The Marvelous Brie Larson — #5

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

Okay, it’s probably not the best time to be bringing up a summer blockbuster, not for us in the northern hemisphere at least as we slip into the early autumn, but here goes this anyway.

We’ve all seen this one. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ 2017 Monster-verse contribution came in the form of Kong: Skull Island. It immediately followed up Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. It was a cotton candy blockbuster that put fun first and character and symbolism second. It’s not a storyline that reinvents monster mayhem in any significant way but the film does benefit from a distinct ’70s milieu and a stellar (and I mean STELLAR cast — including a memorably antagonistic Samuel L. Jackson, who actually makes this installment more appropriate as it was during this film shoot when Jackson campaigned hard for Larson to put him in her directorial debut Unicorn Store, the previous role I highlighted for this feature).

There’s no denying the movie delivers in its capacity as a crowd-pleasing, goofy throwback to creature features of the past. And while the characters certainly aren’t the main attraction here (sorry Brie, it’s true) she fits in to this crazy world with ease, fulfilling a role that’s arguably the closest to providing an audience proxy than any of the other famous faces along for the ride.

Brie Larson as Mason Weaver in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island 

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Action/adventure/fantasy

Premise: After the Vietnam war, a team of scientists explores an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.

Character Background: Just to start off, I’d like to say how relieved I was to learn this wasn’t going to be yet another Kong-goes-to-New-York story, which necessarily meant the fate of the lone woman in this big burly blockbuster wasn’t going to be anything like the classic Ann Darrow/damsel-in-distress arc made famous by Fay Wray and most recently inhabited by Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. (And can I also just say how much I hated how excessively indulgent that movie’s running time was?)

Mason Weaver is a natural fit for Larson’s preference for playing strong, independent female characters. Self-described as an “anti-war photographer,” Mason is a woman of conviction and toughness who has leveraged her experience in capturing humanity at its worst into securing a coveted position on an “exploratory” mission to the mysterious Skull Island, an expedition Mason has strong suspicions is not what Monarch researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman) initially describes it as. Raised a pacifist, Mason’s biggest obstacle isn’t a 100-foot-tall gorilla who can fling helicopters for miles or slings 50-foot-tall trees like missiles, but rather the aggressive and war-crazed Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard believes it’s hippie journalists like Mason who undermined the American presence in ‘Nam, and some of the best scenes in the movie result from the pair’s starkly opposed viewpoints on whether to kill Kong or . . . let him Rule.

Larson had appeared in some fairly high-profile movies prior to Skull Island (a supporting role alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut Don Jon; with minor parts in popular comedies 21 Jump Street and Trainwreck) but as an action blockbuster this is decidedly new territory. Like her costars Larson had to base much of her performance around reactions to images she was provided of characters’ spacial relationships to Kong via an incredible augmented reality app provided by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (whose undeniably breathtaking work earned the film an Oscar nomination). That she was convincing and sympathetic in that capacity surely must have convinced someone at Marvel of the indie darling’s ability to play to a bigger crowd at the cineplex.

Marvel at this Scene: 

I can’t help but feel like this is meant to be a tribute to the Jurassic Park scene where Lex reaches out toward a brachiosaurus with a runny nose. The ultimate in human-giant creature diplomacy. Fortunately this one doesn’t end in someone getting covered in snot. This is quite literally a touching scene, Mason having the unique opportunity to show Kong not everyone here is all about killing and exploiting.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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I Am Mother

Release: Friday, June 7, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Lloyd Green

Directed by: Grant Sputore

I Am Mother is another movie ideally suited for those of us already harboring a healthy distrust of robots. An often disconcerting experience, this post-apocalyptic thriller from Australian and first-time director Grant Sputore uses the relationship between a matronly AI and her flesh-and-blood daughter to create a fascinating allegory for parenthood.

