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Fri12132019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Director Ben Stiller gets serious with Escape at Dannemora, a Showtime series based upon the real 2015 escape of two dangerous convicts from prison in upstate New York.

Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano are perfect as Richard Matt and David Sweat, two nutballs who get prison employee Tilly Mitchell (a terrific Patricia Arquette) to help them break out, therefore initiating a mammoth manhunt—the results of which I won’t give away here.

Matt, Sweat and Mitchell formed a very unconventional love triangle that goes to some pretty strange places. (As of this writing, four of the seven episodes have aired.)

So far, the show is pretty damned good. Stiller can’t resist the temptation to be funny on occasion, but this show is proof he can put together a great drama, too. Del Toro and Dano are equally good, each getting a chance to explore their dark sides. (No surprise: Del Toro’s dark side is a little goofier.) The series garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Limited Series and Best Performance By an Actress in a Limited Series for Arquette.

Thankfully, I’ve forgotten how this story actually turns out, so I will watch until the end and see who lives and who dies. As prison dramas go, this one is a keeper—and proof that Stiller has another whole side of his career that he can explore.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

Published in Reviews

Director Joon-ho Bong, the purveyor of spectacularly wacky cinematic things (The Host, Snowpiercer), has delivered to Netflix Okja, perhaps his wackiest film yet: It’s a tale about a future world in which meat is scarce, so huge pigs are biogenetically engineered for slaughter.

The title character is a prized, giant animal raised in the mountains by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a young girl who thinks Okja is her pet. She’s oblivious to the fact that Okja’s days are numbered, so when an envoy for a large corporation (Jake Gyllenhaal, going completely nuts here) shows up and takes Okja away, Mija flies into action—and the bizarre adventure begins.

Paul Dano, one of the kings of movie weirdness, chips in as the leader of an animal-rescue corps that includes Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) and Lily Collins. Following up her collaboration with Bong on Snowpiercer is Tilda Swinton, playing twins (as she did in Hail, Caesar!)—two evil sisters running the corporation that produced Okja.

The movie mixes absurd laughs with mayhem, and the cast is great. Like films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Babe before it, this movie tries to shine a light on the cruel treatment of animals—and perhaps get you to pass on the bacon the next time you are at Denny’s.

Okja is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Swiss Army Man, like the dead corpse at its center, serves a variety of purposes.

It’s a story about the wild things starvation and desperation can do to the brain, including the strange visions that play in one’s head while losing it. It’s a story about how a deranged stalker deals with the end of his life. It’s a story about how funny it would be if somebody’s farts could propel himself, like a jet ski, across the ocean, and how funny it would be if his erect dick were a compass.

I’ve made my choice what this movie is about to me, but you could walk away from it thinking something completely different. That’s the beauty of a movie like Swiss Army Man.

As Hank, Paul Dano gets yet another nutty role. He’s seemingly stranded on a desert island and at the end of his rope—literally. Just before killing himself, a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach … and starts farting. It starts farting a lot.

Hank is soon riding the corpse (dubbed Manny) across the ocean as its farts provide jet propulsion. Hank, thanks to the arrival of his new friend, decides suicide is a drag, and takes Manny along with him on a trek through the forest to find civilization. Manny eventually starts having conversations with Hank, and are both aided by Manny’s hard-ons, which act as a compass.

Yes: Manny’s dick is a compass.

Sound weird? It most assuredly is. But Swiss Army Man is also strangely beautiful, deeper and richer than most movies with this many farts in it. It can also be super-disturbing and sad.

The film also gets some high points for special effects. Hank discovers multiple uses for Manny: He’s a water dispenser, a rocket launcher—and more! All of these moments are delivered convincingly by directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who also wrote the script and get credit for one of cinema history’s most bizarre feature-directing debuts, right alongside David Lynch and his Eraserhead.

It’s also a keen observation on our current digital age, when advances in phone and camera technology have made it easier for people with problems to do stupid things in high definition. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra provide one of the year’s best and most-triumphant musical scores.

