Just a Quick Thought: A Birthday Movie 18 Years in the Making

What a pairing.

Figured I would take up a little space here and share the exciting news of having family in town for the holiday season. This is me with my Uncle Paul, sharing our first beer together — ever. The last time I saw my extended family was 18 years ago. My dad’s second-youngest brother has made his first trip to the States. He has come along with my grandmother, who turns 90 this year. She’s actually made her third trip over in the last five or so years — logging some 15,000 air miles in the process. 

Tonight at 9, to celebrate my birthday, Paul and I are going to re-enter the Matrix. I can’t tell you how cool this is to have this company. While the vast majority of the time I take in movies on my own, company always makes a movie better, especially an event film like this. The last time a Matrix movie was released (oddly enough, for as big a fan as I am I don’t remember the fact that Reloaded and Revolutions came out in the same year, in 2003) was only a few months after my last visit to England. So there’s this weird meta thing going on, what with the passage of time and not seeing familiar faces in so long. 

With that said, I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable holiday season and that you get the time to see some good movies! 

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

Stan & Ollie

Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Jeff Pope

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.

Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.

They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921)though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.

Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.

The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.

As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other —  it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).

Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.

The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.

* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities

Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

[Laurel] “So will you.”

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.thewrap.com

The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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

Stronger

Release: Friday, September 29, 2017

→Theater

Written by: John Pollono

Directed by: David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green’s tribute to one of the survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is a cathartic experience. Though it treats its subject with respect and dignity, the film holds nothing back in its depiction of a life suddenly and violently interrupted. Technically, Peter Berg beat Green to the punch by breaking cinematic ground on the event with his Patriots Day late last year, but it’s the latter whose film leaves the more lasting impression.

Stronger manifests as the cinematic memoir of Jeff Bauman (played by a mop-haired Jake Gyllenhaal), based upon his written account which was published on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. As such, Green is given the freedom to tell the story like it is. His direction remains sensitive but above all committed to telling the blunt honest truth. As the movie ratchets down into an intensely personal journey that brings audiences through a turbulent period in a young man’s life, it also poses some difficult questions about what it means and how it feels to be considered a real-world hero.

As we come to appreciate, surviving trauma is just the first step. Moving on is like learning to walk again — and in some cases, it literally is learning to walk again. The best of Stronger, much like Patriots Day, unfolds in the aftermath rather than in the anticipated verisimilitude of the carnage that turned sidewalks into MASH units (though there’s much less ‘action’ in the former than the latter). The crux of the drama revolves around attitude and how it shapes one’s perception of reality. Bauman became an overnight hero to the people of greater Boston when information he provided helped the FBI bring one of the two Tsarnaev brothers to justice. His detailed description of the man he saw near the finishing line came only hours after waking from surgery which required the amputation of both his legs above the knee.

Bauman’s journey to find his best self necessarily means having to endure his worst. The film doesn’t try to pretend the hero always does heroic things, and that kind of honesty tends to move you, and not to the concessions stand either. But the story wouldn’t be as effective without performances to carry the weight or the bravery to tell that truth. Gyllenhaal‘s trademark commitment to the craft makes so many of the images down the road to both physical and mental recovery simply unforgettable. This could be career best work (from an actor I keep saying this could be career-best work from, every time I see him in a movie).

But really, I mean it this time. Maybe.

As Bauman, he’s a potential front-runner for MVP of the early Oscar season — once an ordinary Bostonian, a humble deli-counter worker at Cahstco who, like so many in this great American hahbah town, prioritizes his Red Sox over everything, especially his actual socks and even Sunday service. The character may be less flagrantly strange than many of his fans are accustomed to the actor portraying, but that doesn’t stop Gyllenhaal from throwing himself headlong into the role. His Zest for Life Meter is 100% into the green when we first meet him, an upbeat and outgoing young man who enjoys social commitments, even though he’s not so much of a fan of the capital-C commitments life often requires.

Just ask Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his many-times-before ex-girlfriend whom we meet at the bahh early on, to which Jeff defects early from work to catch a game. There we witness a demonstration of his gregariousness, as he convinces the entire room to donate to the cause for which Erin will soon be running in the upcoming race. But if clothes really do make the man, his natty attire says at least something about where he is in life. He vows to start changing his priorities by showing up at the finishing line and cheering on Erin the next day, though Erin will only believe it when she sees it.

The cruel twist of fate that intervenes reestablishes personal connections in ways that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Family comes together, but more often than not it’s in a physical, bodies-filling-the-room sense. The pros and cons of instant celebrity are meanwhile examined as Bauman’s right to privacy vanishes in the same overnight period. The sacrifice comes largely at the behest of his opportunistic mother, who increasingly embraces the spotlight on behalf of her son. Ma’s portrayed by Miranda Richardson in a performance that rivals both Maslany and Gyllenhaal in terms of intensity and emotional complexity. She rounds out the trio of most compelling performances, but support also comes from Clancy Brown as an emotionally distraught father overwhelmed both by what has happened to his son and what is going on with the Red Sox at the time (that season they’d go on to win the World Series, FYI).

The thing about the Jake Gyllenhaal Effect is that it makes neglecting other meaningful contributions too easy. A rising Canadian actress, Maslany turns in a performance that truly stands toe-to-toe with her male counterpart. She’s to Gyllenhaal what Felicity Jones was to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Her portrayal dives well below the surface of what is flattering and pretty; her version of Erin comes equipped with her own set of ambitions, fears and flaws. As we watch a relationship once again sour, we’re offered a window into the past. We learn that sometimes emotional healing is more challenging than the physical. The neglect Erin suffers is proof positive that moving on is one process that does not occur overnight.

It’s also a reminder of the devastating, pervasive and often long-lasting effects psychological ailments like PTSD can have, and not just on the person directly suffering from them. Screenwriter and playwright John Pollono reinforces the message by including a scene that honors the good samaritan who ultimately saved Bauman’s life on that fateful day, whose efforts were captured in a now iconic photo — one of the triggers for millions to become emotionally invested in Bauman’s recovery. Though the man was presented on news networks as ‘Carlos,’ the guy in the cowboy hat, he appears in the movie as a beacon of hope — a broken man whose life story is something Bauman needs to hear.

Even if listening doesn’t change his day, much less his outlook on life, the simple act of listening is what is crucial. It’s a big step forward in trying to understand what it means to be “Boston Strong,” and nowhere is this evolution better illustrated than in the contrast drawn between Bauman’s two public appearances. His first, at the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, is presented as a claustrophobic confrontation that does nothing other than provide shell-shock. At this point in time he’s unable to hear what’s being screamed at him. By the time he’s throwing out the first pitch for the Sox’s 2014 home opener — and maybe it’s something about the cool spring air — something has changed, something beyond the rich cinematic textures. Something pretty profound.

Turns out the hero doesn’t need a cape. A simple thumbs-up has the same effect.

Recommendation: Arguably career-best work from Jake Gyllenhaal makes Stronger the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing you need to see. Both this and Berg’s films are worthy of your time, but because of the intensely committed performances it is Stronger that becomes the more impactful, more enlightening experience. I love a good story about a modern-day, real-life hero and this is one of the best we’ve had lately. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 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

30-for-30: No Más

no-mas-movie-poster

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.

no-mas

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.

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

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

Fences

fences-movie-poster

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

30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

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Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews. 

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Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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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.

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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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