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.”

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mid90s

Release: Friday, October 26, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonah Hill

Directed by: Jonah Hill

Ahead of its premiere at TIFF earlier this year, débuting writer-director Jonah Hill said of his mid90s, a rough-around-the-edges, scrappy little slice-of-life drama extracted from the streets of L.A., that what he really didn’t want to do was create nostalgia porn. Honestly, this is the first time I have ever heard the phrase ‘nostalgia porn.’ To me that seems like a term only a child of the early-to-mid 2000s could coin. It’s funny though, as Hill certainly captures a number of performances and a milieu that feel gritty and authentic, while his creative approach, shooting almost guerrilla style and in a 4:3 aspect, invariably sends us back to the days of the classically grainy street-skating edits.

The story follows little Stevie (introducing Sunny Suljic) who lives with his co-dependent single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother Ian (the justifiably ubiquitous Lucas Hedges) and his experiences falling in with a group of skateboarders as he attempts to find out who he really is instead of the punching bag he is at home. One day Stevie spots a group of skaters across the street giving a store owner a hard time as he attempts to shoo them away from the property. Amused, he follows them back to a skate shop located on Motor Avenue, drawn in by their swagger.

The supporting parts are played mostly by non-professional actors, starting with Suljic whom Hill apparently discovered at a skatepark. He also invited pro-am skaters Na-kel Smith (playing the notably more mature Ray) and Olan Prenatt (“Fuckshit,” the only logical nickname for someone so hype) to read for him and they quickly got the gig. More on the periphery are “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), a not-so-bright fella whose poverty is so extreme his family can barely afford socks, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), whose physically abusive home life explains his more antagonistic, tough-guy persona.

Before long, and despite initial misgivings, Stevie (a.k.a. “Sunburn,” a nickname earned after his first and truly awkward interaction) seems to have found his tribe, and a few new thrills in one fell swoop. He quickly latches on to the partying aspects that seem to go hand-in-hand with this vagrant lifestyle. As he gets in deeper his behavior begins to change, that wide-eyed innocence traded out for a misguided sense of what being  “cool” looks and sounds like. (Hint: it ain’t defined by screaming like a maniac at your mother.) With an ego running amok, Stevie finds himself twisting into a pretzel trying to become something he isn’t.

What’s great about mid90s is that you never needed to have popped an ollie in your life to be able to appreciate its themes, or to sympathize with its admittedly foul-mouthed teen protagonists. Fitting in, being accepted, succumbing to peer pressure — these are universal experiences and they certainly don’t dry up after high school. Skateboarding culture is a big part of it but this isn’t a movie about skateboarding. Understanding the nuances of the art form is less important as noticing the escapement, the freedom of movement it provides — and that’s especially true of the creative design of the production itself. Skateboarding is what gives the narrative fluidity, moving us gracefully (and sometimes less so) between moments and locales that give character to this sympathetically told coming-of-age piece.

“Fuck, shit, yo that was dope!”

Recommendation: Mid90s proves an entirely natural and honest portrayal of adolescence and the growing pains associated with it. There is an element of bittersweetness inherent in the going back, but that’s more of a side effect than an end goal. While what happens on screen is engaging, I think what’s happening behind the camera is even more exciting. Jonah Hill, comedic progeny of Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg, has made something entirely divorced from his acting career. Slight but substantive, and with an uncanny sense of time and place, the film is unquestionably a strong first effort. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “A lot of the time, you feel that our lives are the worst. But you look in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”

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Paul G — #11

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was having to contend with an illusionist in Ed Norton’s brilliant(ly elusive) Eisenheim. Paul has certainly played a variety of interesting characters over his career. He has enjoyed perhaps a most unlikely of career trajectories, going from a relative unknown to a highly sought-after talent for both prominent supporting and notable leads in a span of time many (admittedly much better-looking) actors only wish they could find for themselves. And now, somehow, we find ourselves at the end of 2016 and the end of Paul G. It’s with a note of bittersweetness I get to send him off in style, featuring one last lead performance from the man, the myth, the legend — but mostly just him being the man. Fittingly, this is a role in a four-time Oscar-nominated film, a buddy-comedy adventure that took home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005. The two lead actors, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, appropriately received accolades of their own.

paul-giamatti-as-miles-raymond-in-sideways

Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s Sideways

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/romance

Plot Synopsis: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show but disappointment embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle.

