The Marvelous Brie Larson — #6

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

For the penultimate installment in my Brie Larson spotlight I’m focusing on a black comedy from British director Ben Wheatley. Considering I have seen only two of his seven films — High Rise and Free Fire — I am not what you would call a Ben Wheatley expert. But what I’ve seen of his work so far has been enough for me to consider him a pretty unique director. Again, it’s a small sample size but I’ve really enjoyed how distinctly different these two movies are. Pure, unbridled chaos and pitch-black comedy seem to be the only things these movies from the mid-twenty-teens have in common. Well, that and if getting a lot of high-profile actors to be in your movie is a talent, Wheatley is most definitely talented.

Free Fire is his first movie “set” in America, though the old print factory in Brighton, England makes for a perfect stand-in for a Boston warehouse. It’s an action-driven movie that plays out as if Guy Ritchie directed Reservoir Dogs, where the schadenfreude is in greater abundance than the bullets and the blood. Best of all, in a movie that features a ton of recognizable names, Brie Larson gets to play a significant role in it and she kills it — quite literally.

If you haven’t caught up with the dark pleasures of Free Fire, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.

Brie Larson as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/comedy/crime

Premise: Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shoot-out and a game of survival.

Character Background: Justine, a kind of peacekeeper and one-woman coalition for reason and logic, was originally meant to be played by Olivia Wilde, but she ended up dropping out. I think Wilde is a really strong actor but I can’t see anyone else in this role. Larson’s eye-rolls and natural ability to deliver sarcastic quips are real treasures of this movie. Alongside her American, side-burned colleague Ord (Armie Hammer), she’s here to broker a black market arms deal between the IRA (represented primarily by Cillian Murphy) and a South African gun runner (played deliciously over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), one that goes hopelessly and hilariously awry thanks to an unforeseen event.

The screenplay (by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump) provides her a really interesting arc. Justine is the lone woman amidst a pack of egotistical, volatile and fairly unsympathetic men. Early on she’s predictably dismissed as just a bit of scenery. When she’s not being referred to as “doll,” she’s being asked out to dinner in what has to be one of the least appropriate ask-someone-out-for-dinner situations ever. While her costars are by and large quick to demonstrate their instability and their sexism, Larson is keeping tallies, and her character’s own ulterior motives under wraps, waiting for the right moment to demonstrate her own penchant for opportunistic scheming.

Free Fire is a very simple movie, and that’s one of its great strengths. Larson describes it as “an action movie making fun of action movies.” The plot is easy to follow and while all the gunfire eventually becomes kind of white noise it’s the characters that make it worth sticking around for. They may be here for different reasons but the thing they will all have in common, sooner or later, are bullet wounds and injuries.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Perfection

Release: Friday, May 24, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Eric C. Charmelo; Nicole Snyder; Richard Shepard 

Directed by: Richard Shepard

Thanks to Twitter, The Perfection will be remembered more for its gross-out moments rather than what it’s actually about. The notorious Netflix horror/thriller certainly does get messy and intense, but it is more skin-crawling in terms of its thematic content. The outpouring of “I’m physically ill” tweets has you believing it’s a new Tom Six offering (of The Human Centipede infamy), when really this is closer in spirit to Kill Bill — only with cellists, meat cleavers and gorgeous dresses instead of assassins, katanas and yellow-and-black jumpsuits.

So, what is it about? The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard and written by himself, Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, is essentially a revenge tale about two exceptionally gifted musicians who come to terms with what they have had to sacrifice for the perfect performance and embolden themselves to seek justice against those responsible for ruining their lives.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) was once a promising talent; in fact she was the very best cellist the Boston-based Bachoff academy had to offer. She withdrew from the program to take care of her terminally ill mother. After her passing Charlotte reconnects with the academy’s leader Anton (Steven Weber) in Shanghai to help him and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman) select a new student. There she meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a prodigy who apparently “replaced” Charlotte, and two shooting stars collide. A night of passion begets a seemingly genuine friendship, with an insanely hungover Lizzie insisting Charlotte join her on a trip through rural China to clear her head.