Dano, who shined so brightly in last year’s Love and Mercy, continues to make the kinds of daring role choices Nicolas Cage used to make. (Let’s hope Dano doesn’t end up in any remakes of The Wicker Man or any Ghost Rider sequels.) He makes Hank very likable … or despicable, depending upon the way in which you take this movie. If you make a list of some of the more daring, eccentric films of the last 10 years (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks, Looper, Where the Wild Things Are), you will often find Dano involved.

As for Radcliffe, this is an insane triumph. Other actors (most notably Terry Kiser in Weekend at Bernie’s) have played corpses being dragged around in a movie, but Radcliffe brings a dimension to corpse-acting that has, quite honestly, never been seen before. It’s a marvel of physical acting that, rather unconventionally, shows the actor finally transcending his Harry Potter reputation and doing something beyond notable. What he does here deserves some sort of special Oscar—perhaps the Academy Award for Playing Dead While Sort of Being Alive at Times and Delivering Massive Amounts of Body Humor in a Way That Is Somehow Moving in Addition to Being Kind of Gross Yet Awesome. They probably won’t create that category, but let’s just hand over that award in this here movie review. Daniel, you deserve it.

Swiss Army Man is destined for cult-classic status. It’s also destined to hold some sort of record for corpse-farting and corpse erections in a movie. While such things are mighty prominent, don’t let them distract you from the powerful story at the center: It’s a true mindbender.

Swiss Army Man is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Oh, those marketing people can be so deceiving.

From the previews, Youth looks like Cocoon minus the glowing aliens—a goofy-old-coot movie with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel leering at ladies in the swimming pool and complaining about their prostates.

Actually, Youth is far from being anything like Cocoon, and with the exception of some darkly humorous laughs—and, yes, a couple of prostate jokes—it’s not something I would classify as a comedy.

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino isn’t interested in pleasantries or pulling punches. His movie is a brutal, almost dangerously honest take on artists growing old. It’s also a little bit crazy at times—to the point where I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if crazy aliens sprang up from the bottom of the swimming pool.

Caine, in one of the best and most quietly understated performances of his career, plays retired composer Fred Ballinger. Fred is on holiday at a dreamy Switzerland resort with his daughter and assistant, Lena (Rachel Weisz, delivering the goods), and his film-director friend, Mick Boyle (Keitel, reminding you that he is still awesome).

Lena’s husband dumps her for a vacuous pop star who performs miracles in bed, sending her into a tailspin and giving Fred something else to worry about besides the miniscule level of pee traveling through his urethra. Mick, working on a film that doesn’t yet have an ending, remains a positive force for Fred, even though he’s become forgetful.

Representing the younger side of the artistic trade would be Jimmy Tree (the great Paul Dano), a popular actor preparing for a big role. Jimmy has done his share of art films, but most people remember him for his role as a robot—something about which people remind him during nearly every instance of human contact.

I used the word “brutal” up above, and I’m going to use the word again: This movie is bru-tal. When Fred finally lets an emissary for the queen know what he really thinks about her offer of knighthood, it’s one nasty exchange. When Lena gives her dad the what-for during a mud bath, the world stops. When Jimmy meets Miss Universe, and she brings up that damned robot, watch out. As far all-time screamers, the revelation of the role for which Jimmy is preparing is quite the shocker.

The beauty of Sorrentino’s film is that these brutal moments are handled in nuanced, subdued fashion. His script is eloquent, intelligent and often heartbreaking. Many of these characters will not have happy endings.

As an aging actress who has a caustic message for Mick, Jane Fonda shows up late in the movie and delivers one of the greatest scenes of her career. Fonda and Keitel sparring is as scary and punishing as anything in Creed.

Adding to the wonderful dialogue is the score by David Lang that is every ounce as beautiful as the stunning camerawork by Luca Bigazzi. Sorrentino is apparently a big Fellini fan, something evident in the film’s finale.

