In the Shadow of the Moon

Release: Friday, September 27, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gregory Weidman; Geoffrey Tock 

Directed by: Jim Mickle

I’ll admit that what drew me to the recently released Netflix original In the Shadow of the Moon was not Boyd Holbrook, even though he’s, uh . . . he’s the main dude in it. In this era of super-important and super-niche brand appeal it seems a little silly to volunteer two hours away to a movie heavily featuring an actor you’re not much of a fan of. But I am somewhat drawn to time-traveling narratives and on the surface In the Shadow of the Moon seemed to have me covered. In an ironic twist it was Holbrook I came away thinking more about than anything else.

Director Jim Mickle (Cold in July; We Are What We Are) mixes and mashes genres and ideas in a way that results in a viewing experience that’s very much a tale of two halves.  Set in the city of brotherly love In the Shadow of the Moon begins its life as a grittily compelling — and pretty icky — police procedural, then gives itself over to a time-traveling farce that gets bogged down in increasingly convoluted internal logic and noisy social commentary, the latter updating Minority Report‘s stratagem to target politically-motivated terrorists rather than plain, old murderers.

Taking place over the span of roughly 30 years — 36 but who’s counting? (you should be, that’s who) — the thrust of the narrative concerns the relationship between a devoted cop who eventually finds himself a detective, but loses a lot of other things, and a blue-hooded terrorist bent on righteous retribution, one with the ability to travel backwards in time and who resurfaces on one particular moonlit night every nine years to exact justice on future perpetrators of even worse, broader acts of violence. Key developments are parsed out every nine years across an episodic story broken up into “chapters” — ’88, ’97, ’06, ’15 and finally looping back to the dreaded 2024, where the film begins — drip-feeding clues that appear to draw the detective and the terrorist closer together, even though they’re traveling through time in opposite directions.

For emotional investment, the movie relies on that old gambit of obsession being the hero’s ultimate undoing. Officer Lockhart (or is that Locke? not even IMDb seems to know) devotes years — decades — to a seemingly impossible criminal case, which creates a rift between him and his family (his daughter played at various stages by different actors) and casts him as a hopeless defendant in the court of common sense and reason. His peers, including laidback partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine as a Roger Murtaugh type) and Detective Holt (Dexter‘s very own Michael C. Hall), who happens to be Lockhart’s brother-in-law, invariably jump ship well before the hair and old-age makeup transition Holbrook from handsome to “haggard.”

Fortunately the performances and a few adrenaline-spiking chase scenes provide enough of a human heartbeat and broad entertainment to make the journey relatable and not a completely polarizing exercise in political extremism and inflammatory left-wing rhetoric. Holbrook is clearly committed, a proud southerner who found his way into acting by way of Michael Shannon dropping in to his home town (his high school didn’t even have a drama department), and who has used his fashion model looks to get him considerable attention in bit parts and more substantial roles (Narcos; Logan). He remains a sympathetic presence throughout. Opposite him, the striking-looking Cleopatra Coleman as that enigmatic time-traveler doesn’t need to do much to be effective. With a shaved head and the lips to incur the envy of Angelina Jolie, her canvas is easily one of the most unique assets this movie has tucked in its holster.

Blue Hoodies Matter

Recommendation: I left with a better impression of actor Boyd Holbrook, though if you’re here for Dexter you might not leave quite as satisfied a customer. While the rules governing the agency of each of the two leads becomes increasingly convoluted, you have to praise In the Shadow of the Moon for its ambition. It’s certainly one of the better Netflix offerings currently available. I just wish it could sustain the quality of the much better, seedier first half. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 115 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Theater 

Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”

“. . . Party!”

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

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

snowden

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

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.

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

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 

The Purge: Election Year

'The Purge - Election Year' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James DeMonaco

Directed by: James DeMonaco

I am convinced the French marketing for the third Purge film (see above) is the most responsible form of it we have. The Purge: Election Year manages to be as inane as it looks and here is a movie poster that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the truth. Cheap-looking and tacky the movie may not be, but it is unconvincing. Often hilariously so.