(Here’s where Twitter goes berserk.)

The admittedly pretty unpleasant bus ride scene is where the writers really begin playing with the fabric of reality, where we learn something new (and again in seemingly every other scene henceforth) about the central dynamic binding Charlotte to Lizzie, and the two to Anton. Where the tango between admiration and jealousy begins. Where, depending on how critical you are of a moment or two of histrionic performance, you either lose your trust and/or interest in the narrative completely or dig into its sordid twists and turns with fervor. The dueling performances of Williams and Browning are the best things about The Perfection, though they’re not perfect.

Though that might be debatable in a psychological thriller that increasingly becomes about the message. As the hysteria leads to an impressive amount of body parts being sliced and diced Williams and Browning ratchet up the intensity to match the environment. Your sympathies are constantly — and compellingly — reconfigured on one side or the other. The subtext is of course less about the historical significance of music than it is about men controlling, dominating and abusing women, and their subjugation to if not irrelevance then Second Place (it is no coincidence — at least, I hope not — that the movie samples/references Mozart, Bach and Handel as opposed to Kassiani, Mendelssohn or Schumann).

In The Perfection a woman’s gotta go to some pretty gnarly extremes to break free of her literal shackles. This is not a subtle message movie, but given its timeliness perhaps we are well past the point of being subtle. However the stylistic flare is sometimes laid on too thick, particularly with the tape literally being rewound to update you on specific developments. Triumphing over the flaws is the intensity of the protagonists’ rage, specifically born out of the roiling, woke wake of serial sexual harassers Harvey Weinstein/Bill Cosby/Larry Nassar (anyone else I’m forgetting feel free to add — and curse as you see fit — in the comments below). For all of its narrative gimmickry and occasionally OTT acting, it would be me lying bald-faced to say the violent comeuppance isn’t perfectly satisfying.

Silence is golden.

Recommendation: So the hysteria surrounding the film itself proves to be, once again, ridiculously overblown. Yeah, it features some gross-out moments in the beginning but more so at the end but I wouldn’t say the aesthetic punishes without purpose. The Perfection is very entertaining, and disgustingly timely. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I made a mistake.”

“Yes, you did.”

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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.

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

Free Fire

Release: Friday, April 21, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Amy Jump; Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Free Fire is 85 minutes of pure farce, and it’s kind of awesome. It’s also great news for those who have been wondering if they would ever see a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie film again. Of course, this isn’t his film; he’s off doing that King Arthur flick with Jude Law or whatever. While it’s onwards and upwards for him, it’s hard not to look at something like Free Fire and wonder what might have been had he ever taken his particular brand of foul-mouthed farcical crime comedy to the American shore.

Cowritten by fellow Brit Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, Free Fire may not be as nuanced or as shamelessly vulgar as Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch but the schadenfreude is uncanny. As is the element of criminal ineptitude, here demonstrated by the majority as two gangs converge in an abandoned Boston warehouse to negotiate an illegal arms deal circa the late ’70s, only to have it go hopelessly (and hilariously) awry.

Brie Larson’s Justine and Armie Hammer’s mutton-chopped Ord are here to broker the exchange of M-16s (not AR-70s) between the IRA, led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and a gun runner from South Africa named Vernon, played gleefully over-the-top by Sharlto Copley. Each party leader comes flanked by their associates, each of varying degrees of unscrupulous — the IRA have Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley), while Vernon’s muscle comes in the form of Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

That’s a lot of bad dudes to keep track of, even in these limited confines. And Free Fire knows it, sparing 15 minutes in the beginning to clue you in just enough as to what actor is playing which character and dropping enough hints to lead you to assume nothing good can come of their being together in the same room for any amount of time. That’s so Ritchie.

But perhaps more importantly Wheatley establishes tonality in these early moments. A particularly stand-offish Frank is cheesed off that their back-up haven’t been punctual. Meanwhile Armie Hammer is a calming presence, seemingly insult-proof. It must be those ridiculous sideburns. This inauspicious start merely serves as the primer for the particularly intense acrimony shared between the slimy Stevo and the hippie-looking Harry. After the former’s indiscretion from the other night is revealed, what little professional courtesy there has been goes out the window and bullets start flying.

For a film whose plot is literally “get the money, get the guns and get out,” it’s impressive how Wheatley manufactures this much entertainment out of that which verges on tedium. Even as the movie comes literally to a crawl around the half-hour mark, it only gets more interesting. Performances are generally caustic — Larson is certainly an interesting choice here, and I’m not sure she works entirely — but they’re more effective physically as the entire ensemble, when not punching each other in the face with their hurtful words, spend their remaining time alive crawling around on the ground looking all shitty.

Imperfect by design, Free Fire offers dark escapist thrills aplenty and unapologetically.

Recommendation: Free Fire is quite different than Ben Wheatley’s previous offerings. It’s more accessible, to a certain extent. If you subscribe to the notion that Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is awesome, this is  going to offer a lot more to enjoy. It’s undeniably slight and verges on being pointless, but who needs Shakespeare when you have Sharlto Copley shouting obscenities in a South African twang whilst on fire? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “Ugh, men.” 

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

Patriots Day

patriots-day-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Berg; Matt Cook; Joshua Zetumer 

Directed by: Peter Berg

The latest in Peter Berg’s identikit tributes to American heroes deals with the events and aftermath of the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that resulted in three deaths and the injury of at least 280 others when two separate explosions occurred at the finish line. The end result is a harrowing, emotional saga that provides audiences ground floor access to what has been widely considered the worst act of terror committed on American soil since September 11, 2001.

The film, so named after the Massachusetts state holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the first battles of the American Revolution, finds Berg once again channeling his own reverence for the stars and stripes through the universally adored Boston-born Mark Wahlberg, who plays an amalgam of real BPD personnel in Sergeant Tommy Saunders. It is an action thriller of masculine construction and appropriate intonations — even if Berg is occasionally overbearing in the way he stresses the importance of honoring the resilience of communities like Boston who have responded to acts of hatred with gestures of love and compassion and unity.

Patriots Day is as adept at championing the human spirit as it is timely. I could have sworn only yesterday this was a trending topic. Few actors feel more of the zeitgeist than Marky-Mark. It’s also no accident we have a police commissioner portrayed by the reliable but distractingly famous John Goodman and an FBI special agent played by Kevin “Serious Face” Bacon. Michelle Monaghan (arguably less visible than every one of her co-stars) plays Wahlberg’s equally fictional wife. Even the humble Watertown sarge who gets his five minutes of fame is physicalized by the likes of J.K. Simmons. There’s a lot of heavy air and the script’s clunky, yet several of Hollywood’s heavyweights do not disappoint.

But out of the bunch, only Wahlberg seems truly connected to the material, as reflected in a performance that ranks among his most emotional. But, and somewhat ironically, in order to actually justify the existence of the character/to give the actor something more to do than simply stand around Looking Official, Berg crowbars in a redemptive arc for the recently disgraced Tommy Saunders. Facing punishment having demonstrated insubordination towards his superiors he finds himself working crowd control at the finish line. By the end of the exhaustive, citywide manhunt that consumes much of the film’s second half, he will have played a substantial role in bringing the bad guys to justice. The invention is almost shamelessly predictable.

Wahlberg’s not always the focus, even if he seems to be at just the right place at every critical moment. Several threads develop to varying degrees of success throughout. A young couple who start the day happy wind up in different area hospitals simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time; a father standing feet away from the blast becomes desperate having been separated from his infant son. A Watertown police sergeant becomes the proverbial last sheriff standing in the way of the outlaw Tsarneav brothers, while an Asian MIT student lives to tell about the night he was carjacked at gunpoint. An interrogator feigns Muslim beliefs to get a suspect to talk. Each of these harrowing stories carry weight, however they invariably take a backseat to Saunders’ improbable ubiquity.

Those called upon to bear the burden of portraying terrorists deserve unique recognition. The Georgia-born Themo Melikidze portrays the older and nastier Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an extremist who cannot be reasoned with. He is a problem. The actor fully embodies evil and often dishes the most punishing sequences of discomfort Patriots Day offers up. Meanwhile Melissa Benoist challenges herself in the role of Katherine Russell, a white woman thought to have been radicalized by Tamerlan, her husband. (As of the publication of this review no charges have been brought against Russell, who apparently now lives a quiet life in New Jersey.)

Patriots Day is often confronting stuff. Adrenaline spikes frequently arise throughout this potent recreation of a dark day in American history. It’s also nothing if not familiar, as the ‘Bergs’ at this point now feel like a package deal. The director’s tribute to the people of Boston is his third consecutive tribute to bravery and resiliency and it is probably his most cohesive and balanced. Though I can’t help but feel the looming shadow of Hollywood distracts a little too much from the reality of what it means to be Boston Strong.

patriots-day

3-5Recommendation: Sincere, intense and passionately acted, Patriots Day is a certifiable crowd-pleaser that serves as Peter Berg’s most solidly crafted tribute to human resilience in several outings. Mark Wahlberg’s great performance makes the watch worthwhile as do a number of convincing turns by famous people playing less famous Bostonians. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “We got multiple explosions. We need help down here!” 

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

Manchester By the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.

The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.

The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.

But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.

Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.

On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?

Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”

And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.

Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.

Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.

casey-affleck-and-kyle-chandler-in-manchester-by-the-sea

5-0Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” 

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

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

30-for-30: Four Days in October

four-days-of-october-movie-poster

Release: Tuesday, October 5, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Gary Waksman

In October of 2004 the Boston Red Sox became the first team in major league baseball to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series at the championship level. In that famous set they sent their BFF’s the New York Yankees packing, eking out two desperate wins at Fenway before making the dreaded trip to The Death Star Yankee Stadium for their signature final two victories.

Boston was able to carry their historic momentum into the World Series, making short work of the St. Louis Cardinals in a 4-0 sweep, tallying eight consecutive playoff wins and securing their first World Series Championship in 86 years. The Curse had indeed been reversed. But as some players noted in interviews at the time, something about defeating them Yanks felt more satisfying than receiving their rings. Director Gary Waksman certainly seems to agree. Their dominance in the World Series becomes such an afterthought here, making only a brief appearance in the form of a line of text slotted in at the end credits.

Though, it sort of makes sense for Four Days in October to play out as more of an underdog story than an encapsulation of their entire too-good-to-be-scripted postseason run. October 17, 18, 19 and 20 were the most pivotal of all, and they successfully encouraged the seething hatred shared between the two cities to peak at perhaps an all-time high. There’s a strong, prideful, cultural component to the film that may not be understood or that does not translate well to those who aren’t represented by the talking heads in this film — including Boston native and series creator Bill Simmons — but that which is integral to the experience. The real meat-n-potatoes of this rivalry is the tension underlining every pitch, every stolen base, every out, every controversial call.

On the matter of controversial calls (this really is a perfect segue): one of the pivotal acts, one of the defining moments of not only the series but of this film is the now legendary performance put on by Curt Schilling in Game 6, in which he pitched like a man possessed — or perhaps just in delirium from the pain he was in — against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, allowing only a single run in seven innings while his right sock turned red from blood loss following an impromptu medical procedure that allowed him to play. His heroic effort, along with some clutch homers from none other than David Ortiz enabled the Sox to best the pinstripes 4-2, forcing a decider and putting the Yankees even further back on their heels, heels that were threatening to give way at any moment.

The controversy? Four Days in October‘s original format runs fifteen-ish minutes longer than what you’ll find on TV now. The (six-year-old) film has been trimmed to fit within the hour block in an effort to accommodate live games that sometimes often run long. There are several episodes within 30 for 30‘s first season alone that fit within that time block, but few of them feel as obviously affected by editing as this. What’s worse, the nature of what’s missing from the final reel — a substantial amount of Schilling’s Game 6 performance — would have undoubtedly elevated the drama. It often feels cheap and lazy to criticize something based on stuff that’s not there or stuff you think you want to see included but no sports fan is going to say there isn’t enough material in this particular chapter of a storied rivalry to fill a time block twice as long. Or more.

Adding to the drama around the production is the acrimonious manner in which Schilling and ESPN parted ways earlier this year after the former pitcher (who had worked for ESPN for six years almost to the day) yet again engaged in what was deemed a social media no-no (particularly for employees who regularly appear on camera). He tweeted a rather radical political image that commented on North Carolina’s recent law changes regarding bathroom use for transgender people, a move that put the Worldwide Leader in Sports in a not-so-difficult position. They kinda had to fire him. There’s conspiracy, and fan paranoia can run rampant if left unchecked, and then there’s what can only be described as bad publicity. The re-cut version of the film aired after Schilling’s firing, and Schilling didn’t much appreciate it. Don’t you just hate it when things become overly political? I hate that Four Days in October slightly suffers because of these distractions.

Working with what we have here, there’s still plenty to become invested in, even if you’re not a believer in America’s pastime being a game that often lasts five hours long. The documentary features some truly compelling highs: Dave Roberts’ game-saving stolen bases; Ortiz’ walk-off home runs; A-Rod getting handsy with Bronson Arroyo (who could forget?). A good chunk of audience reaction and fan celebration — mostly the Red Sox faithful, occasionally a New Yorker with their mouth agape — is spliced in with soundbites from players and their little moments in front of the camera. The enthusiasm behind the scenes is genuinely contagious. If there’s one thing that isn’t missing in Waksman’s film, it’s the heart and soul of Boston baseball. This is unabashedly a film for those dedicated fans, and why shouldn’t it be. This really is a remarkable story.

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Recommendation: Unfortunate that some extracurricular stuff comes into play here, but Four Days in October is nonetheless sufficiently exciting and recounts several of the defining moments throughout that stunning week in the postseason. Bostonians have this one set on replay every fall, while Yankee fans, I just don’t see making the effort to track this down, even if it is right there on Netflix. I don’t blame them. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 53 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.beyondhe.com.au; http://www.foxsports.com 

Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

decisions, decisions, decisions

Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

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

Black Mass

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Mark Mallouk; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Scott Cooper

In Scott Cooper’s third film, Johnny Depp is one bad man. How bad? Bad enough to make the stench of his Charlie Mortdecai finally drift away, sure. But now another question is bugging me: what does he do after this? How long does Irish-American thug James “Whitey” Bulger define Depp?

I suppose only until the next ill-advised project comes along, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself too quickly. We ought to bask at least a little longer in this moment. His recent disasters notwithstanding, one thing hasn’t really changed about the actor: he is talented. The problem has been one of motivation; a preference for taking easy money instead of actually working for it. As much as that annoys me, I’d rather it be that than the man simply getting a case of the yips. (Do performance artists get the yips?) The talent didn’t disappear, it just went into hibernation . . . for several years. Now it re-emerges, volatile, unpredictable and explosive as he assumes the profile of one of the most notorious crime lords in American history.

Over the course of a short two hours — particularly short given the film’s slow-burn approach — Black Mass builds a damning case against not only Bulger and his reputation amongst both friends and enemies, but against the FBI. For obvious reasons the criminal activity is alarming, but there’s something just as unnerving about the ineptitude of the prominent law officials who fail for so long to gain the upper hand. In explaining just why that was the case, Black Mass becomes as seedy as the city it skulks around in, feeding bleak and ominous cinematography to viewers who, in all likelihood, are more curious as to how Depp fares than how his character does.

The film ratchets up the tension tracking the rise and fall of a tenuous relationship, rarely offering respite. Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up together on the streets, with Connolly being something of an admirer of the notoriously ruthless criminal. That’s sort of how he’s talked into becoming an informant as a way to eliminate the Italian contingent of the Winter Hill Gang, who have been encroaching on Bulger’s South Boston territory. Conducting ‘business’ with Bulger is the kind of stunt that proves to be a hard sell for Connolly to make to his peers and especially his boss, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). Bulger has, of course, a few protective barriers that make his arrest nigh on impossible. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the mayor of Boston while Whitey’s reputation around town provides the movie its quota of visceral, sudden deaths that are brutally staged and extremely well-timed.

Despite the few who are stupid enough to doubt or defy Whitey, Black Mass isn’t quite as physical as you might expect; it works best as a psychological drama involving a slew of characters that are as difficult to trust as their own unrepentantly hateful attitudes are to justify. Reminiscent of Cooper’s previous effort, Out of the Furnace, is a brilliant, character-driven screenplay that paints a portrait of organized crime and corruption that has infiltrated all levels of society. David Harbour is in as Connolly’s partner-in-crime(solving) John Morris, while Bacon handles Special Agent McGuire with aplomb . . . and a semi-ridiculous Boston accent. Notable criminal personalities are brought to life by the likes of Jesse Plemons (as Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Bill Camp, all of which add tremendous depth to this portrait of a Boston all but overrun by violent criminal activity.

Indeed, Depp is not on his own here, even if his is the worst in a bunch of very bad seeds, and even if his presence will be the only one we’ll feel for a long time after leaving the theater. Cooper’s ensemble cast — including a reprieve for Dakota Johnson in the form of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay and a random appearance from Adam Scott as a peripheral FBI agent — are largely to thank for the film’s inglorious depiction of corrupt and criminal ways of thinking. That Black Mass has such a stacked cast — another similarity to his 2013 blue-collar drama — means the admittedly pedestrian narrative has more room to breathe. These characters are intimidating in their own ways, distinguishing a story that we’ve seen redressed over and again by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma, even Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in which Depp portrayed another infamous gangster.

This film doesn’t quite glorify the lifestyle of Scorsese’s mean streets but if I’m even suggesting that kind of comparison (without feeling overly dramatic doing so), Cooper is clearly doing something right. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay paints broad strokes, and there are several plot strands that disappear at a moment’s notice as we cover the roughly 10-year period in which Whitey rose to prominence. Even if it does leave a few questions unanswered, Black Mass remains unencumbered by a lack of meticulousness because it ultimately succeeds in provoking dread and fear. An evil empire was allowed to flourish under the FBI, and that part is more fucked up than anything.

In fewer words, Black Mass tries to stand out, whereas Johnny Depp actually does.

Recommendation: In a welcomed return to form for Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, Black Mass offers an acting showcase for everyone involved. Fact-based story takes us on a harrowing journey through the rough streets of south Boston of the ’70s and ’80s and while some parts could have benefitted from expansion, on the whole this is a story well worth paying to see on the big screen. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You were just saying? ‘Just saying’ gets people sent away. ‘Just saying’ got me a nine-year stretch in Alcatraz, you understand? So, ‘just saying’ can get you buried real quick.”

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

Ted 2

Release: Friday, June 26, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Seth MacFarlane; Alec Sulkin; Wellesley Wild

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Ted 2 turns out to be ridiculous, which in itself is ridiculous. . .because it’s ridiculous to think the first was ridiculous enough to justify something ridiculous like a sequel.

Everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed stuffed teddy is growing up in the follow-up to Seth MacFarlane’s surprisingly successful debut about a child who wishes for his favorite cuddly toy to one day come to life. Now Ted’s getting married to his bear-boo, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) — who barely gets to show any, boo!

As predictable as an episode of Family Guy, a conflict materializes out of rather contrived circumstances, where we see their relationship falling on emotional hard times only shortly after nuptials were made official. Desperate to make Tami-Lynn happy again, Ted suggests they have a child, reasoning that if they learned to love a kid they might remember how to love each other again. Of course the epiphany has probably come right on the heels of what may presumably have been Ted’s fifth or sixth Bud Light. Still, it’s . . . it’s whatever. It works, leave it alone and let’s move on.

When finding sperm donors proves to be more of an issue than the couple expect, they turn to adoption as their last resort. Sadly it’s a move that brings the crushing blow of reality down upon them when their applications draw attention from the state government. Ted and Tami-Lynn’s marriage becomes annulled when officials declare Ted isn’t human, rather just a piece of property. He then finds himself enlisting the help of his thunder-buddy-for-life John (Mark Wahlberg) in his quest to prove both his status as a human being and a citizen of Boston, and that his marriage should be recognized as legal. It may not be a voice many are expecting to hear, but MacFarlane does contribute something to the conversation surrounding marriage equality and it’s welcomed.

What the film lacks in MacFarlane’s signature, perfectly choreographed musical interludes it makes up for with a surprisingly sensitive story. Suffice it to say, there have been far worse comedy sequels before; MacFarlane could have also chosen to build upon his western comedy concept. He shows restraint by not going that route. Not that this film is going to go down as a particularly memorable comedy. MacFarlane still can’t help but sketch outlines of supporting characters who do nothing more than function as signposts, convenient for when you inevitably get lost in this meandering little tale. Amanda Seyfried, while likable enough, seems to be twiddling her thumbs with her throw-away role of a pot-smoking attorney. Morgan Freeman is all but wasted as a more reputable civil rights attorney they all hope will help them after failing to get the courts to rule in favor of Ted and Tami-Lynn in the first of several courtroom scenes.

Beyond failing to justify such big names in such insignificant roles MacFarlane struggles to shape all the events into a cohesive whole. Although it feels slightly less episodic than the last outing, and certainly less so than A Million Ways to Die in the West, this narrative does its fair share of aimless wandering as Ted and John befriend Seyfried’s Samantha Jackson. As their legal representative she has the appearance of being book-smart, but then she smokes a ton of weed in her office so she’s obviously not too street smart. Do we need a 10-minute scene to get that point across, though? Freeman gets to have his moments (hearing him deliver the line “After I’m finished fucking myself. . .” is for some reason very satisfying), even if they, too, contribute far more to a bloated running time than to this campaign for emotional resonance. Indeed, the first time we even meet Freeman’s character it turns out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase. But hey — more time spent with this adorable teddy bear and his likable Bostonian pothead friend, the better, right?

There’s plenty of time to spend, too. At five minutes shy of two hours Ted 2 runs a risk of overstaying its furry little welcome. There’s this whole other subplot involving Hasbro toys and the company’s evil underbelly — John Carroll Lynch’s money-hungry executive and a creepazoid janitor named Donny, played once again with unbridled enthusiasm by the one and only Giovanni Ribisi. These men are after the teddy bear, determined the court will rule against Ted and declare him property, thereby making it legally safer for Hasbro to abduct the toy and use him in experiments to see if they can recreate his lifelikeness in other bears. It’s up to, who else, the stoner lawyer and her newfound friend John to save the bear from danger and then also get him legally declared a person before the film reel runs out. Ted 2 stuffs a lot in and not all of it works, but on the whole this sequel charms just as much as the stuff(ing) upon which it is based.

Recommendation: I never would have thought I’d be here justifying another round of teddy-bear-related hijinks but here I am doing just that. Ridiculous. On that ground alone, MacFarlane’s third feature film directorial effort should be labeled a success. If you laughed at the first one, you’ll likely have a good time with this, even though it in no way demands to be seen in theaters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Did you hear that? You’re covered in rejected black men’s semen. You look like a Kardashian.”

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