lucy. This despite Lucy’s cheery, stable and very grounded husband Drew (Dan Stevens), who works in NASA Public Relations. Playing the 4th wheel in what should have been two separate two-wheelers is astronaut Erin Eccles (an underutilized Zazie Beetz). Thankfully, Ellen Burstyn is around to inject some raunchy old woman humor and life lessons as Lucy’s Nana. For no apparent reason, other than possibly in hopes of attracting a younger audience, Pearl Amanda Dixon plays Iris, Lucy’s teenage niece. Iris spends most of the movie casting confused looks at her famous aunt, wondering why Nana told her to take any advice from Lucy.

Noah Hawley is best known for his excellent TV work with “Fargo”, and here is credited as co-writer with Brian C Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi. It’s the first feature film for all three and it shows. There are some interesting ideas and approaches, but most of the stylistic attempts are just too much: the non-stop shifting of aspect ratios, the by design blurring (out of focus) images, and the Malick-type edits early on, are all more distracting than artistic.

There are some intriguing bits to Lucy’s character. She’s a woman in a field dominated by Type A men, and she matches or exceeds all in determination, grit and expertise. It’s only after she is “star struck” that she begins her descent into mental and emotional instability. As she loses herself, there is a scene where Hamm’s Goodwin is watching the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy over and over. That scene probably offers more insight into being an astronaut than most anything we see from Lucy. As for the finale, it’s a rain-soaked mess, and perhaps drives home the point that the filmmakers were handcuffed by a true life story that was simply too bizarre to work as a movie … especially since they left out the diapers.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

JOKER (2019)

October 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first thing to know is that this is not a Superhero movie. In fact, there are no heroes in the movie – unless you would like to apply the label to a single mom who lives down the hall from Arthur Fleck. Mr. Fleck lives at home with his invalid mother in a grungy, run-down apartment. He works as a clown-for-hire, dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and depends on social services to supply the 7 medications he takes since being released from Arkham State Hospital. It’s a bleak existence at a bleak time in a bleak city. Gotham is in the midst of a garbage workers’ strike (only the ‘super rats’ are happy), political upheaval, and a growing chasm between the classes. And then it gets worse for Arthur.

The second thing to know is that this is a standalone Joker film, and one mostly unrelated or not connected to previous projects featuring the colorful Clown Prince character played (and voiced) by such memorable actors as Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto and even Zach Galifianakis. Director Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver) is best known for such extreme comedies as “The Hangover” franchise and OLD SCHOOL, so he’s a bit outside of his usual wheelhouse. Phillips and Silver seem to embrace not just the history of the character, but also the look, texture and tone of filmmaking from an earlier era. The gritty and outcast feel of Scorcese’s TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY is present, and so are numerous tributes to familiar Joker moments of days gone by.

Three time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, and he delivers Arthur’s slow descent into madness, or shall we say further descent. It’s clear from the beginning that Arthur views himself as ignored by society, while all he wants to do is bring joy and laughter to others … and be noticed. His daydreams or visions of himself in a better world send a strong message. Phoenix shows us what full commitment to a role looks like. He lost 50 pounds, leaving a frame that contorts, moves and dances in a manner unlike what we’ve seen before. In fact, it’s a toss-up on which shows up more frequently, his dances moves or his maniacal, pained laughter. We are informed Arthur suffers from Pseudobulbar Affect, also known as emotional incontinence, which causes that creepy laughter to pop up at some inappropriate times. Of course, the comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn in THE DARK KNIGHT are inevitable. The roles and films are written quite differently, and it’s safe to say both actors were all-in.

Action sequences and special visual effects are both noticeably absent, but the violence is sure to shock. This is not one for the younger kids, no matter how much they enjoy THE AVENGERS or WONDER WOMAN (or any other DC or Marvel film). This gritty, visceral approach is often a tough watch, and is much more a character study of mental illness than a costume drama … although Arthur’s clothes and make-up are front and center. When Arthur states, “I have nothing but bad thoughts”, we believe him. And the sympathetic back story explains a great deal, and will likely prove quite controversial.

Phoenix dominates the film (as he should), and supporting work is provided by Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a TV talk show host in the Johnny Carson mode; Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) as the single mom neighbor Sophie Dumond; Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother; Brett Cullen as a not so empathetic Thomas Wayne; and Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as police detectives. I’ll hesitantly mention that Dante Pereira-Olson makes a couple of brief appearances as an adolescent Bruce Wayne, and just for fun, we get a shot of the young man honing the batpole skills he will use later in life. Just don’t expect any “real” Batman references.

Director Phillips delivers a film that looks and feels and sounds much different than other comic book movies. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher is a frequent Phillips collaborator (all 3 Hangover movies) and the dark look and gritty feel are present in most every shot. Hildur Guonadottir (this year’s Emmy winner for “Chernobyl”) serves up a foreboding score – one that never overwhelms, and one that contrasts perfectly with the more traditional songs utilized throughout: Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, Jimmy Durante singing “Smile”, Cream’s “White Room”, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, and Gary Glitter’s familiar “Rock and Roll Part 1 and 2”. The “Smile” song is especially relevant as its origins can be traced by to Charlie Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, a silent movie classic featured in this film. Phillips even uses the Saul Bass designed Warner Bros logo to open the credits, making sure we understand the time period (no cell phones, etc).