Paolo Sorrentino is only 45 years old. This meditation on aging seems to be coming from somebody who has logged at least 75 years on the planet—but he’s not even 50. That makes his achievement all the more impressive—although there are many 75-year-olds who might tell Sorrentino to cheer up a little bit, and that getting older isn’t always as dour as this film makes it out to be.

As for the finale, Youth finishes with either a crowning moment for Fred, or his worst nightmare, depending upon how you choose to take it in. The final look in Caine’s eyes says it all for me.

Youth is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

Paul Dano and John Cusack play Brian Wilson younger and older—and both are spectacular in this well-done biopic focusing on the Beach Boys legend.

Dano occupies the 1960s and ’70s, with Wilson experimenting in the studio, experimenting with drugs and starting to lose his mind. Cusack picks up the story later in life, with Wilson journeying outside after years of seclusion, and eventually falling in love with a car salesman (Elizabeth Banks). Paul Giamatti is sinister as Dr. Eugene Landy, the man who kept Wilson secluded for years and basically terrorized him into remaining mentally ill.

While neither actor is a dead ringer for Wilson, they are successful in capturing his mannerisms. Dano plays Wilson as a man with childlike wonder as he leads dogs into the studio to make music. Cusack gets everything from the facial tics to Wilson’s soft-spoken voice. They both deliver stunning performances—and because the film had the cooperation of Wilson, you get to hear Beach Boys music, too.

Both stories are told in parallel, rather than chronological, fashion, and it’s a great way to see Wilson’s life.

Love and Mercy is playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

For a good part of its running time, Prisoners seems as if it could be one of 2013’s best pictures. It has a good premise and a shocking middle.

Alas, the film falls apart a bit at the end, with a finale as stupid as the rest of the film is gripping.

Hugh Jackman delivers a fierce performance as Keller Dover, a survivalist who goes into vigilante mode after his daughter and her friend are kidnapped. When a semi-irritable detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) apprehends a mentally challenged suspect (Paul Dano), Dover and the detective go head-to-head on how to deal with him. When the suspect is set free, Dover captures and tortures him.

These parts of the film are solid, showing the lengths a parent could go to in order to find a missing child. As for the film’s mystery element: That’s where things fall apart. It strains so hard to be clever that it becomes ridiculous by the time credits roll.

Gyllenhaal is quite good here, even when the screenplay lets him down. The same goes for Jackman and his justifiably maniacal turn. He’s a sharp actor, and he makes the goofy ending watchable. Supporting performances from Maria Bello and Terrence Howard are decent.

The movie was shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, so it looks good. Prisoners is worth seeing for the most part, but it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Special Features: You only get a couple of short behind-the-scenes features.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Prisoners, the new kidnapping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is one of those movies that is impressive while being watched—but it loses some of its power upon reflection.

By the time I got to my car after the screening, my head started going “Wait a minute … that part didn’t make much sense, now did it?”

I enjoyed the film on many levels. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, and the time went by fairly quickly. The two leads are at the top of their games, and you just can’t go wrong with the visuals when Roger Deakins is working the camera.

But somewhere around the third act, the kidnapping-mystery element starts going a little haywire. Director Denis Villeneuve and his writer, Aaron Guzikowski, are so determined to trip viewers up that the movie traipses over to the ridiculous side. This doesn’t derail the film, but it downgrades it a bit.

Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace, (Maria Bello), are having a Thanksgiving get-together with friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when both of the couples’ daughters go missing. Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) saw a messed-up looking RV near the house earlier in the day, and he reports it.

Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called away from his Thanksgiving dinner at a greasy spoon when the RV is spotted. They arrest Alex Jones (a freaky Paul Dano), a man with an IQ of a 10-year-old, on suspicion of kidnapping.