The DNA of some undisputed sci fi classics is infused into the core of this dystopian family drama. While I Am Mother nods toward The Matrix in the climactic moments and a pretty cool rug-pulling moment wherein our perception of the truth gets inverted, and on more than one occasion evokes Skynet’s ubiquitous presence and ruthless determination, the newbie director blends the familiarly awesome and uniquely eerie in a satisfying way, threading plot twists through a claustrophobic, stainless steel environment where not everything is as it seems.

Stripping the world down to a fail-safe bunker and a single automaton (voiced by Rose Byrne, ambulated by Luke Hawker), the story begins in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event that has wiped out all of mankind. Mother awakens and promptly sets about her duties, making breakfast, reading the morning news and, oh yeah, seeing to the pretty important task of repopulating Earth. She’s in charge of some 60,000 human embryos, all waiting to be “born” into a decidedly more austere life where Mother’s many rules are a sophisticated calculus to keep everyone safe. From what, exactly, we’re not sure. A relatively fresh face in acting, Danish singer Clara Rugaard plays the first human occupant of the bunker, and to keep things simple awkwardly formal (and no doubt symbolic) she’s only ever referred to as “Daughter.”

Her formative years — halcyon days captured beautifully in a brilliant usage of Bette Midler’s “Baby Of Mine” — appear lonely but the structure is not unlike that afforded a child raised in a loving, well-to-do, albeit more traditionally fleshy family. Limited though they may be she develops passions outside of her schooling, overseen by, who else, Mother. A cute little montage has a young Daughter covering her robo-mommy with stickers. Birthdays are celebrated. For a time, the world is perfect. As she grows she develops a curiosity about the world around her: “Why are there no other children?”

I Am Mother‘s man-machine conflict revolves around trust, something to which I’m sure those who are more qualified to speak on such matters might attest (i.e. actual parents), is a real mother of a challenge. Life’s a harrowing, endlessly twisting tunnel full of unexpected right and left turns. Raising a child is more complicated than the inner gizmos driving a machine. Often it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Unlike for AI making mistakes is part-and-parcel of the human experience. You can be great at nurturing but you won’t ever be perfect.

Which is why it’s so difficult for Mother when an uninvited human guest (an intense Hilary Swank) shows up, seeking shelter from the wasteland and bringing some alarming news with her. Daughter lets her in under certain conditions and in brazen defiance of house rules. “We’ve talked about this. No potentially hostile, gun-wielding guests after 9, got it?”

It’s a point of no return in which I Am Mother‘s fascinating moral conundrum goes from simmering to full blaze. It’s also where Swank essentially wrestles the film away from the erstwhile stars of the show, her wounded-outside-and-in Woman jolting the film with an urgent energy — an adrenaline rush we kind of needed right as the prolonged first act begins to drag a little. All the while the soothing in Byrne’s voice takes on more menace, the native Aussie never inflecting so much as a blip of emotion. It’s brilliant work from a performer you never see. Rugaard remains a sympathetic presence, selling her character’s ingenuity and intelligence, her compassion and her confusion. It’s a complex performance that she handles well, even if her rapport with Woman develops a little too quickly. (I’ll lay more of the blame there on the direction.)

Minor flaws aside, I Am Mother is a meticulous work of art. There are a lot of details that need to come together in just the right way to create that gutsy cliff-hanger-like ending — one that’s sure to keep viewers talking for awhile after. And let’s not overlook the production design, for it’s a character unto itself. The clinical setting of the domicile never makes one feel like they’re at home, while Peter Jackson’s own visual effects company Weta Workshop render the homemaker as a cross between Alicia Vikander’s Ava (from Ex Machina, a movie you could consider the more polished British cousin to I Am Mother), the T-800 (especially when she’s in full-on crisis control mode) and that single, unblinking eye just screams Hal-9000, arguably the mother of all cinematic AI.

Yes, my child, the future is indeed female.

Recommendation: I Am Mother is catnip for fans of intelligent sci fi, with a trio of strong female performances leading the charge and the dystopian aesthetic pulling from a number of big-time (and male-dominated) sci fi of years past. There’s also touches of more contemporary pieces like Ex Machina and 10 Cloverfield Lane as well. And it’s a movie whose ambiguous ending has and will continue to divide opinion. After nearly a month of sitting on this movie I am still unsure what to think of it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “Mothers need time to learn, too. Raising a good child is no small task.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Ad Astra

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Ethan Gross; James Gray

Directed by: James Gray

Ad Astra is not the increasingly familiar, inspiring saga of human achievement the marketing has been pitching it as. It’s something much more honest and intriguing — a terrifyingly lonely quest for truth that dares put us in our place and puts potential limits on our endeavors to “conquer” the Final Frontier.

Hauntingly beautiful and just plain haunting in many respects, Ad Astra (the title an abbreviation of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through hardships to the stars”) plots its moves deliberately and yet boldly, focusing not on the stars but rather the ultimate in strained relationships. It’s a grand star-strewn metaphor about a son’s physical and emotional search for the father who may or may not have abandoned him in the noble pursuit of his own, fatally unshakable beliefs — intelligent life exists somewhere in this vast chasm, I just know it dammit — one that traverses billions of miles, straddles a number of celestial bodies and asks some big, heady questions about our place in space along the way.

Co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross the film is very moody, swelling with so much melancholy and inner turmoil you just want to give it a hug, but this isn’t a pure mood piece. Ad Astra also has a comet of pure entertainment value streaking through it, this deliberately paced, profoundly ponderous sojourn constantly aware of its more plodding tendencies and therefore joltingly — and yet wonderfully fluidly — breaking itself up into episodic, exciting conflicts both man-made and space-provided: from incompetent leaders, raging baboons and pirates on the Moon, to Martian bureaucracy and the blue dusty rings of Neptune, everything and the floating kitchen sink is thrown in the direction of Brad Pitt, playing an emotionally compartmentalized Major on the hunt for his ultra absentee father, long thought to have perished as part of the ill-fated Lima Project, but new evidence suggests he’s not only alive but potentially the source of the devastating energy surges that have been throttling Earth for years.

The ruggedly handsome Pitt, one of the last of a dying breed of bonafide movie stars, becomes Roy McBride, a military man of Neil Armstrong-like unflappability and Rockefellerian royalty. The latter makes him uniquely qualified for a top-secret mission in an attempt to make contact with the Lima crew — namely his father, the revered H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — while his inhuman ability to stay calm no matter the circumstances is proven in a white-knuckle spectacle of an opening, wherein a routine service job on Earth’s mighty space antenna is interrupted by one of those powerful energy surges, flinging bodies to their deaths and/or into low Earth orbit. (For the acrophobic and the vertigo-susceptible, it’s advised you look away during this scene.)

Ad Astra pairs its desperate, outward-bounding voyage with an intensely personal journey inward, a familiar dichotomy somewhat alleviated of cliché thanks to the committed and understated performances. As an exploration of masculine pride and guilt the movie proves toughness, strength and conviction are tragically finite resources in the vast reaches of the Universe’s foyer. Pitt and Jones, consummate actors ever, here are committed to going cold so much you’d think their body temperatures dropped as a result. They create a tension between parent and child that truly matches their inhospitable environment. There’s a tussle near Neptune — and damn it if it’s not one of the most pathetic things you’ll ever watch. That’s a compliment to the movie, to the direction.

The performances are just outstanding. Pitt’s in particular is a major factor in Ad Astra‘s sobering vision of not just our fragility but our arrogance in space. Behind Pitt’s eyes is a frightened boy shook well before he ever took flight. Jones as Clifford, a shell of his former self and yet somehow more statuesque and brutally resolute in his objective. These two impact the movie like the energy waves battering our Solar System and our planet.

It’s just unfortunate that comes at the expense of others, such as Liv Tyler, playing the earthbound Eve, who can only get a word in edgewise in dream-sequences and flashbacks. Meanwhile Ruth Negga‘s Helen Lantos, a 100% Martian-born native who has only been to Earth once as a child, plays an integral role in the emotional maturation (or deterioration, take your pick) of Roy’s mission. And Donald Sutherland is an actor I enjoy so much five minutes with him is both welcomed and nowhere near enough. He plays Clifford’s former colleague, an aging Colonel who helps Roy get from Earth to the Moon, where the pair will confront the true cynicism of our species head on, where Mad Max-inspired chaos reigns.

