Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

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Hidden Figures

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Release: Friday, January 6, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder 

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.

Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.

Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.

Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.

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4-0Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

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

30-for-30: No Más

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Release: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Eric Drath

Spectators historically aren’t accustomed to seeing a professional boxer not finish what they started — at least, not voluntarily. When Roberto Durán, the man with two of the most devastating fists in all of boxing, waved his gloves at his opponent in the 8th round of a 15-round bout signifying that he didn’t want to fight anymore, no one believed what they were seeing. On November 25, 1980, the man with “hands of stone” turned his back on more than just a fighter he did not respect.

The bout in the Louisiana Superdome became infamously known as the ‘No Más fight.’ Despite the fact he lost, Durán’s actions were so bizarre the story that emerged was all about him losing, rather than his opponent winning. That’s a reality Sugar Ray Leonard has had difficulty reconciling all his life, and as we are introduced to him in the opening frames there’s a bitterness barely hidden behind his otherwise calm demeanor, a bitterness about the way history has been written. Somewhat counterintuitively, No Más is (mostly) told from his point of view.

Eric Drath, associated with a number of sports documentaries and short films, wants to know, perhaps as desperately as Leonard himself, what it was that caused Durán to throw in the towel that night in New Orleans. Divorced from the event by several decades, the film offers a unique perspective as it captures the once-bitter rivals in much more casual settings — except for the part where it throws them back together in the ring for a casual chat in a climactic show-down (of words), set under bright lights but sans the bloodthirsty audience. It’s a little cheesy but I found the trick nonetheless effective. And despite being 60 years old Durán’s eyes can still pierce a hole straight through you.

Durán and Leonard famously hated one another. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the three fights they committed to was the fact that there actually were three fights — neither one managed to end the other outside of the ring, despite temptation. The Panamanian in particular was hostile, openly mocking Leonard by calling him “a clown.” (And remember that one time he saved a middle finger salute for Leonard’s then-wife?) Durán had several reasons to consider the American his enemy. For one, his childhood was spent enduring the political turmoil that made his hometown of El Chorrillo an often unpredictable environment, as the United States and Panama fought for control over the Canal. Durán’s father was an American-born man who bailed on the family early. Durán also perceived Leonard’s popularity as grossly overblown and that he wasn’t as good a fighter as he proclaimed himself to be. (For those keeping score, Durán only won one of these three fights.)

For a film dealing with such marquee names, No Más plays out in quite the understated manner. The story develops quietly and methodically, bobbing and weaving in between present-day footage of Leonard preparing for his visit to Panama and archived footage of the events themselves. If anything the final reveal is underwhelming in its brevity. I would have liked to have heard more about what these two talked about in the ring. Drath pulls interviews from family, friends, former trainers and fighters — notably Mike Tyson — to help contextualize events. Supermodel and photographer Christie Brinkley also weighs in. These soundbites are far from the most insightful clips the 30 for 30 series has featured, and Tyson in particular isn’t a very good talker, but his recollections of how he felt when he witnessed ‘no más’ delivers a surprising gut-punch.

Perhaps what we gain from the experience isn’t so much revelatory as it is a reminder of the fragile emotional state boxers are so often in while in the ring. Durán almost certainly quit out of pride, but you’ll never hear him say those words, nor give any indication this is how he really feels inside. If he says anything about it today he’ll still tell you it was stomach cramps, not Leonard’s attacks that caused him to quit. He also actively denies ever uttering those infamous words. Some may dismiss this as merely the hubris of the defeated. But “no más” was at such odds with the boxer’s comportment, the way he carried himself both publicly and privately, that it makes this documentary quite the fascinating mystery. We, like Leonard, may not get the closure we’re looking for, but at the same time we learn quite a lot along the way.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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3-5Recommendation: Fascinating, if occasionally frustrating recounting of what may or may not have happened during Durán-Leonard II in New Orleans gives fans of boxing some food for thought. The interviews beyond the boxers themselves aren’t the greatest things ever but there’s certainly enough here to recommend for followers of the sport or those itching for some more in-depth coverage after seeing Hands of Stone, the semi-autobiographical account that was released in theaters earlier this year.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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

Fences

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Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

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4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

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The Birth of a Nation

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Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

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Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

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

Deepwater Horizon

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan; Matthew Sand

Directed by: Peter Berg

Peter Berg’s dramatization of the BP oil spill in April of 2010 is a decidedly solid account of human bravery but it is an incomplete picture. Curiously, a film that spends time hashing out all the gory details never manages to open up a dialogue on the ecological damage caused by BP’s alarming two-month long, three-million-gallon whoopsie. Instead it remains a run-of-the-mill survival story that fails to ask bigger, more provocative questions.

Of course, it was probably a conscious decision not to take a firm moral stance on the issue of man’s impact on the environment. That should be a red flag for activists hoping this major Hollywood film will share in their outrage over the largest oil industry-related debacle in American history. In fairness, Berg effectively conveys the terror and the tragedy of being aboard this doomed oil rig and there’s a palpable rage over the recklessness and general interference of Big Business Execs who had grown tired of waiting for results. It’s a distinctly human experience that will be warmly embraced by anyone who enjoyed Berg’s previous collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg in the 2013 war drama Lone Survivor.

Marky-Mark finds himself operating in a similar capacity here as the quiet hero Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician. He’s the quintessential American good-guy with the big smile and even bigger heart. Williams not only ended up contributing to the rescue efforts considerably but the manner in which he had to abandon the rig apparently was tailor-made for the movies. Wahlberg is perfectly suited for the job — not so much for the (many) physical stunts but for providing the film its stoicism; he’s a stand-up guy who is passionate about his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), supportive of his precocious young daughter, and well-liked by the crew.

Mike is one of three we see leaving behind their ordinary lives for another stint off the Louisiana coast. Kurt Russell‘s rig manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell and Gina Rodriguez’ Andrea Fleytas, rig navigator and the crew’s sole female member, are also seen departing for what might later be described as a bad day at the office. One of the worst, in fact. By the time they would return home, 11 crew members would have lost their lives, many more would be left with horrendous injuries and BP’s would-be profits would have started to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and would continue to do so for the next 87 days.

The bulk of the first half closely follows Williams around the ship as he prepares for another typical shift. As a director Berg seems to really be able to inspire camaraderie amongst his cast, while a collaborative script from two Matthews finds a nice rhythm interweaving the casual conversations with technical mumbo-jumbo. With actors as convivial as Wahlberg and as accomplished as Russell it’s not hard to get the good times rolling. (As good as they can be if you’re working a job like this, I guess.) The initial slow pace engages surprisingly well considering we are watching what can only be described as routine operations proceeding . . . routinely, but it’s not long before tensions are rising and things stop working so smoothly.

A group of BP execs, led by the slimy Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), decides to muscle its way in and Vidrine insists on expediting the process as they are already 43 days behind schedule. He also doesn’t mind overlooking safety protocols, like making sure there’s enough of a concrete base established around the drill to counteract the pressure that comes with drilling at historic depths of 30,000 feet. The experienced TransOcean crew believe the suits are pushing their luck, but of course there’s nothing they can do about it. Soon enough it’s drill, baby, drill — and, well . . . yeah. You know what happens next. Deepwater Horizon goes from 0 to 60 in the span of a minute as bolts and various chunks of metal are converted into missiles as oil and mud come spewing up from below at an alarming rate. The ensuing half hour is pure pandemonium . . . and loud. Very, very loud.

I still find it difficult even today to shake those images of the aftermath, and yet they are notably absent in Berg’s film. Aerial photos depicting a molasses-colored snake slithering through the once-crystal clear blue of the Gulf of Mexico drew an eerily artistic parallel to the smoke rising out of Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11. This disaster was similarly of human design. Deepwater Horizon has nothing but picturesque pans of the wide open water, and only in the latter half of the film do we become consumed by the fireball that was apparently visible from 40 miles away. If there’s anything approaching iconic or even significant about the film, it’s the Michael Bay-esque explosions that light up the night sky, an inferno of orange and red caused by immense pressure surges and greed.

From an entertainment standpoint the film finds modest success, though maybe it’s awkward describing Deepwater Horizon as an “entertaining popcorn thriller.” I’ll stop short of calling it a thrill ride, even though ultimately that’s what this is. This is no message film and it really should have been. Despite how gripping it truly becomes, some part of me can’t help but feel Deepwater Horizon is a lesser film for not considering the sheer scope of the situation. This was much more than a miraculous survival tale, this was a blight on our planet; a disgusting and sticky mess that took far too long to be resolved. Never mind the fact there was no real-world ‘happy ending’ to all of this, the big bad BP guys got off scot free. There’s the reality we should be appalled by, should be moved by — with all due respect to the heroic actions taken by this crew, of course.

uh-oh

Recommendation: The events of April 20, 2010 get a dramatic and noisy overhaul in this suitably heart-pounding spectacle. It is a film that had much potential to be more and I sound like I’m really down on it but I did enjoy most of it. In the end it is a bit too formulaic and basic and it doesn’t send much of a message but good performances and a sense of panic and doom heightened by some frenetic camerawork help make the strong parts of the film really memorable. Recommended in the big screen format for sure. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “Dad, I want you to get me a fossil. I wanna hold it up and say my daddy tames the dinosaurs.”

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

Hurricane

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Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

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Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

Snowden

snowden-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

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Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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

Hands of Stone

'Hands of Stone' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Confession time: coming into this I had no idea who Roberto Durán was — ya know, other than the fact he would be the center of attention in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s boxing drama. Do I feel silly now.

Long story short, the Panamanian has been frequently listed as one of the greatest lightweight boxers of all time, a brutal and arrogant fighter who became world champion in four different weight classes — lightweight (1972 – ’79), welterweight (1980), light middleweight (1983 – ’84) and middleweight (1989) — and who fought both for the pride of his country as well as the opportunity to lead a life free from poverty and hunger.

Hands of Stone is standard fare. Rags-to-riches tale traces Durán (Edgar Ramírez)’s rise from troublemaking youngster with a penchant for bareknuckle brawling in the slums of his hometown El Chorrillo to a magnetizing presence inside Madison Square Garden. It also suggests he may not have gone that route sans the physical training and psychological conditioning he received from legendary trainer Ray Arcel (a really good Robert DeNiro).

There’s a lot to become invested with here, not least of which being the backdrop of political tension against which the film is set, one that paints Panama and the United States in a bitter feud over who should have control of the land surrounding the Panama Canal in the years leading up to the Trojillos-Carter Treaty in 1977. The turmoil populates the film nearly as much as the in-ring sequences, though the only time it really feels impactful is in an early flashback in which an 8(ish)-year-old Durán witnesses one of his own getting shot down amidst a mass riot in front of a municipal building.

That scene feels inspired. It’s both intense and visceral, and gives us plenty of reason to get behind el hombre con ‘Manos de Piedra’ early on. That same mechanism for empathy grows more interesting as Ramírez’s notably excellent performance steadily reveals there are many aspects to his character that you just can’t support. It’s a performance that treats the boxer like a human, deeply flawed and at times quite unlikable, sculpted very much by his harsh upbringing and, later, further scorned by the business of boxing at large.

DeNiro inhabits the trainer with the confidence and emotional heft you come to expect from the veteran — veteran, in this case, being applicable both to his experience in film as well as around the ring. A raging bull he is obviously not here, and don’t expect him to jump into the ring and throw any cheap shots on his fighter’s behalf. Finding him on the other side of the ropes, however, is by no means an indication of a career trend. Time and again DeNiro reminds his fighter (and us cheering in the peanut gallery) that boxing is as much about the head as it is about the fists. He brings a strong “kid, just think for a second!” psychology to the narrative, a kind of paternal figure that Durán often seems to enjoy ignoring in favor of reverting to his more natural, street tendencies.

The characters are quite strong in Hands of Stone. Maybe not as strong as stone, but they’re memorable. And if not memorable, attractive: Ana de Armas as wife Felicidad Iglesias begins life in the movie as a hard-to-get type in a schoolgirl get-up, but she’s not as vulnerable as she looks. She’s smart and has plenty reason to shun a man coming from a much less fortunate background. Unfortunately she does get reduced to precisely the kind of trophy wife archetype you would expect. When she’s not being shoved into the background, Cuba’s very own Scarlett Johansson has great presence.

Regrettably Jakubowicz adopts a very workmanlike approach to both the study of a life less ordinary, and he doesn’t handle the significance of Durán’s fights very confidently. A few major moments are worth mentioning, like the infamous November 1980 rematch between Durán and former lightweight world champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV), during which Durán abruptly stopped fighting, refusing to “fight a clown.” Despite moments of intrigue inside it, the saga out of the ring plays out like one long run-on sentence. There’s a great deal of contrivance in the construction, not to mention more than a few sequences feel haphazardly sown together. There are other similarly nagging issues but I’ll just get over those.

Because, let’s get real: boxing movies are, more often than not, only as good as the fights themselves, and though Hands of Stone doesn’t offer any true hard-hitting moments, they’re staged well enough thanks to a sound effects team that knows how to deliver the devastating power behind Durán’s fists. I felt I got to know this guy fairly well; I only wish Jakubowicz could have been able to deliver the same kind of power with all aspects of his film.

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Recommendation: Ramírez brings the intensity and passion, DeNiro gets in touch with Arcer’s Jewish heritage and gets to spout some Yiddish (which is just . . . amazing, by the way, if you’ve ever wanted to hear DeNiro calling people schmendricks), and Ana de Armas sizzles. The characters are strong, but the story leaves a lot to be desired.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “No más.”

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

Florence Foster Jenkins

'Florence Foster Jenkins' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nicholas Martin

Directed by: Stephen Frears


This review is dedicated to my mother, who would have absolutely adored this movie.


Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic you just have to see if you were swept up in the William Hung story in 2004. American Idol this is not, but it is a look into the life of one of the worst opera singers to ever live, a woman who many believed had no right being on stage driven by her own confidence and the politeness of those closest to her.

What could have been a painfully awkward, mean-spirited debacle instead matures into an entertaining and dignified exploration of a rather interesting woman. As steady-handed as it is predictable, this is a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Though his film had plenty of opportunity to do so, director Stephen Frears (The Program; Philomena) recognizes that humiliating and degrading his subject is a job best left to the Simon Cowells of the world. After all, this is a movie about the pursuit of a dream, not a game show in which contestants are regularly mocked just for having one.

Meryl Streep takes on the role of the titular New York heiress, officially proving there is no role in which she cannot excel. Arguably that debate has been settled for awhile, but here she gets to embrace an entirely unique challenge — trying to sound like a worse singer than she really is. Ricki and the Flash. Into the Woods. Heartburn. Death Becomes Her. Mamma Mia. Her career is littered with singing roles so the question was never going to be whether she would sound good. Actually it was the opposite. To genuinely sound like a cat slowly dying requires a level of confidence (and conscientiousness) few actors would be able to demonstrate. Jenkins was famous for her “oh-HO-HO-ho!” inflections, and recreating this quirk without descending into parody proves to be a fine line Streep is more than prepared to walk. Once again it’s strong work from the three-time Oscar winner.

The affair remains simple and treads in well worn shoes in its recounting of a period late in Jenkins’ life, when she became obsessed with putting on a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Major characters are introduced one by one, starting with dear husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who has for years been her emotional backbone as she pursues her love of music, regularly helping her host performances at the ritzy music club she owns. There’s a lot of history between these two. Over time a presumably passionate love affair has been reduced to small acts of kindness that seem to be carried out more with obligation and professional courtesy than anything else.  In the early going we see St. Clair sleeping with another, much younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson) in his own apartment where parties are regularly thrown. He believes there are many different types of love and that Florence understands this too. (Here’s the unscrupulous Hugh Grant I never knew existed. Guess I should watch more Hugh Grant movies . . . wait, no. God, what am I saying!)

The film’s only other major player is aspiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg), who finds himself swiftly drafted into the ranks after a brief audition. Unbeknownst to the bright-eyed, chipper youngster, he’ll be backing up a singer so dismal her husband has had to concoct a complex scheme to keep delusions of grandeur alive. For years he has been shielding the singer from nasty critics and gawking crowds, as well as filtering out the negative press from Jenkins’ regular news consumption. With concerns over his career mounting, McMoon tries to decline what he expects will be the Hindenburg of Carnegie Hall appearances. Bayfield, fearing the ramifications of a carefully constructed façade collapsing, insists he stick with it.

Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins is as much about the singer living a dream as it is about the young talent overcoming preconceived notions and discovering fame and success of his own. The pianist never ventured away from his gig with the tone-deaf soprano, despite initial concerns that precisely this would happen. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is experiencing the transformation that happens on the boy’s face: an initial cringe of disgust eventually yields a deep smile conveying genuine satisfaction. It’s the very same thing that happened to me as I watched this lightweight but ultimately wholesome drama unfold. In spite of her wretched singing voice, Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t help but win me over.

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Recommendation: Florence Foster Jenkins is a study in professional and personal dignity. Meryl Streep is the built-in reason to see it, but this is a great one to watch to get a better understanding of the situation surrounding the singer and the kind of life she lived. It is a tonally well-balanced piece, never reaching too far in one direction or the other. You get glimpses of some nastiness, but I am glad to say FFJ is a way more positive film than I was expecting, and funnier too. Strongly recommended for fans of Stephen Frears’ work as well. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” 

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