Loki does his best to get info out of Alex, to no avail. The suspect is released due to a lack of evidence—and Keller goes ballistic. He takes matters into his own hands, resulting in Keller kidnapping Alex—and leading to some rather harsh torture scenes. Dano spends much of the film under heavy gore makeup.

Up until this point, Prisoners is a movie that focuses on the dilemma of what lengths a parent would go to in order to find a child. Keller brings Franklin to the torture chamber, and the two put Alex through hell. The victim keeps dropping possible hints, with no real solid info—so the torture amplifies. It’s brutal, and credit goes to all three actors for convincingly conveying the humiliation, fear, regret and sadism that must go with such a situation.

Det. Loki is in what sometimes feels like another movie; he’s trying to solve the kidnapping while stumbling upon other crimes along the way. Around the time he was uncovering bloody storage bins full of snakes, the movie started losing a bit of its cohesiveness. Still, Gyllenhaal is rock-solid as Loki, a quiet man laced with a bad temper that gets him and others into trouble.

The film is set in an often gloomy, gray, rainy Pennsylvania where everything looks plain and safe—but dark things are happening in those old houses. Villeneuve and Deakins use this setting to maximum effect, and the film is always interesting visually. (Film geeks know that Deakins is the go-to cinematographer for the Coen brothers.)

The film successfully keeps viewers guessing as to the identity of the kidnapper/kidnappers until late in the film. Everybody in the cast behaves suspiciously enough at one point or another, meaning almost nobody can be dismissed as a possibility.

This ambiguity hurts the film in many ways, as the film strays from a core moral message and becomes a preposterous whodunit. The eventual revelation struck me as a letdown—perhaps even a copout.

Stretches of this film will draw comparisons to the 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Unfortunately, stretches can also be compared to the crappy 1993 American remake of The Vanishing in which Jeff Bridges took a shovel to the mouth. At least Prisoners has a great final moment, so it ends on a good note.

The film contains some of the year’s best acting and best visuals, and it maintains a fierce intensity for much of its running time. That said, I can’t deny its flaws. With a slight rewrite and tighter editing, this could’ve been one of the year’s best pictures. 

Prisoners is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

If you missed this one in theaters, you missed one of the year’s best big-screen experiences. Director Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller is startlingly good-looking film.

It’s also a great brain-twister, featuring a bravura performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hired assassin killing people sent back from the future the instant they pop up in front of him. Things get a little kooky when the person sent back to be offed is actually an older version of himself (a strong Bruce Willis).

Gordon-Levitt wears makeup to achieve a look more akin to Willis, but it’s the smirk and airy voice that really nail it down. Gordon-Levitt had a blockbuster year with this and The Dark Knight Rises, with this being the best screen work he has done to date.

A supporting cast including Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels is top-notch. Dano is especially good as a fellow assassin (or “looper”) who loses his nerve at the wrong time—and pays a grisly price.

In a role that isn’t getting the notice it deserves (although she has gotten a nomination from the Broadcast Film Critics Association), Emily Blunt takes a break from funny stuff to deliver stellar work as a mom protecting a strange son (played by talented child actor Pierce Gagnon). Blunt holds her own with Gordon-Levitt, matching him at every turn.

Willis gets a chance to do some seedy stuff as his character goes on an unfortunate crusade. He does a good job of making his version of Joe a sympathetic character, even as he does unspeakable things.

As time-travel movies go, this is one of the best. The moment when future Joe sits down in a diner with present Joe is a real winner. (The universe does not end, as Doc Brown predicted would happen in Back to the Future Part II.) If you missed this on the big screen, don’t fret: The Blu-ray will look mighty good in your living room.

Let it be noted that this movie cost $30 million to make, according to IMDb.com. That’s a pretty low budget considering the look Johnson has achieved. It seems like the movie would’ve cost five times that amount, at least.

Special Features: A great commentary with the director, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt. It’s actually one of the year’s better commentaries, a truly fun listen. You also get deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes on the making of the film, and a short doc about the film’s score. 

 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing