Robert De Niro Sees and Knows All in Cortes’ Red Lights

While most recent movies about paranormal phenomena lies in documentary cinematography—think  Paranormal Activity and Chernobyl Diaries— the psychological thriller Red Lights is sure to break that trend.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

University professor Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) team together to debunk claims of ghost whispering, faith healing, and other psychic phenomena. The two paranormal researchers look for what they call ‘”red lights,” signs or mistakes that suggest fraudulent claims of paranormal ability.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Buckley becomes intrigued as Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a legendary blind psychic, comes out of a 30-year retirement. Part of Silver’s charm and draw is that his blindness seems to increase his psychic ability and box office appeal.  Determined to defraud Silver, the obsessed Buckley leaves no stone unturned as he doggedly attempts to crack a series of seemingly uncrackable codes and “red lights” that could possibly reveal Silver as the penultimate psychic fraud .

Through climatic scenes down hallway corridors and tense visual double takes, Buckley goes on the wild goose hunt of his life tracking down ways to crack Silver. Using scientific methods and procedures to try and dissolve Silver’s career, Buckley has to reexamine his own beliefs that are juxtaposed between fact-based science and the supernatural.

Though there is an intriguing plot line and unexpected twists in Red Lights, the weak dialogue does little to develop the characters. However, Murphy, Weaver, and De Niro find ways to push the plot along and give noteworthy performances which is a testament their artistry. Still, if De Niro and Murphy’s characters were more invested in the final scenes of the film, the climatic ending would have carried more weight.

The distraught, yet determined Buckley is a  sharp departure for Murphy, who is known for his Scarecrow role in Batman Begins (2005) and Robert Fischer in Inception (2010). Playing dark and mysterious is nothing new to De Niro—consider roles in Raging BullGodfather II, and to some extent Casino.   The Simon Silver character lives up to De Niro’s trademark  screen characterizations of borderline psychotic personas, making the character believable.  While Weaver’s background in the science fiction genre qualifies her for this type of role, director and writer Rodrigo Cortes has given her some great witty one-liners that gives insight into her personality and brings some levity to her character.

Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Along side startling video direction and a melodramatic sound mix, Red Lights lives up to its genre’s unpredictability. Writer and director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final unveiling of the masterful puzzle that audience members won’t forget.

Red Lights opens nationwide on July 20, 2012.

–Cory Orlando

Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle Finds Another Formula for Success

Summertime is box office heaven for major film studios. Most try to capitalize on school-free kids by churning out one action film after another or animated films. And that strategy is paying off this summer. Just look at the box office receipts from The Avengers, Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Snow White and the Huntsmen. The one exception this summer being Rock of Ages; but with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Mary J. Blige in the cast, how can you go wrong.

Rob Reiner has opted for a different appeal in The Magic of Belle Isle. There’s no superhero, no cgi-wonderworks. Reiner instead has opted for a very good script, great casting, and Academy Award‒winning Morgan Freeman. This simple story of redemption, imagination and community contains ingredients that use to attract significant audiences to movie theaters, and in spite of the pyrotechnical feats that satisfies the ever-thirsty palettes of summer movie goers, there is still room for this type of film.

Famous Western novel writer Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) struggles finding his passion for writing while dealing with alcoholism and a paralyzing disability. Though confined to a wheelchair, Wildhorn’s nephew (Kenan Thompson) believes there is still hope and arranges a housesitting and dog keeping job for Monte in a small lakeside community. Next door, divorced mom Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three kids attempt to lift Monte’s spirits and reconnect him with his writing muse. Of the three kids, preteen Flora (Nicolette Pierini) has the most influence on Wildhorn’s cantankerous mood and gets him to consider writing again after asking him to be her writing mentor.

Reiner has taken a post-racial approach to this film. Though Morgan is one of the few African American in the small lakeside enclave of mostly white residents, there are no racial acknowledgement or references in the film. And though this idyllic setting could promote racial tolerance, in the real world we are not quite there yet. That said; the Magic of Belle Isle is no less charming. And for a feel-good summer movie, there is lots of genuine charm and good performances.

As Monte Wildhorn, Morgan Freeman does not allow the character’s grumpiness to overwhelm the nuance and arc of his performance. His masterful craftsmanship facilitates unearthing the polarity of Wildhorn; the good and the bad; the hopeful and the defeated; the strength and the weakness. And even the burgeoning romance between Madsen and Freeman characters though dubious, Freeman’s sincerity makes the relationship almost believable.

Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen in “The Magic of Belle Isle.” Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Virginia Madsen as Charlotte brings a levity and maturity to a film that just could have been another movie about the redemptive power of a child’s imagination. Though her part could have been meatier, Madsen makes a lot out of what she’s been given.

In The Magic of Belle Isle, director Rob Reiner proves that summer movies can be entertaining without a lot of bells and whistles. Good actors are key, but plot and good direction completes the puzzle.

The Magic of Belle Isle is released by Magnolia Pictures and comes out in limited release on July 6.

—William S. Gooch

The Brits Bring Sexy Back in Hysteria

When you think about Victorian period films, rarely does the mind consider film that is outside of the realm of Merchant Ivory dramas or films that distill prudish Victorian values. With the exception of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and a few others, comedic devices such as double entendre, sexual innuendo, and god forbid, slapstick are not commonly used tools that advance the plot. Tanya Wexler’s romantic comedy Hysteria employs all those devices, and then some.

Set in 1880, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) in an attempt to forward his medical career leaves his position at one of London’s state clinics for a position in private practice with the esteemed Dr.  Robert Dalrymble (Jonathan Pryce), London’s leading specialist in women’s medicine. Dr. Dalrymble’s claim to fame is treating women who suffer from hysteria, a disease state characterized by irritability, melancholy, frigidity, and nymphomania. Victorian medical science believed that hysteria results from a disorder of the uterus, of which Dalrymble’s practice specializes in relieving the symptoms of hysteria by massaging the womb. Into this practice, Mortimer Granville brings his medical acumen and somewhat compassionate spirit.

Add to the plot Dalrymble’s polar opposite daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones), the paragon of Victorian virtue and intelligence and black sheep Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has chosen to waste her aristocratic privilege and position championing the rights of women and the disenfranchised, and Granville’s well-heeled, dilettante, inventor friend John Smythe (Rupert Everett) and Wexler has concocted a tale that delves not only into the Victorian perceptions about love, sex, and familial duty, but also the political issues of class, gender rights, sexual freedom, and government responsibility. Ideals we still struggle with day, particularly in this election year.

Wexler ingeniously mixes comedy, romance and Victorian morays in this story that is ultimately about the invention of the first vibrator. As Charlotte Dalrymble, Maggie Gyllenhaal brings charm and a feisty determination that is a welcome change from some of the pathological, outsider roles she has portrayed in the past. Though her British accent is a bit off, Gyllenhaal does capture the essence of a privileged English woman who is caught between the worlds of Victorian duty and rectitude and her own passion for human rights. And though Gyllenhaal has never been seen as a great beauty, in this role the combination of Victorian elegance, passion, Gyllenhaal’s convincing performance causes her unique beauty to shine through in a way, perhaps, no seen before.

As Dr. Mortimer Granville, Hugh Dancy struggles with the emerging world of modern medicine and the stuffy, fading world of Victorian sensibility. This juxtaposition is also manifested in his sensible romance with Emily, while secretly attracted to the wild, impulsive, evolved Charlotte. Dancy navigates these polar opposites brilliantly without losing his character’s charm or sense of duty.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

Based on the true story of the first battery-operated vibrator, at its core, Hysteria, though titillating at times, is never vulgar. And Wexler has found a way to insert witty charm, sexual entendre, and humor into a subject matter that could be strained and pedestrian.

Who knew the story of the first British vibrator could be so stimulating.  Maybe now we Yanks will look at sex and the Brits in a different light!!

—William S. Gooch

Damsels in Distress: A New Kind of Heathers

hWilt Stillman has made a career out of giving an insider’s purview into the pre-adolescent lifestyle and emotions of the trust-fund brood. Perfect examples are Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, where protagonists opine about opposing political points of view and the eroding of certain upper class, social constructs.

In Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, a small clique of New England coeds Violet (Greta Gershwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) set out to change the male predominant attitudes and morays that still prevail at Seven Oaks University after years of coeducation. Transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is taken on the wing of this trio of reformers and immediately employed at the university’s Suicide Center, the reformers’ strategic stronghold on campus, and becomes enmeshed in the politics and philosophy of the clique.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

While Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco gave an accurate insight in the haute bourgeoisie’s raison d’etre, Damsels in Distress sometimes fails to illuminate the sincere frustration and annoyance still felt by female students on male-dominated, Ivy League universities. And though Stillman cleverly uses lots of double entendre and tongue-in-cheek dialogue to add levity to a rather overdone subject, the film never gathers enough steam to be a parody of the machinations of this post-Heathers trio or a serious look at an ongoing dilemma.