Though there are no Donald Trump masks involved (surprising, given writer-director James DeMonaco’s affinity for being overt) there is no doubt that the third Purge is intended as his own State of the Union address as it applies to a country being torn apart from the inside by mass shootings, gang and race-related violence and other forms of 21st-Century-friendly terms like ‘terrorism.’ Election Year is now, it is eminent and it is, supposedly, urgent. And so the French movie title starts feeling apropos.

Previous installments — one which took place entirely within the confines of an upper-middle class suburban abode and the other upon the streets of Los Angeles — worked tirelessly in addressing the growing divide between the have’s (the one-percenters of this fine country) and the have-not’s (everyone else in comparison) by creatively demonstrating the rage that festers within a 12-hour period one night out of the year. We’ve come to understand that purge night, rather than being a means for the American people to cleanse themselves of any sort of violence, is just the government’s way of shedding the nation of its burdens: the weak and the poor. A third installment hypothetically could add depth to this bleak, dystopian portrait of government-sponsored terror but what eventuates are just echoes of the themes it has hastily carted out on a dolly since the first round.

Once again we’re set in the near-future and purge night is upon us. Wait, let me back up a little bit. We first witness the events that inspire a young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) to become a Senator for good. Eighteen years after watching her entire family get murdered at the hands of a lunatic purger, she’s campaigning for the Presidency, vowing to eliminate this terrible night once and for all. Such a devastating loss drives the woman’s powerful but dangerous idealism. She has to win the election and wrestle control of the country away from the New Founding Fathers, but she also refuses to use murder as her path to victory as that wouldn’t make her any different from those who purge.

Frank Grillo returns as former police sergeant Leo Barnes. Once he’s in the picture, the film picks up in both the excitement and intensity departments. After surviving the horrendous events of Anarchy, Barnes has signed on as part of Senator Roan’s security detail and finds himself this time protecting a highly valuable asset as the New Founding Fathers have decided to take a firmer stance against opponents of the purge. They do so by revoking high-level official’s security Level 9 million-whatever clearance, a.k.a. their immunity to the lawlessness of the night. The Senator of course would prefer to wait the night out in her own home. Leo doesn’t think that’s a smart idea; it’s not. Soon we’re back out on the streets after a betrayal. Ya know, the usual.

Leo once again is surrounded by a group of citizens of indeterminate firearm-wielding skill and whose political leanings essentially boil down to “F**k whoever believes in the purge.” Meanwhile, a resistance group is forming somewhere in downtown Washington and there begins to breed a new kind of morality to the violence. But Leo’s gang ain’t like that; they’re comprised of proud deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant and Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough-as-nails EMT named Laney played by a fun Betty Gabriel — she’s arguably the film’s best offering beyond Grillo.

Election Year finds the city center of Ridiculous soon enough. We’re slowly pulled into the world of anti-purgers gathering in secrecy at some undisclosed (even in this review) location, preparing to wage war against the NFFA, namely Executive Douchebag Caleb Warren (Raymond J. Barry), the ring leader whose vileness must be measured by how many nasty words he can fit into one monologue. That’s the kind of lazy writing that has become a frustrating pattern in this franchise. DeMonaco’s creation has this fascinating psycho-social science dynamic that routinely gets left behind in favor of tired genre tropes and subpar acting (and directing).

The major offense here though is that three provides entirely too much déjà vu. DeMonaco attempts to expand the scope of the narrative by including a terribly ill-advised subplot in which ‘murder tourism’ has become a thing. Apparently it’s not enough that everyone in America is out in the streets killing each other to death; now we have an influx of South Africans (sorry Zoe; Natasha . . . ) coming stateside just to kill people. Don’t laugh (it’s okay, I almost did). The fact that the purge has caught on internationally and is now being marketed as a tourist package is just silliness defined.

Come to think of it, much of this franchise has been just that. Take a look at any number of those peculiar seance scenes in which small groups of well-dressed caucasians gather and either make a sacrifice or just repeat the phrase “purge and purify” ad nauseam (actually, it’s usually both). I look to those moments for an encapsulation of everything The Purge has been: pure nonsense and half-hearted attempts at profundity. Excuse me while I go purge all of my disappointment from memory.

Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge - Election Year

Recommendation: Gee, I wonder what the director’s stance on gun control is. The amount of mileage you get out of The Purge: Election Year (or as I prefer, American Nightmare 3: Elections) will depend on how much you enjoy just being stuck in this particularly dark universe. There’s no doubt DeMonaco and his cinematographer have crafted a unique visual identity but in terms of story they simply never even try to attain the heights their unusual, intriguing premise(s) suggest. You can always count on Frank Grillo though and paired up with Elizabeth Mitchell’s Senator he is better than ever. The rest though leaves a lot to be desired and I don’t know if I want to sit through more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good night, blue cheese!” 

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

Experimenter

'Experimenter' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Almereyda 

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

When all is said and done Experimenter feels like a strange dream you had one night, some semblance of ideas and imagery that hits you kaleidoscopically. Michael Almereyda’s biopic about controversial American social psychologist Stanley Milgram is hypnotic, and to a fault, but it still manages to encourage a terrific performance out of its star, the underrated Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a film that lives up to its title, blending a number of stylistic flourishes together to create an experience that is as experimental as it is unique. From the fourth-wall-breaking narrative to bizarre set designs — most notably the deliberately cheesy green-screens and stage-like sets — and curiously stilted performances from the supporting crew, Experimenter is one you’ll remember if for no other reason than just how odd it is. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

Well, maybe not entirely. Acknowledging the rise in popularity of meta films in today’s market is just another reality we must accept and if you’ve ever taken the time to soak up Charlie Kaufman’s punishing Synecdoche, New York, you’ll be prepared for the surrealistic imagery and have some sort of grasp on Sarsgaard’s place in this similarly sardonic world. Visual aesthetics aside, Almereyda’s work is far less ambitious and emotionally taxing. That doesn’t mean the film is appropriately less effective, although, confusingly enough, it is a film that becomes noticeably less compelling the longer it drags on.

Stanley Milgram was best known for his Obedience Experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s. Milgram, a Jew born to Romanian-Hungarian parents in the Bronx, became obsessed with understanding and evaluating the institutionalization of violence, à la the systematic annihilation of millions during the Holocaust. So he designed a set of tests that would measure participants’ willingness to obey commands delivered by a man in a lab coat, commands that would ultimately inflict pain upon one of the subjects. One participant would assume the role of Teacher, while the other would become the Learner. For every incorrect response that was given by the Learner, who was separated in an isolated booth, the Teacher would have to deliver an electrical shock, and the severity of the shocks would increase each time they responded incorrectly.

What resulted was not so much a predictable human response — far more participants continued to obey even knowing that they were delivering multiple, potentially lethal shocks to the stranger on the other side of the wall — but rather a disturbing revelation about human psychology. Milgram found many were unable to justify why they continued, why they obeyed a man in a lab coat rather than honor the requests of the Learner to stop. Throughout the process he would take note of the myriad reactions of those in the role of Teacher: some would get fidgety and scratch their foreheads, others would show deep remorse, others still nervously laughed. But an overwhelming majority of the subjects “completed” the test by inflicting the maximum punishment (450 volts) despite their complaints and obvious discomfort.

Milgram went on to conduct other renowned experiments as well, the most notable being The Lost Letter Experiment and his Small World Phenomenon studies — the former being a way to evaluate how willing people are to help strangers who are not present at the time, as well as their attitudes towards certain groups; the latter, seeking a way to expound upon the theory that all persons in this world can be linked to one another through no more than five intermediary contacts. (The term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ is often associated with Milgram’s work but incorrectly so; although, strangely, Experimenter has no qualms with embracing that false reality.) Interesting as these pursuits were, the Obedience to Authority tests proved to be both Milgram’s greatest endeavor and his greatest struggle.

Milgram all but became a pariah of the social psychology community following waves of criticism that accused him of the unethical treatment of subjects, and that his experiments were designed with deception in mind rather than revealing truths about sociological tendencies, even patterns of behavior. He was challenged, scornfully, to take the Obedience Experiment to Europe, Germany in particular. “It would feel more authentic that way.”

Experimenter is a tale of two halves — or maybe thirds — with a large chunk of the narrative dedicated to his years at Yale, and the remainder accounting for the fall-out, both publicly and professionally, that resulted from his Obedience tests. While sad and often bizarrely frustrating — Sarsgaard‘s cold, monotonous delivery of lines drenched in scientific jargon makes for a character that’s pretty hard to empathize, much less identify with — the second half (okay, the last two thirds, really) is predictable and quite tedious to get through. It’s the story of geniuses spiraling into madness, only without the obvious madness.

Throughout, it’s Sarsgaard who compels us to keep participating in this experiment, becoming a thoroughly burdened and disheveled-looking man come the late ’70s and early ’80s (he would pass at the age of 51 from a heart attack, his fifth). Winona Ryder plays his dedicated and theoretically equally intellectual wife Sasha, though she’s relegated to a near-silent role without depth. She does help mold the family unit around this man who starts off seemingly dispassionate and of the type you’d assume would later prove villainous. No such trickery here.

There really are no twists after we move beyond Yale, and that’s kinda the problem. After such a strong, deeply involving and uncomfortable opening Experimenter turns to more conventional tactics as his life’s work threatens total irrelevance after several board meetings that don’t go well, a failed attempt to gain tenure as a Harvard professor, and the attendant circus surrounding the TV-movie The Tenth Level, a dramatization of that most infamous experiment. The frequency of bizarre set designs increasingly intrude as well, making for a watch that becomes much less about the actor carrying the burden of portraying such an intelligent yet embattled individual, and more about the ornate, lavish decor.

None of that is to say that Experimenter ever approaches banality. It just becomes less rewarding the more you seek answers and a clear path through to the end. Almereyda has a clear admiration for the guy, and the intricacies of his latest film are married perfectly with the innate complexities of this intriguing life. It’s still a journey well worth taking.

Recommendation: Followers of Peter Sarsgaard’s work should take some time out of their day to track down Experimenter, a unique and puzzling quasi-biopic about controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Acting as a kind of time capsule in its quaint stage-like production design, Experimenter rewards those with a lot of patience and a thirst for intellectually stimulating cinema. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”

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

Decades Blogathon – She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

 

Be sure you don’t miss Movie Man Jackson’s take on the 1986 Spike Lee Joint ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ over on Three Rows Back!

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Paul G — #3

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was being a real bastard to the beloved, but troubled Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson in the wonderful music biopic Love & Mercy. The character was another great demonstration of how unlikable the actor can become on screen, putting such distance (hopefully) between his on and off-screen persona with a suitably slimy and obsessive round-the-clock psychotherapist whose smothering practices eventually become the crux of the entire picture. Today we explore a character that might be even less likable and less redeemable, a nasty slave trader who plays a huge role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

Paul Giamatti as Freeman

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Plot Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Character Profile: Despite the character’s name being a bit overkill (do we really need the irony of a slave trader being named ‘Freeman?’) he nonetheless plays a crucial role both in shaping the very uncertain future of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup and his cold, businessman-like personality in trafficking people around epitomizes the very institutionalization of prejudiced thinking. A blue collar worker likely perceived by his peers as a decent, upstanding man, Freeman’s job is to determine where the slaves are to be sent when they arrive at Port New Orleans. Despite Solomon’s protests of being a free man who’s been abducted, Freeman slaps an entirely new identity on him, that of Platt, a Georgia runaway. It is Freeman’s gruff hand that steers Solomon/Platt in the direction of slave owner William Ford, by comparison a saint of a plantation owner compared to the one he is sent away to later, the vile Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave demonstrates a number of terrible wrongdoings but it is Freeman’s intervention in New Orleans that has one of the biggest impacts on his harrowing journey.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti shoulders the weight of playing a despicable racist, a character who is by definition of their job a terrible person, with aplomb. I doubt any of the roles in 12 Years a Slave were easy to play but Giamatti’s slave trader is so vile he comes only second or third fiddle to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. That’s company you don’t really want to keep, but if you’re a solid character actor who thrives on the challenge of embracing difficult-if-not-impossible-to-like individuals, you do accept the challenge and become one of the most memorable notes in a symphony of powerhouse performances.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.contactmusic.com

Finders Keepers

'Finders Keepers' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bryan Carberry; J. Clay Tweel

A man wakes up. Man goes to a local auction at an abandoned storage unit; places the highest bid on a smoker. Man opens up said grill only to find part of another man’s leg inside, as if waiting to be barbecued. Man freaks out and calls the authorities to have it confiscated, only to later realize this find could be his ticket to an entirely different kind of life. Man goes on a crusade to fight for ownership of the body part. Man, what the hell . . .

In the backwoods of North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant, an enterprising but surly Southerner — the Man — meets up with John Wood in the parking lot of a Dollar General, hoping to find a way to negotiate with the equally obstinate man who had lost his left leg in a plane crash that also claimed the life of his father, a successful businessman with a lot of clout in the community.

Wood isn’t having any of it though. No sir, not today. Despite never having met Whisnant he harbors a lot of ill will towards him, and it’s sort of understandable. The bitterness between the have’s and the have-not’s manifests as a redneck version of the ideological disputes between the Capulets and the Montagues, sans the romance of course. And despite a bizarre chain of events that saw Wood transferring the leg from the hospital (yeah, they let him take it home) to a freezer in the back of a Hardee’s restaurant and finally to a storage unit he would ultimately relinquish due to nonpayment, Wood’s confident he’s getting the damn leg back.

Finders Keepers is merely the latest inquisition into this beyond ridiculous backyard fiasco. Front-and-center is this battle over who should be awarded legal ownership of the limb — one that plays out both in reality and on reality TV shows and in the tabloids, the likes of which earn the attention of national media outlets, even if they’re more interested in making jokes. But this isn’t the entirety of what Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s strange project represents.

Finders Keepers represents a kind of tug-of-war between two very different social classes. Whisnant, coming from a much poorer background than Wood, recalls childhood memories that cause him to tear up, citing his lack of inclusion at parties thrown at the Wood estate and his many “whoopings” at the hands of his father as low points in his life. We get to know John on a much more personal level as well. His story is similarly one of redemption, and not simply because he manages to get fitted for a prosthetic leg. His battle with drug addiction is embraced head-on, with interviews with relatives providing a strong emotional pulse. The catalyst for his dependency — a morbid fear he would never measure up to his dad’s success — is rather heartbreaking.

There’s a lot of beauty in the bizarre, apparently. As the narrative develops into something more than just another example of why southern stereotypes exist, the more we see how Whisnant’s bizarre discovery has shaped both the lives of the individuals and the lives of their families. Some of the results are surprising while others are, sadly, more predictable. There’s a clear winner and a clear loser here, and the sheer number of sacrifices and poor decisions made on both sides can be difficult to comprehend.

It’s less white trash fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy than you might think (although funnily enough Judge Mathis‘ gavel becomes a pivotal plot point in the resolution of this custody battle, and Jerry Springer is part of that reality TV charade Whisnant involves himself in). This is a documentary that requires one to set aside personal judgment and biases in order to access the fundamentally human story that exists at the core.

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Recommendation: Finders Keepers features an outrageous true story that has to be seen to be believed. The brilliance in the design is that neither party is demonized or put upon a pedestal, but rather uses the objectivity of documentary filmmaking to tell a human story that might be easier to identify with than one might first assume. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

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