The specifics of this all-time dysfunctional relationship must, almost unfairly, compete for your attention with the unforgettable imagery provided by DoP Hoyt van Hoytema, who, in searing both dreamscapes and nightmarish visions into your consciousness, may have just eclipsed his own already ridiculous benchmark set in the 2014 galaxy-spanning Interstellar (an obvious visual and to some degree thematic forebear of Ad Astra, along with the likes of Apocalypse Now and 2001). If there is any reason to see this movie, it’s the opportunity to watch a certifiable genius — a modern Bonestell — work his magic.

“I just need some space to think.”

Recommendation: Director James Gray is on record saying he aspired to create “the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on film,” and with the help of Ad Astra‘s understated but brilliant performances and the typically mind-blowing work of Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, he certainly seems to have achieved that. As a movie of extremes and limitations, this certainly isn’t a populist movie. Ad Astra is a colder, harsher vision of our cosmic reality. Maybe I’m just a cold person, because this is going to go down as one of my favorites all year (not to mention it features one of the best promotional tags I’ve come across in some time). 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Theater 

Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make their narrative feature début with what could be the year’s most Googled movie title, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Previously known for their short films and documentaries, the duo are now behind this year’s biggest crowd-pleaser, a breezily entertaining, stunningly authentic slice of southern living that updates classic Mark Twain for a 2019 audience, one in desperate need of a feel-good moment.

As an evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the narrative adheres to a predictable formula, following a pair of runaways who form an unexpected bond in the pursuit of a better future all while being pursued by their own troubled pasts. Shia LaBeouf plays the scraggly Tyler, the ‘Tom Sawyer’ archetype, on the run after having stolen some crab pots from a rivaling crabber (John Hawkes) and his Yelawolf crony, while newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a 34-year-old actor with Down syndrome, gives us an unforgettable ‘Huck Finn’ in the form of Zak — uh, that’s without the ‘c’ I guess. An escapee of the nursing home to which the state of North Carolina has banished him, his newfound independence becomes an increasing concern for his caretaker, Eleanor (a wonderful Dakota Johnson).

After literally setting fire to the competition, for Tyler the goal is simply to get out of dodge and move to a small fishing town in Florida where he can get a new start. That mission gets more complicated when he finds a stowaway on the same johnboat he’s planning to commandeer — a young man, wide-eyed and slathered in what appears to be jelly, barely clinging to his underwear. Zak declares he’s on his own mission to track down the whereabouts of his wrestling idol, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he’s watched on VHS so many times his former roommate (Bruce Dern) knows all the moves himself.

Where The Peanut Butter Falcon really distinguishes itself is in the acting department, particularly in the leading duo — and eventual trio — whose natural chemistry makes it no secret as to what the culture behind the scenes was like. According to the filmmakers this was quite an atypical film shoot; everyone got to know each other intimately. Coming to work meant being part of a family wherein cast and crew spent “morning, noon and night” together, swimming, grilling out, getting into rap battles — basically doing the things Adam Sandler does every year, except the difference is a quality product. (And it’s also hard to envision a Happy Madison production regularly wrapping in a big, group hug — something mandated, apparently, by the outwardly affectionate Gottsagen.)

It is almost impossible not to look at The Peanut Butter Falcon as a redemption story for the seemingly perennially embattled LaBeouf, who really seems motivated to put the distractions behind him here as he filters the turbulence of the last several years through the foibles of Tyler. However it is Gottsagen who is the movie’s heart and soul. His character’s arc is inspired by the true (and truly feel-good) story that has been his own journey to the big screen. The aspiring movie star was discovered by Nilson and Schwartz a few years ago by way of a short film produced at an acting camp for those with and without disabilities. When they finally met, the directors were candid about his chances of making it in an industry where those with Down syndrome — indeed, a wide range of physical and mental development problems — are among the most marginalized. Entirely unfazed, Gottsagen compelled what would become his future bosses and creative partners to be those first few people to “make it happen.”

What ended up happening is one of the year’s warmest and most entertaining movies. What began life as a 10-minute short (available on YouTube as The Moped Diaries) evolved into one big mama hug of a full-length feature film, one that couches the universality of its themes — ostracism, self-worth, independence and friendship/family — within the filmmakers’ distinct sense of regionalism (it helps Nilson is actually from North Carolina). The movie is also shot beautifully and with some degree of poignancy, Nigel Bluck’s photography capturing both the geographic character and economic stagnation that explains the likes of Hawkes’ desperate Duncan, a man who, like everyone else, is just trying to live life but is really struggling.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is what you would describe as an original property — it’s not a direct adaptation of an IP or a sequel of any kind — but of course it’s not wholly original. Nilson and Schwartz are drawing from the deepest parts of the well of American literature. Importantly this modern incarnation is kept rooted in southern soil (though we exchange Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi for the tributaries and barrier reefs of the Outer Banks) and it retains many of the symbols native to the source material while telling its own story with unique and memorable characters. With a renewed spirit — and an intensely infectious one at that, thanks to the fantastic performances — The Peanut Butter Falcon softens Mark Twain without sacrificing the grit and pain that was so pronounced in his writing, the film managing not only to justify itself but to make what’s old not necessarily feel new but certainly revitalized and just an absolute joy to sit through once again.

Recommendation: The Peanut Butter Falcon makes it fun to float the river with a trio of sincere, heartfelt performances, and easy to set aside any preconceived notions we might have of some of the cast. Plus, wrestling fans are sure to get a kick out of a couple of well-placed cameos. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”

“. . . Party!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com 

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Release: Friday, March 15, 2019 

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Ryan; Alastair Galbraith

Directed by: David Blair

David Blair’s World War II film arrived on American shores earlier this year as Mission of Honor. It was originally titled Hurricane. Just to be clear this is not an account of violent weather but instead one of heroic actions taken by a cadre of mostly Polish and a handful of Czechoslovakian fighter pilots who joined the British RAF in August of 1940, united in the cause to stop Hitler and specifically motivated by their love of their own country.

Mission of Honor isn’t exactly destined for the Library of Congress for its contributions to cinema or society as a whole, but it’s too well made to ignore and the story it tells is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Director David Blair is a patriot but he isn’t afraid of exposing some uglier truths. He’s made a suitably grim movie about an utterly thankless assignment. He directs a story loosely based on real events by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith.

Mission of Honor follows the exploits of a group of hardened fighter pilots led by the stoic Jan Zumbach, played by Iwan Rheon (you might recognize him as the psychopathic Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), who escape the oppression in Poland and enlist with the British RAF. They want to do whatever they can to help. They are to be overseen by Canadian RAF pilot John Kent (Milo Gibson). The sixth son of Mel Gibson is graciously provided one of the few moments of levity the film can muster, shown having an amusingly difficult time corralling the troops. It gets a bit silly through here, but trust me — you’re going to want to stuff some of that comic relief into a flask and take it with you from here. Impassioned, steely-nerved and at times combative, these are well-qualified, highly skilled pilots who, as time progresses, become increasingly distressed by the reality of what’s happening back home.

The drama depicts multiple battles being waged. The dogfights between the Hawker Hurricanes (hence the film’s original title) and the enemy Messerschmitts comprise most of the action. These sequences are fairly engaging but are somewhat undermined by poor computer renderings and some awkward tight zooms that insist we really notice the actors “in” the cockpit. When it comes to demonstrating skill, emphasis is placed upon ace pilot Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), who was single-handedly responsible for 17 confirmed kills, while in stark contrast to that deeply religious Gabriel Horodyszcz (Adrien Zareba) is shown grappling with the philosophical ramifications of killing.

On the ground at the Northolt Base we have the internal clashing of culture and personality, the Poles often at odds with the refinement of the British RAF. Language barriers and emotionality generate a lot of tension within the ranks. The actors bring an everyman-like quality to proceedings, though these good-old-boys are ultimately overshadowed by the quietly raging Zumbach, the striking Welsh actor using his piercing green eyes to convey something about war that words cannot. Meanwhile battles for common decency are being waged as women fight their way into positions previously occupied by men. Blair examines the working lives and social environment for women at the time, using Stefanie Martini’s (fictitious) Phyllis Lambert and her uncomfortable interplay with Marc Hughes’ boorish CO Ellis as a less-than-subtle nod to #metoo.

During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron RAF had more success than any of the other 16 Hurricane squadrons, downing as many as 126 Messerschmitts. They were officially operational August 2, 1940 and disbanded December 11. Of course, the movie cuts off before we can actually get there (although it offers an acknowledgement at the end with some text) but fate — and the Western Betrayal — looms large on the horizon and is constantly foreshadowed by the way the British characters in this movie routinely wrinkle their right honorable noses up at the scrappy underdogs trying to make a difference.

But it wasn’t just governments failing to uphold their military, diplomatic and moral obligation to their besieged Eastern/Central European neighbors. An opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public wanted the Poles and Czechs to be repatriated. Their efforts are considered significant factors in turning the Battle of Britain in Churchill’s favor. And yet they returned home, many to face persecution, imprisonment or their own death. It’s this darkness toward which Blair’s war film treads a weary path. It’s not an uplifting picture, and he’s pretty brave in the way he candidly describes his fellow countrymen in what history tells us is their finest hour.

Checkmate.

Recommendation: Mission of Honor gets a firm recommendation on the basis of the true-life story it depicts (with an apparent loose interpretation of events), and some solid if far from awards-worthy acting and a suitably bleak milieu. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: August ’19

Well, whaddya know! The little rink-a-dink movie theater down the road from me has just re-opened, and to the tune of recliner seats, dine-in options and a totally revamped lobby that actually makes you feel like you’ve made a good decision with your money by having trotted out to the Pictures. Cinépolis Mansfield (the new voiceover-person-thingy insists it’s pronounced se-NAH-po-leese) isn’t exactly the Cinerama Dome but it was getting to the point where it was the adult equivalent of spending time in a McDonald’s Play Place. There was one theater I went into one time where they had an entire row of seats cordoned off with what appeared to be police tape — the scene of a crime, perhaps? — with every seat damaged in some way and in some cases broken completely. Not exactly good for business in this era where we are ever more basing our decisions on convenience.

Despite the quality of its first incarnation here in Mansfield, New Jersey, the company has a solid reputation. Cinépolis (in essence, “City of Cinema”) is Mexico’s largest theater chain, and to my great surprise, the fourth largest in the world. In 1994, after a series of rebranding efforts and expansions, Cinépolis opened its first multiplex theaters in Tijuana. And those VIP/luxury tickets you enjoy from your local theater chain, you can thank them for that — “Cinépolis VIP” considered a pioneer of the modern Luxury Cinema concept.

Of course it would have been REALLY cool if we had managed to secure the South Korean company CJ 4DPLEX for overhaul duty. If you haven’t heard of the 4Dx in-seat experience (and I hadn’t until recently, I’ll be honest), this is some pretty nifty technology that takes immersive cinema to a whole new level, incorporating gizmos such as vibration/motion coils, air/water jets and yes, even a scent emitter — with apparently up to 100 different odors at the ready, all coordinated of course with the rhythm of the movie. So really, if you’ve ever been to Disney World you have an idea of how this works.

Unfortunately we here in the greater Hackettstown area won’t be smelling any of Adam Sandler’s farts any time soon. Actually, you know what, I’m fine with the renovations as they are . . . However, Cinépolis hopes to be serving beverages to patrons who are of age. All we need now is for them to, ya know, acquire that liquor license. (Thanks for literally going down in flames, Ruby Tuesday!) Indeed, the renovations have made going out to watch movies on the big screen more enjoyable again, more enticing. I’m looking forward to new experiences, accompanied by the occasional adult beverage perhaps. Hopefully you’re along for the ride with me!

Now let’s see what, if anything, happened on Thomas J during the month of August.


New Posts

(proceeds to, ironically, produce exactly no reviews for theatrical releases. Whoops.)

Streaming: Paddleton


Bite Sized Reviews 

Murder Mystery · June 14, 2019 · Directed by Kyle Newacheck · I can’t be the only one who almost forgot they ever saw Murder Mystery. In case you had (or are smarter than I and just plan to avoid it), this is the one where Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston team up as a married couple — Nick and Audrey Spitz — caught up in a bit of circumstantial trick-fuckery when they take a much-delayed honeymoon trip to Europe, only to find themselves accused of murdering a billionaire they barely get to know on his yacht (and who is played by a part-winking, part-wincing Luke Evans). What unfolds is a half-hearted Agatha Christie yarn wherein the only true stakes are personal, between a dishonest detective (he’s just a cop, Little Nicky still hasn’t passed his detective exam) and his frustrated wife. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out where the twists are leading, or really who the real killers are. Murder Mystery is directed by some Joe Schmo who somehow manages to convince Sandler to tone down the Sandler-isms, but the direction overall is rather workmanlike. But hey, at least this isn’t The Do-Over. What was it that I said about that movie? Something about never doing another Adam Sandler movie again, I think? (2/5) 


Notable First Time Viewings

It was time to put aside my biases against the shark-jumping franchise that has become Mission: Impossible. The modern action movie (give or take a Fury Road here, a John Wick there) is becoming homogenous, one IP barely distinguishable from the other in that they each consistently and obligingly trot out the Big Three elements: a sexy cast, at least one sexy car and exotic locales. James Bond, Mission: Impossible, even the Fast & Furious franchise — it’s all starting to sound, feel and even look the same. That said, the M:I movies do have an ace up their sleeve in the form of Tom Cruise. We may have differing views on scientology but no one’s going to deny Cruise has a death-wish — doing not only his own stunts in every movie, but doing increasingly insane ones.

Here’s the cast ranking Cruise’s risk-taking.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol OK. This was fun. The bit at the end there with Ethan Hunt spying on his estranged-but-not-by-choice wife is cheesy, but it’s all well taken. The team chemistry is a little different — we temporarily lose Ving Rhames but pick up Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton — but the action is what drives these movies. And what about that action? I rate the film’s signature Burj Khalifa sequence right up there with that green dress — pretty breathtaking.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation A noticeable step up in quality, both in the overall story and the marriage of insane action set pieces and quieter character-driven moments. The stakes are convincingly more dire, and we get some robust supporting characters to help give the film more weight, such as Alec Baldwin, who’s on top form playing a hard-ass CIA director, and Rebecca Ferguson, who shows up as a force to be reckoned with, stealing both Tom Cruise’s thunder and my palpitating heart. This movie was actually quite impressive, especially considering the fact I was consuming this big spectacle on a 55-inch screen rather than a three-story-tall one. Rogue Nation‘s even more of a James Bond globe-trotting affair, but the writing has improved in general, so really, what’s so wrong with a little familiarity, even a little déjà vu? I’m excited that this film’s director/writer, Christopher McQuarrie, returns in the following film.)

And speaking of which, up next (maybe tonight): Fall-out. (This is going to get crazy, isn’t it?)


Beer of the Month

Firestone Walker’s Luponic Distortion is a true thing of beauty. The base beer for this series remains the same (an India Pale Ale), but every year they mix up the hop blend to create a slightly different flavor profile. The label on this year’s batch claims hints of Pina colada, key lime and nectarine, but I’m sorry. All I taste is 100% pure marijuana. And I am 200% okay with that.


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: Tom Little; http://www.lehighvalleylive.com; http://www.imdb.com