Noteworthy performances by Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton aside, Damsels in Distress lands somewhere in between half smiles, light chuckles and missed opportunity.

—William Gooch

Willem Dafoe Interview

The producers of The Hunter said you were the perfect choice for this role, that you embodied this character so well. Why do believe you were a good choice for this role?

Willem Dafoe: The producers and director told me they needed a guy that was old enough that you could believe he was at the end of his career, but also fit enough to be able to do some of the physical things required in the film. Also, they were looking for an actor that had a sense of mystery about him, and they felt I embodied the physicality and the mystery.

When I read the script I was attracted to the character, who is a kind of a misanthrope and cutoff from things, particularly at the beginning of the film. He is also at the end of his career and his identity is very tied up in his career, so you have that paradox. Things happen in the film that opens up some compassion in him.

Why do think that your character, Martin, who is a mercenary looking for this almost mythical Tasmanian tiger, through this quest starts to transform and feel compassion?

Willem Dafoe: Someone called this film an eco noir. You have two tracks in this film. On one hand you the narrative tightly focused on him trying to find this tiger, mixed in with the story of never being emotional or physically available for his family. He is also in crisis because he has pressure from his employer to retire after this last hunt. He in a place where is identity is up for grabs. All these things force his humanity to come out more.

Still from “The Hunter”

How did you prepare for this role?

Willem Dafoe: I worked with some old fashioned, outback kangaroo hunters who knew the Tasmanian terrain really well. And most of all I was set me up with a survivalist who knows how to live in the bush without modern conveniences and is very comfortable with nature. That was really important because having those survivalist skills was a key to the character and I also had to assume the attitude and posture of someone who hunts in the bush.

What is your relationship to the camera when you are working?

Willem Dafoe: My relationship with the camera changes according to the style of the film or the scene being shot. Sometimes I am very conscious of the camera, sometimes I am not. In The Hunter, I have very strong, specific actions so I am always making choices.

You could say in some way I was more of a collaborator and an integral part of setting the camera shots with this project than in some other films. And because of that I was more conscious of the camera. Still, I had very concrete actions that I had to play out because of the physicality of the role, which causes you to forget about the camera in those moments.

How is that different than performing in front of a live audience?

Willem Dafoe: In many ways it is not. In the theater your main job is to reanimate that character every performance, even if are improvising, you know what the perimeters are. While in film, you are almost always dealing with first impulses. You go to the location, you map out the scene, you shoot the scene, you move on; you don’t go back.

What attracted you to the story and your character in 4:44 Last Day on Earth?

Willem Dafoe: I was familiar with the director Abel Ferrara’s work and I am very attracted to directors that have a specific vision and way of working. Abel came to me with the scenario of the film, honestly, it didn’t resonate with me at first, but when we started fleshing out some of the sequences of the scenario, I started to get excited about the film. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a movie where the audience participates; so, if you don’t get hang up on looking for action on this cataclysmic day, or what the signs are for the end of the world, then you accept the story of how two people decide to spend their last day on earth together.

When we screened the film in Venice, we could feel the audience join in this communal acceptance of togetherness of connecting to each other on Earth’s last day. I know that sounds hokey, but it was the general feeling that the audience recognizes that everybody struggles and that we have a commonality. I believe the function of art or telling stories is to find common ground.

Abel Ferrara stated that fiction was a way to make truth more concrete 4:44 Last Day on Earth. What is your take on that?

Willem Dafoe:  This film is Abel’s take on this convention that the world is going to end. If you ask too many questions about why the world is coming to an end, or who is responsible for destroying the earth, you miss the truth of this film, which is the how people access their lives, and what gives your life meaning. Everyone knows that their life is going to end, but if you only had 24 hours left, what would you do and how would you reflect on your existence.

Early on in your career, you said that you longed to play the hero, but you felt you would be cast as a villain or antihero because on camera your face read angry and mean. When did that change for you?

Willem Dafoe: Early on in my career because I wasn’t a smoothie and didn’t look like the boy next door I felt I would not be a romantic lead or a hero. For many years movie was a sideline for me, and I really made my career on stage. Now that I am older I am not concerned about that right now; I get offered very interesting roles, more wide-ranging roles now that really appeal to me.

 —William Gooch

The Genius in Perfection: A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris

New York City Ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine once told a journalist, “I don’t create; only God creates. I just assemble very well.” In the documentary A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris C. S. Leigh examines the skill and acumen of one of the greatest American couturiers of all times, Ralph Rucci; and Rucci’s genius for pulling from different sources, and combining couture techniques into great  modern works of beauty.

As the only American couturier approved by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to show in Paris in several decades, Ralph Rucci has made his mark on global fashion. A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris gives a telescoped purview into Rucci’s career post his 2002 Paris debut.

From interviews—starting in 2007 and culminating in 2011—with Rucci’s celebrated clients to artisans who work on his collections, to up-close-and personal interviews with Rucci, director C. S. Leigh has crafted a cerebral and detailed look into not only Rucci, but the evolving art of haute couture. “Ralph is marvelous as a person, a friend, and a couturier … everything worn is very comfortable, no frills … he bridges the gap between classic and modern,” contends Princess Lee Radziwill.

Interviews aside, C.S. Leigh meticulously details Rucci’s unbridled passion and reverential obsession for the art of haute couture. “I am making a financial investment in supporting the métier of couture,” admits Rucci. With no big financial machine behind him, Rucci has almost singlehandedly forged a unique American presence in the world of haute couture. A presence that Rucci always believed was dutifully his. “… Paris has always been the focus of my career, I [had to] test myself … I make clothes in New York which I call couture, but I had to prove myself in Paris,” explains Rucci.

The attention to detail and Rucci’s almost priest-like, obsessive dedication to the art of haute couture is evidenced in his measured approach. Even his luxury brand’s name, Chado Ralph Rucci, named after the intricate Japanese tea ceremony, portends the craft and focus necessary to create couture works of art. Though Rucci is obsessive about the perfection needed to create the penultimate black dress or any of his garments, true perfection for Rucci is in the distillation of his ideas, and the arduous tasks of manifesting those ideas.

Images courtesy of C.S. Leigh

C.S. Leigh also expertly weaves beautiful footage from Rucci’s Paris couture shows from 2007 and 2008 around interviews with Hamish Bowles, Andre Leon Talley,  New York Times critic Cathy Horyn, Rosina Rucci, Princess Less Radziwill,  Deeda Blair, Francisco Costa,  Tatiana Sorokko, and Parisian couture artisan Francois Lesage. And though A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris is still a rough cut and in unedited form, C.S. Leigh in this documentary confirms what is well known in the fashion community, that Ralph Rucci’s work extends beyond trends, and that he is the quintessential American couturier. “Fashion, though fleeting, is a memory you create … yet, Ralph creates garments that are timeless,” says Tatiana Sorokko.

Aptly put!!

—William Gooch

Willem Dafoe’s Quiet Discipline Shine Through in Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth

How would you spend your last hours on Earth if the world was coming to an end and there was nothing that could be done about it? In Abel Ferrara’s resolute perspective on end times, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Ferrara gives a somber, but engaging  purview into the last hours of a couple’s (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) existence on a doomed planet.

From saying goodbye to friends and family via skype to hanging out with old party pals before the ultimate collapse, Ferrara weaves an introspective tale of self-discovery and closure without weighing down this rather foreboding subject with didactic finger pointing. Early on in the film Ferrara resolutely establishes the Earth’s demise, eliminating the need for special effects or end times blame gaming. By positioning the bygone conclusion that the time is ending without a hero to save the day, Ferrara leaves expands the possibility of the film to look more closely at personal relationships and reflection.

Dispersed throughout the film is footage of conversations with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Al Gore and several other esteemed cultural icons. “We all know that ultimately we are going to die. Given that fact, I wanted to incorporate into film situations and iconic figures that have something profound to say,” details Ferrara. Also, there are references to Eastern philosophy and Buddhist principles, particularly evidenced Shanyn Leigh’s character painting of the dragon eating its own tail.

Image courtesy of

Willem Dafoe (Cisco) a writer and former drug addict, who is in a Spring/December relationship with painter Shanyn Leigh (Skye), renders a nuanced performance based more on subtle projection and being in the moment, than heavy dialogue.

Cinematically, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a beautiful potpourri of images and visual clips. And though the film is slow moving at times, it does evoke an end-time resolve and pulls us toward the commonalities we all share.

—William Gooch

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