The film traces Arthur’s slide into crime … a transition that he wasn’t seeking, and one that he believes was forced upon him. His rise as a savior to the working class is secondary to his own journey, and the chaos is handled on the perimeters of the film, preventing this from becoming a Super Villain movie. Keep in mind JOKER played at Venice, Telluride and Toronto – three prestigious festivals. This is just another thing that sets it apart from others in the genre. Despite the 1981 time stamp, the consistent anti-rich message and class disparity is prevalent throughout. This appears to be Phillips’ way of including a contemporary theme in a decades-old setting. And it’s a cautionary tale that there should be no clown left behind.

watch the trailer:


HIGH FLYING BIRD (2019)

February 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the “Oceans” franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects (“The Knick”, “Godless”), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.

Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks … a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished.  Andre Holland (also one of the film’s producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray – although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client – hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick’s top pick contract has not yet been executed … so he’s in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.

Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray’s assistant who constantly reminds him, “I don’t work for you anymore”, despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners’ lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray’s boss.

Ray’s work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players’ image. Is it the league, the players’ association, or the player himself? It’s a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.

Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. “You care all the way or you don’t care at all” is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it’s quite obvious this isn’t the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.

available on Netflix February 8

watch the trailer:


DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

May 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We couldn’t help but ask “why?” when the sequel was announced, even though we knew the answer was money. There was little hope in improving on the first DEADPOOL (2016), and since that film’s director, Tim Miller, was tied up with upcoming projects for X-Men and Terminator, there was understandable concern that changing the recipe could result in huge disappointment. While it may not be an improvement on the first, only those with unrealistic expectations are likely to be disappointed … the rest of us will spend most of two hours laughing and enjoying the spectacle.

Director David Leitch exploded onto the scene with last year’s surprise action hit ATOMIC BLONDE, and his stuntman experience is once again on display with even more frenzied action and fight sequences this time out. As you might expect, there is no easing into the comedy routine here. The Opening Credits are laugh out loud funny and the only thing better may be the closing credits sequence, which is an instant classic.

No punchlines will be spoiled here, and it’s an obvious statement, but clearly no topic or subject, or at least very few, are off-limits. Targets of barbs include LinkedIn, YENTL, FROZEN, Fox & Friends, and well, the list goes on and on. You’ll likely miss 20 percent of the dialogue whilst laughing. The “Merc with a Mouth” (Ryan Reynolds) breaks the 4th wall in atypical fashion – blurring the line through dialogue incorporated into the story. The self-awareness is comical in its own right.

Some familiar faces are back. Wade’s main squeeze Vanessa (Marina Baccarin) kicks off the “kids” discussion (Yikes!) and the couple seems to have settled into cohabitant bliss – never a good sign in a superhero movie. TJ Miller (despite his recent headlines) is back running Sister Margaret’s Bar, though his minimal presence is noted. Also back is Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), and his expanded role finds him turning Deadpool into an X-Men trainee at Professor Xavier’s School for the gifted. This occurs after tragedy strikes and we are introduced to some new players. Julian Dennison (so good in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) plays FireFist, and of course, the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin) shows us what happens when a time-travelling Terminator type is out for revenge.

Snarking, mocking and irreverence remain in full force throughout, but if you happen to pay attention to the story, you’ll notice a (not-so) subtle transition taking place. The renegade superhero shifts from loner to team player, and even picks up some life lessons along the way – mostly related to loss and collaboration. Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, and one of the more interesting members is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck (yep).  We do get a surprise cameo, and there’s even a shot of Deadpool with no pants … and it’s markedly unsexy. The music selections are inspired, however, if you are unsure whether this movie is for you … it probably isn’t.

watch the trailer:


WOLVES (2017)

March 3, 2017

wolves Greetings again from the darkness. Anthony is a good kid with a bright future. He’s a star basketball player and a bright student, and has a loyal girlfriend and seemingly normal home life. It comes as no surprise that most of those elements either aren’t as smooth as they seem, or are more complex than on the surface.

Writer/director Bart Freundlich (known for his 1997 debut feature The Myth of Fingerprints, and for being married to Julianne Moore) slowly unveils the cracks in Anthony’s (Taylor John Smith) façade. His college professor dad (the always great Michael Shannon) is a drunk, abusive man with a short fuse and severe gambling addiction. He’s the kind of guy who is always working on his great American novel, while juggling gambling debts and throwing down quiet jealousy of his son. His mother (Carla Gugino) has good intentions and clearly wants the best for her son, but she’s just not capable of standing up to the menace. It plays like a Maslow’s hierarchy of crappy parenting.

There are plenty of clichés that we’ve seen in many movies, but it’s a pleasure to see so much real basketball being played. Anthony has a sweet jump shot and a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Zazie Beetz), and the interpersonal relationships all have nuances that come across as real life. Even Uncle Charlie (Chris Bauer) seems torn about which family member most needs his protection. Emotional-physical-financial strains abound and it all seems to crash down on Anthony as he strives to earn a college scholarship by impressing the coaches from Cornell.

As Anthony navigates the choppy waters towards independence, the film teases us with some sub-plots that could have been further explored. Anthony hits it off with an older, wiser street baller (John Douglas Thompson) who starts mentoring him. We also are given hope that Anthony’s mom will actually do something for her son rather than regretting what she hasn’t done. Lastly there is a quick tease as to an alternative past that would make some sense – though whether that’s real or imagined is left up to the viewer’s perspective.

The film ultimately plays like a Disney film that utilizes an inordinate number of “F-words”, and it even reminds a bit of the Paul Giamatti movie Win Win. It’s the acting and the periodic sequences of real emotion that allow us to remain interested in the characters right up until the end … even if our hopes differ from one of Anthony’s own parents.

watch the trailer: