Month in Review: June ’19

To those people still reading or starting to read me:

This month, as in July, I’m being told by the folks behind the scenes that it’s my eighth year of “flying with WordPress” which is a pretty amazing thing. I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing anything in observance of that landmark — in the past I couldn’t help but wax lyrical about that specific day, but at eight years old this blog just isn’t quite as spry as it once was. It can’t party like it used to. Things might get as crazy as a possible new Top That! post about eight favorite movies this year or eight moments when Johnny Depp looked most like Johnny Desperate. I don’t know. Something along those lines.

The month that’s now somehow over marks the halfway point in the movie year, which is kind of crazy too. It’s as good a time as any to take stock of the year of blogging that’s been.

Thus far in 2019:

  • Most popular new post (posted this year): The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (64 views) — who knew, with that title . . .
  • Most popular old post: TBT: Men in Black (90 views)
  • Reviews for theatrical releases: 10
  • Reviews for streamed/rented content: 8 (7 Netflix, 1 Redbox — including June’s streaming-only posting schedule)
  • Alternative content/posts: 10

Twenty-eight total posts (not counting monthly wrap-arounds) doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (not when considering back around 2013-’14 I was putting up about that many in a month!) but this more relaxed pace has been nice. With my local theater still being closed (so long, summer profits!) and the closest one being more than 30 minutes away there’s more than the usual amount of deliberating about going out these days. Plus, a number of my fellow trusted bloggers have really been making a strong case for staying home and catching up with some streaming stuff.

And that’s just what I did on Thomas J for the month of June. Let’s get into it, shall we?


New Posts

Streaming: Hold the Dark; The Wandering Earth; Unicorn Store 

Alternative Content: Top That: Seven Most Dramatic Scenes from the 2019 NBA Finals


Bite Sized Reviews 

Uncle Drew · June 29, 2018 · Directed by Charles Stone III · I enjoyed this movie apparently enough to deem it necessary to weigh in, because it was so totally unforgettable right? If you do recall, the movie basically amounts to Kyrie Irving and a bunch of other famous basketball players, both current (Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon) and retired (Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal), dressing up as old geezers who come together to form a squad at the behest of a desperate inner-city basketball coach (Lil Rel Howery — one of the movie’s few actual actors). He needs to field a team worthy of taking down that of his arch-nemesis, Mookie (a bling-ed out Nick Kroll) in the upcoming Rucker Classic, a tournament that takes place in Brooklyn every year. If he wins the big cash purse, he may just win back the love of his ex (Tiffany Haddish) — or at least earn back the right to keep paying rent. What ensues is nothing short of the types of shenanigans you would expect from a movie that casts the “big fella” (his actual name in the movie) Shaquille O’Neal as the least-convincing karate instructor in history and Nate Robinson as a dude who’s both confined to a wheelchair and can dunk the ball like Vince Carter in his prime. A movie that is just littered in NBA-approved product placement stuck on every flat surface in the frikkin’ frame. But hey, I can’t go too hard on this road-trip comedy because while there’s not as much actual balling to be found, there was a lot more heart than I was expecting. For this basketball fan, the combination of some well-chosen NBA personalities and the script’s permanent winking at the audience — “hey, look at these seven-foot-tall men in geriatric make-up” — made for a resounding win. (3/5)

Polar · January 25, 2019 · Directed by Jonas Åkerlund · For the record, I wasn’t peer pressured into this, I watched the notorious Polar (an adaptation of some online graphic novel) on my own, albeit with more than a little morbid curiosity fueling what would turn out to be a terrible, terrible decision. Polar is one of the stupidest, most over-the-top trashy movies I have seen in some time. It’s a masturbatory aid for people with violence fetishes that made me pine for the artistic restraint of Rob Zombie. It’s about an assassin on the run after being marked as a “liability” by the very firm he was once employed by (and led by Matt Lucas’ astonishingly bad big bad). While bunkering down on the outskirts of Seattle or some shit he crosses paths with a troubled teen (Vanessa Hudgens) who happens to be the lone inhabitant of a cabin across the secluded lake. Wouldn’t ya know it, they both come into the crosshairs of Lucas’ roaming henchmen, a gaggle of tattooed idiots who kill fat people badly for pleasure and torture accountants like jackals before ultimately killing them while laughing about it. That’s the kind of movie Polar is. Utterly without class. It doesn’t have to be clean like James Bond but its sole purpose seemingly is to drive up the crassness at every single turn. It’s a one-note movie that’s badly acted, poorly conceived and just ugly all around. Director Jonas Åkerlund introduces himself as an angry infant. (0.5/5)

Fighting with My Family · February 22, 2019 · Directed by Stephen Merchant · Stephen Merchant, like many of us, probably wouldn’t last many rounds in the ring but he apparently knows his way around the arena of the uplifting sports biopic. Fighting With My Family is a familiar story about an underdog struggle but the level of conviction in the storytelling helps set it apart. British actress Florence Pugh emerges as a true star in the lead role of Saraya Jade-Bevis (better known by her ring name, Paige), a British female wrestler with aspirations to take her talents and passion beyond the rink-a-dink family business (they’re all wrestling fanatics, too). But it isn’t just her dream to be one of those famous stars she sees on American wrestling programs like the WWE, and that’s what makes Fighting with My Family deliciously (and heartbreakingly) complicated. Merchant handles the divergent paths of Saraya/Paige and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) with a harder than expected truth, stopping short of being manipulative or overly sentimental. While Pugh rarely puts a dramatic foot wrong as she goes from a local celebrity in her home town of Norwich to a lost soul bleaching her hair and tanning herself unnaturally in an attempt to fit in to a strange land, the performances all around are very strong and likable. From Nick Frost and Lena Headey chipping in with fun turns as the roughneck but always supportive parents, to a hilariously antagonistic Vince Vaughn as a wrestling promoter/trainer, to Lowden matching Pugh stride for stride as he handles the crushing disappointment, Fighting with My Family may tell the story about an individual’s success but it takes a true team effort to make a movie about it as enjoyable as this. (4/5)


Beer of the Month

I’ve never met a sour that I actually liked . . . until now. Flying Fish’s Salt and Sea Session Sour is quite a delight. Brewed with strawberry and lime. Extremely drinkable. I’m stoked. What’s your favorite beer? Is it a sour?


What movies are you most looking forward to in July? 

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

Beautiful Boy

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Luke Davies; Felix van Groeningen

Directed by: Felix van Groeningen

I think it is important to note how specific an experience Beautiful Boy describes. Closing titles reveal some alarming statistics about the pervasiveness of drug abuse in America but the film does not presume to speak for everyone. This is about how a drug addiction impacted the Sheffs, a stable, well-to-do, tight-knit Californian family. In particular this is what was true for a father and his son — the latter held hostage for years to a chronic methamphetamine addiction. Adapted from a pair of memoirs written by David (played by Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy is an exceptional story of survival and a testament to the power of unconditional love.

In his first English language film Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is fully committed to a realistic portrayal of the physical and psychological tolls associated with crystal meth use. His direction is pragmatic and sympathetic, albeit beholden to what his subjects were willing to share in their written accounts. Given some of the scenes you have to sit through, you don’t really get the impression they hold much back. The shape of the narrative assumes the cyclical pattern of addiction, relapse and recovery, Groeningen taking scissors to a scrapbook and rearranging moments non-chronologically to create a sense of disorientation and of prolonged struggle. Ultimately there is less emphasis on providing a catalyst. Beautiful Boy is driven largely by mood, evident in its almost anachronistic (and borderline over-reliance upon) song placement in certain moments. It appeals to the pathos rather than trying to be some philosophical treatise on why people do crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is an extraordinarily well-acted relationship drama. Indeed Groeningen is fortunate to have been gifted the talents of 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who dives in deep here to become Nic (reportedly losing 20+ pounds for the role) as well as those of Steve Carell, who, in another impressively grounded performance, I couldn’t help but find deeply sympathetic. It is his David who we meet first, seeking a consult with an expert off-screen as he suspects Nic has been using. His son has been conspicuously absent from the house for several days. When he finally returns, David wants him to attend rehab. Nic agrees to go. Progress is soon made and it seems the problem is resolving itself. At least until the restrictions are gradually dropped and Nic transfers to a halfway house where supervision is less strict and patients can come and go as they please.

And so begins our journey down a dark and dangerous corridor where the slippery slope of recreational drug use finally gives way to a more obsessive fixation with a particular high — in this case, the mind-warping, life-in-technicolor, loose-lipped euphoria of crystal meth. Chalamet is unflinching in his physical portrayal. But the performance goes to a whole other psychic level when it comes to conveying what the drug is doing to his brain. Speaking in generalities here, his behavior becomes more erratic and more unpleasant. He turns against his own family, owning up to nothing while asking for more money to “go to New York” or “to go see mom” (Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife Vicki) — all of which is code for “gimme my shit.”

Carell is also brilliant, though he is at his best when sharing scenes with his young co-star. His role is far more reactive, not necessarily secondary but reliant upon an exchange with some other character to really carry weight. Carell depicts a parent utterly lost and without a road map. Because this is as much his story as it is Nic’s, he has a few of his own stand-out moments, like the time he snorts coke off his home office desk to try and “get” what it is that Nic seems to find in drugs. Meanwhile, as David’s new wife Karen, Maura Tierney impresses. Even while understanding the precariousness of the situation she is at her most firm and resolute when push comes to shove, her strength suggesting things might have gone another way had she not been there.

While the indiscriminate brutality of addiction is a big part of the experience, Beautiful Boy isn’t entirely downbeat. In sharing their personal stories, David and Nic aim to provide others hope. For the Sheffs it was the will to never give up or give in that gave them hope. That resolve is what makes Beautiful Boy worthwhile enduring.

Recommendation: A very difficult film to watch due to its committed, deeply human performances. Drug abuse is portrayed in a brutally honest way, but maybe this helps: at least this isn’t as overtly graphic as Requiem for a Dream

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Everything.”

“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

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by:  Nicole Holofcener; Jeff Whitty

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Can You Ever Forgive Me? reflects on the life and crimes of Leonore Carol Israel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who, despite making an honest living in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of high-profile women, one time even landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is remembered today for her misguided — indeed, criminal — attempts at career resurrection by way of embellishing and forging literary items on behalf of deceased authors and other famous people. SNL alumna Melissa McCarthy takes on the challenge of portraying the curmudgeonly woman, and the results simply beg the question: where has this Melissa McCarthy been all this time?

In her sophomore feature, director Marielle Heller returns with a familiarly but still surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a subject who might have otherwise come out looking a lot worse in the hands of another filmmaker. Her 2015 début, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rightfully praised for how it approached its taboo material (premature sex with an incestuous twist; drug-addled, laissez-faire parenting styles) with maturity and blunt honesty. In the process it introduced audiences to the talents of young British actress Bel Powley, who demonstrated confidence beyond her years with the way she handled such seedy material. With her follow-up feature it almost feels like Heller is giving us another formal introduction, this time to Melissa McCarthy the thespian, not the physical punchline she has become typecast as.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based upon and named after the memoir Israel published in 2008, an unapologetic and humorously self-deprecating tell-all about the mischief she got into after the ’90s arrived and brought with them the winds of change, an evolving market rendering her celebrity bios a thing of the past. Interestingly, the publishing of that very memoir as well as the publisher itself, Simon & Schuster, faced criticism as many viewed it to be merely another cash grabbing opportunity by a recognized poseur.

The film picks up right as Israel is falling on hard times, getting the boot from a late-night copy editing job, one in a string of failed attempts to secure a more reliable source of income. She shuffles back to an apartment apropos of a recluse, a poorly lit cavern smelling to high heaven as a result of long-sitting cat poop that has also drawn flies like a biblical plague. That cat, her best friend, is in desperate need of medical attention, but that’s a luxury for someone like Israel, whose abrasive personality turns off just about everyone she comes across — including the vet, with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to haggle. Rare exceptions are an old friend in Jack Hock (a wonderful Richard E. Grant) and Anna, a cheery bookstore owner (Dolly Wells).

Of the few (and strained) relationships she has, arguably the rockiest is with Marjorie (Jane Curtain), her agent. She takes the brunt of the hostility largely due to the writer believing she isn’t doing all that she can to get her Fanny Brice book off the ground. As Marjorie reminds her, it’s the 1990s and no one’s pining for biographies of 1920s vaudeville starlets. Exasperated, Israel turns to selling off what few personal possessions she has, including a letter written to her by actress Katherine Hepburn, an apparent acquaintance. However, it isn’t until she discovers another letter, this one by the very subject of her new project tucked inside a relevant book, that a lightbulb appears above Israel’s head.

What if I jazz these letters up, add more of a personal touch to them? I wouldn’t pass them off as my own creations, but rather as original insights of long since passed playwrights and authors. And I’ll use a variety of typewriters to create the desired effects. Genius, no? You know what, save your opinions. I know it’s genius. If you never forgive me, c’est la vie. 

Heller, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has created an intimate character study that foregrounds a minimal, lonely existence against the hustle and bustle of New York. There’s less than a handful of significant characters involved, but their interactions are meaningful and tinged with a profound sadness, an emptiness, a longing for something more. Everyone in the movie brings their A-game, but McCarthy is simply a revelation as the caustically witted writer.

So good is she, in fact, that you tend to overlook what Grant brings to the scene as Jack Hock, an aging rapscallion who has suffered his own fair share of heartbreak in the past and faces a great deal of hardship in the present. A gay man about town, he lives day to day for new adventures, scrounging for happiness in an era where people avoided celebrities like basketball star Magic Johnson because they didn’t want their sickness to literally rub off on them. When he conspires with a miscreant, now selling “her work” to every literary dealer in town, he finds a new lease on life. Together, the two form a kindred spirit that gives what could have been a cold movie a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Israel’s fate may be obvious, even before the killjoys from the FBI show up, but it is a testament to the performances and the steady, confident direction supplied by Heller that we get swept up in the misadventure and actually enjoy the ride, in spite of all the misery.

Who you gonna call?

Recommendation: Reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply human drama about personal and professional dignity, of failure and success. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2018, by far. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will win you over with performances that are both heartbreaking and mischievously entertaining.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.”

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 

Month in Review: October ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

October is a tough month to survive if you aren’t as into horror as others are, and if you don’t necessarily make your blogging bread-and-butter out of talking about scary movies. As long time readers of this award-winning blog (I’m not bullshitting you — I got a Liebster Award, ya’ll!) are aware, I have slowly but surely been gaining an appreciation for the genre over these years, in part thanks to a number of great sources whose awareness of what’s actually out there has inspired me to do some digging myself. In the years since doing this, my definition of horror and what’s “scary” has evolved, and I really like that.

With that said, I don’t think I produced one single horror review this past month. It wasn’t like I planned this, or that I had no options (the resurrection of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween: The Great Retcon, or can I interest you in a new Jeremy Saulnier picture in Hold the Dark?) Man, I really messed this thing up this month, didn’t I? I think the scariest thing that happened was the backlash following Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his successful Moon landing. The number of ignorant comments I read regarding that movie was truly frightening. It’s one thing to not like the way the film was made — in fact that’s understandable — but it’s quite another to dismiss First Man as a work of fiction or the omission of the flag planting symbolic of “typically Hollywood revisionist history.”

With that off my chest, it’s time now to take a look back on what films I did review this month on Thomas J (plus two bonus blurbs on things I ran out of time on). Let’s do it!

Beer of the Month: 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA


New Posts

New Releases: A Star is Born (2018); First Man; mid90s


Another Double-Header 

Bad Times at the El Royale · October 12, 2018 · Directed by Drew Goddard · Boasting a talented and inspired ensemble cast and an atmosphere rich in foreboding, Drew Goddard’s Agatha Christie throwback mystery-thriller, set at the titular El Royale — a once-happenin’ travel destination set on the California/Nevada border now falling to the wayside — follows multiple perspectives as a group of guests become caught up in a fight for survival as slowly but surely each one’s true identity becomes revealed. A film packed with fun performances, including Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, Jon Hamm as a “vacuum cleaner salesman” and Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader with a Thor-like physique (but far less in the way of David Koresh-like credibility), Bad Times‘ true gem lies in Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet. I flat-out loved that character. One of my favorites of the year, in fact. The central mystery keeps you engaged, even if you might sniff out who the survivors will be sooner than Goddard might have intended. (3.5/5)

The Sisters Brothers · October 19, 2018 · Directed by Jacques Audiard · A modern western that fails to draw you in in the way it really could have, the star-driven The Sisters Brothers is still worthy of your time. But with great star power comes great responsibility. With characters brought to life by the likes of John C. Reilly (as the elder Eli Sister), Joaquin Phoenix (as gin-soaked Charlie Sister), Jake Gyllenhaal (as John Morris) and Riz Ahmed (as gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm — what a freakin’ name!), it’s a frustration that the film never builds enough energy and intrigue around the obviously committed performances. The story emphasizes character over traditional western shoot-’em-up action. Over the course of two REALLY LONG hours, the ideological divide between its leads takes center stage, with one Sister wanting out while the other brother is resolutely all about this life. Survival is dealt with in a more grisly manner than what many might expect, particularly of a movie that also bills itself as a comedy. Aside from a compellingly subversive ending, I think my biggest takeaway from The Sisters Brothers is that there is no substitute for good, honest, hard labor when it comes to looking for gold during the height of the Gold Rush. Chemistry has never seemed so . . . gross. (3/5) 


ANYWAY. How was your Halloween? 

First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

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

White Boy Rick

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Andy Weiss; Noah and Logan Miller

Directed by: Yann Demange

In his piece for the New York Observer, the innately likable Rex Reed writes of the White Boy Rick experience: “I can think of no reason any bright, witty or halfway sophisticated movie lover — or otherwise normal person — would want to spend 10 minutes with any of the criminal degenerates in this worthless load of crap.”

Understand that when I say ‘innately likable’ I’m dialing up the sarcasm to 11. I’m not exactly the biggest Rex Reed fan out there; his writing is aggressively obnoxious and true to form here he wants you to know just HOW OFFENDED he is, dealing a number of below-the-belt hits — some aimed at star Matthew McConaughey’s unfortunate “microwaved” appearance, others reserved for the quantity of newcomer Richie Merritt’s acne pimples, and the majority of which seem irresponsibly misdirected. His review is nothing short of a beating that leaves little doubt as to what this critic believes is the worst film of all of 2018. He gave the film a big fat 0 out of 4 on his scale, for whatever that’s worth.

French director Yann Demange (whose 2014 war drama ’71 I left shaken but also moved by) shares the story of Richard Wershe Jr. (Merritt), who in the mid-’80s went from being the youngest drug kingpin-turned-FBI informant in American history to the longest-serving prisoner for a non-violent crime in Michigan state history. That story, such as it is, manifests as a perpetually downward spiral that ends at rock bottom. Its chapters constructed around the spectacularly poor choices he made in the interest of saving his family — father Richard Wershe Sr. (McConaughey), sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and neighboring grandparents (cameos by Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) — from being swallowed up by Detroit’s filth and squalor at the height of the 80s crack epidemic.

Richard Jr. earns the nickname when he falls in with a black gang headed by Johnny “Little Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors). Initially acting as an intermediary between his gun-hustling father and his seedy clientele, he’s soon persuaded by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, both delivering convincingly cold performances) to start moving weight in an effort to capture the big, rotting fish at the center of the city’s narcotics woes — the coke-snorting mayor himself. For his cooperation, the feds promise to look the other way when it comes to bringing Richard Sr. in on hefty manufacturing/distribution of weapons charges.

White Boy Rick is a well-acted affair but the performances — namely from Team Merritt and McConaughey — aren’t quite enough to overpower the stench of misery that these characters bring to the screen. Richard Jr. is a selfish and reckless individual and as Richard Sr., McConaughey is no more sympathetic. In fact he’s arguably the least redeemable of them all as we see how his business is promoting chaos and violence throughout the city, how his lack of parenting has emboldened his son to crime — or his daughter to make the decision to walk out on the family.

I cringe to do this, but Rex Reed is actually . . . right. Maybe not 0/4 right — that’s pretty harsh, bro. He’s on to something though. White Boy Rick is a movie awkwardly lacking an empathetic hook, and more problematically, entertainment. There is a big difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs — a classic case of schadenfreude — and White Boy Rick, a movie that spends two hours enumerating all the things the kid does wrong only to ask us in the end to take pity on him because he is merely a teenage victim of a broken system.

Because this family is no fun to be around, there really is no point to the exercise. White Boy Rick is based on a real life story but what exactly do we gain from all of these losses? Maybe being pointless is its raison d’être — criminal drug-dealing only leads to one place, and that place is directionless, bottomless despair (or a jail cell, take your pick). I suppose my biggest gripe with the movie is that it made me agree with Rex Reed on something for once. The movie brought us closer together and I will never forgive White Boy Rick for that.

Recommendation: White Boy Rick is a true story with little entertainment value. A cautionary tale steeped in cliché and grating characters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “We’re goin’ for custard!”

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

Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

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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

The Founder

the-founder-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Siegel 

Directed by: John Lee Hancock

Michael Keaton is such a good actor he will make you feel bad for McDonald’s. Not the McDonald’s of today, mind you, who never honors your request for no pickles, but the quaint San Bernardino burger stand run by the McDonalds brothers, the place that always got it right.

On a philosophical level the movie intrigues because it challenges today’s status quo, it makes us wonder if McDonald’s was always destined to be the soulless corporate machine it has ultimately become. Sure, it’s a little sentimental for the good old days and a twee sequence breaking down the logistics of the assembly line-style serving platform verges on romanticizing that which is decidedly not romantic, but The Founder also genuinely earns your attention and does well to entertain the notion of what could have been had Ray Kroc (Keaton) never happened.

For Maurice ‘Mac’ (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), fate comes in the form of a 50-something-year-old milkshake machine salesman who sees their one-off restaurant as a potential gateway to the future. Having no luck selling his own product, Ray finds himself making the trip out to southern California when he receives an order for six of his machines, thinking there must be a mistake. In his experience no restaurant has been busy enough to justify more than a couple.

What he finds in San Bernardino is what Dick affectionately calls a “symphony of efficiency” — a system capable of delivering fresh, delicious beef patties and just-salted-enough potato cut fries to the masses in a way that conveniences both the customer and the business. After taking a quick tour of their facilities, Ray becomes convinced the brothers have the potential to revolutionize the way friends, families, even entire communities eat. Humbled by their ability to merely run an operation after having survived The Great Depression, the brothers are very wary of change.

Nevertheless, the very next day Ray is back with new gusto. He’s done with milkshake machines, now imploring his new friends to expand their operations nationwide. What he sees now are dollar signs, not Golden Arches. Profit, not product. A cultural revolution as opposed to a social gathering. In an impassioned speech, Ray encourages the brothers to see what he sees, a restaurant as a symbol of national pride: “Courthouses. Churches. Arches . . .”

Plot mechanics notwithstanding, The Founder plays out in often surprising and dramatic fashion. We have a trio of stellar performances to thank, as Lynch and Offerman lend a naivety to the McDonalds that makes them easy to like even if such qualities ultimately must be faulted on some level. The true star, naturally, is Keaton, who seems to be channeling a little Daniel Plainview into his mightily unflattering portrayal of an entrepreneur. Keaton makes it easy to believe this is a man who would sooner kick a kid’s lemonade stand down and tell them it was poorly constructed than pay the 50 cents for a cup and walk away all smiles.

The Founder is so fascinating to watch because Ray Kroc is fascinating. He is both an angel and the Grim Reaper and whether you root for him or want him to fall flat on his face is immaterial. His transformation from a nobody into an industry icon is as insidious as it is compelling. This is a man who made things happen, an immovable object moved only by his own dogged determination. There’s an objective reality to what he accomplished and impressively that is not lost even as we endure scene after scene of him gutting the already gutless, those who lack both the emotional and financial wherewithal to save themselves from ruination.

It’s a testament to the power of good storytelling that of all the things that make you sick at the end of The Founder, greasy food isn’t one of them.

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4-0Recommendation: A movie about how far McDonald’s has come in 50+ years, now that sounds like a recipe for cheesy product placement and insanely fattening sentimentality. But John Lee Hancock’s film is actually, legitimately entertaining and surprisingly revelatory and far from the commercial advertisement it could have become. You should go see it to have a better understanding of where we are today and to see an absolute stunner of a performance from Michael “I’m having a nice little career resurgence of my own” Keaton. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I want a divorce.”

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