Character Profile: Miles Raymond, a depressed English teacher and unsuccessful writer, is shuffling through his forties with not much to show for it. He has been trying for what seems like forever to get his novel published but to no avail and has become slave to his own mental conditioning that life and everything about it kind of just sucks. Except wine. Crushed grapes are his collective savior and vintage vino his second language. As his college roommate Jack Cole is set to be married in a week’s time, the pair set off on a tour of the California wine country, with Miles intent on enjoying a week of golfing, wine-tasting, good food and relaxation. His TV-actor friend and former college roommate has different plans, and wants to get Miles laid. When they visit Miles’ favorite restaurant, they encounter Maya, an intelligent and attractive waitress that Miles has become acquainted with from his routine trips to Santa Ynez Valley but his self-loathing tendencies have always held him back from taking the next step. When he begins to take notice of the genuine bond he and Maya seem to share he starts to realize that there is never a better time to start enjoying the finer things in life.

Why he’s the man: I’m not sure if there is a better actor for the role of Miles Raymond than the man, the myth and the legend. Paul Giamatti utterly owns it in Alexander Payne’s beautiful but often painful exploration of searching for satisfaction in a world full of disappointments. Payne likes to work with troubled, fully fleshed-out characters and he has found a gem in Giamatti’s interpretation of a man nearing a catastrophic meltdown. The writing is excellent, but when it comes to demonstrating the pain a man who has suffered a series of personal setbacks is concerned, his star absolutely sells it. And while I could care less about wine snobs, I was fully buying into Miles’ obsession with the culture. So much so that I could picture the actor himself having an extensive knowledge of vintage Merlots . . . er, excuse me — pinots. Paul Giamatti’s face is riddled with hopelessness in this picture, and it’s his charisma buried deep underneath all the hurt that ultimately makes him a character that’s still worth rooting for. A class performance from a class actor.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

5-0


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Paul G — #4

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul had plunged himself into a truly despicable role as a slave trader in Louisiana who played a fundamental role in the fate of Solomon Northup, a free man abducted in Washington D.C. to be sold into slavery in the south, where he’d remain for 12 years. Given that we’ve had two fairly nasty roles in succession, let’s move the discussion to a character who is a little easier to get along with, even if ultimately he, too, isn’t without a few tricks up his sleeve — a record producer who finds himself doing whatever’s necessary to keep riding the wave of success off the back of newly signed rap group N.W.A.

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Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The group N.W.A. emerges from the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes hip-hop culture with their music and tales about life in the ‘hood.

Character Profile: A successful American businessman, record producer and the co-founder of Ruthless Records along with rapper Eazy-E, Jerry Heller’s most notable for his discovery and development of rap group N.W.A., something that led to him becoming inextricably linked to the emergence of west coast rap, including the birth of groups such as The Black Eyed Peas, Above the Law, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Heller came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with his support behind bands like Journey, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Crosby Stills & Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, REO Speedwagon, and Styx, among others, placing him at the top of a very tall pillar of successful American producers. While his business acumen spoke for itself, Heller was also never short of a few self-serving schemes. The eventual fall-out between Eazy-E and the producer spoke to the level of frustration that members of the group had started to feel towards Heller’s exploitation of their popularity. Parting ways with N.W.A. proved to be a painful, bitter and somewhat protracted process, and it got ugly enough to inspire Ice Cube to lay down a few raps specifically calling out Heller and the way he mistreated the others.

Why he’s the man: While I can’t say this is a character that no other actor could make suitably smarmy, Jerry Heller is brought to life entirely effortlessly by Paul Giamatti’s natural gravitation towards playing untrustworthy types. Here is a man we start off on the right foot with immediately and it takes so long for cracks in the façade to appear. But, unfortunately, they eventually do and Giamatti reminds us once again why he’s so good at playing these types of people. He makes it far too easy to buy into the tricks Heller shows a group of up-and-coming talented rappers, but soon enough he’s taking a bigger cut of the royalties than what he initially said he would take and he’s having clandestine meetings with Eazy-E and making moves to try and manipulate the direction of the group. Never trust Giamatti, especially when you can’t even trust his hair color.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Knight of Cups

'Knight of Cups' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Terrence Malick

Directed by: Terrence Malick

The cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick continues in his cryptic Knight of Cups, an offering that may well epitomize everything his admirers adore and everything detractors feel scorned by for not ‘getting.’

I know how pretentious that sounds but truth is I land squarely in the middle when it comes to both understanding and appreciating his work.

I don’t know what he was like pre-Tree of Life but admittedly I was more ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ over the visual grandeur rather than being pulled in to deep meditative thought (as I was probably supposed to be). And then To the Wonder came out and the same thing happened: I struggled mightily to relate to the relationship woes and the characters involved but the cinematography once more seduced me.

So when it started happening a third time during Knight of Cups, an experience I’d liken to hypnosis rather than just another trip to the movie theater, I had to wonder: is it enough to think highly of a movie just based on how it looks and how the aesthetics make me feel? (And I ought to differentiate that from how the product as a whole makes me feel.) What does that say about me? What does it say about the film? How can I like something without first understanding it?

It might help to first gain a general understanding of what Malick is basing his latest evocatively-titled production on. The Knight of Cups is one of many tarot cards — played in 15th Century European card games, now more commonly used by mystics to predict outcomes as related to divine intervention — and is considered the “most feminine of all the knight [cards],” representing someone very much attuned to their own emotions and intuition. (Here’s where the comparisons between the two knights Christian Bale has now played abruptly end. Although, interestingly enough, both turn out to be fairly broken men who struggle to relate to or even interact with others.)

In what can only be described as an incredibly introspective performance — most of what little dialogue he has is restricted to ethereal voiceovers while his physical being drifts nomadically between the bright lights of L.A. and the people-free sprawl of Elsewhere, California — Bale’s introduced as a shell of a man searching for love and true contentment in a world where the only thing that matters is what you see on the surface. He plays a screenwriter named Rick, a man so lost within himself no one, including his crazy father (Brian Dennehy), his lonely brother (Wes Bentley) and a slew of beautiful women, can awaken him from his stupor.

In case you’re wondering — no, it’s not as simple as finding the handsome prince (or in this case, the beautiful princess) and having a simple kiss break the spell. Sleeping Beauty this ain’t.

Knight of Cups starts out pretty lethargically but then starts to spite even the most patient viewer’s best efforts to adapt, the deliberately disorienting nonlinearity as Malick-y as it gets. It’s a journey into the psyche of a man who seems to have it all but finds very little comfort in his abundant material possessions. To complicate matters further, we don’t really get any context clues about the genesis of his misery. (As if this was ever going to be an easily relatable character anyway.) Rick’s had a successful career, evidenced by his upscale apartment in the glitzy downtown area. He has access to all the swanky parties, a byproduct of his connection to a superficial industry.

A rare insight comes at the very beginning, where we’re informed via a deeply-voiced, god-like narrator that Rick has recently suffered something of a fall from grace, some internal pain that has created a numbness to not only the life he leads but to the world in general. Of course, Malick prefers the metaphorical (I can appreciate that about him): we’re actually told the knight has fallen from his horse and lost his cup. That he no longer acts as though he realizes he is a Prince, and that his privileges are vast but constantly fleeting.

We watch as he tries desperately to reconnect with the world that is simultaneously at his feet and in constant motion, either away from or around him. Well, it’s more like we watch the revolving door of women interact, or attempt to interact, with a distant Rick as they come and go in a series of vignettes that simultaneously bemuse and bewitch. Delia (Imogen Poots), the first girl we sort of get to know, is a playful, adventurous ball of energy who disappears as quickly as she appears in Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving frame. We later meet the quieter, gentler Isabel (Isabel Lucas) and later still a fun-loving stripper played by Teresa Palmer. Of all the women we see him with it’s his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett) who seems to leave the most lasting impression. That is until we meet Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a girl who comes in to the story later but with whom he’s been earlier in his life and whom he has apparently wronged egregiously.

It’s his many escapades with women, be they in his apartment or on sun-kissed beaches, that save Knight of Cups from being totally devoid of structure, and thus from being totally free-form and inaccessible (not unlike this unfocused review). It’s divided into eight chapters, all of which bear the names of other tarot cards, minus the closing chapter — ‘Freedom’ — and a prologue. While the titles seem to make sense, the material contained within each set vary from slightly random to downright inexplicable: watching a kaleidoscopic frame of a girl doused in black paint means little to me even if it looks really cool. Then, the repetition begins to set in. Dare I say it, a sense of fatigue. Even if Lubezki’s serene camerawork creates the kind of imagery you can only dream in, there’s little hiding the fact Malick is dealing in a narrative that’s no denser than a piece of paper.

Because the objective — I think — is to coax the audience into the same head space the protagonist is damned to, Malick has the unenviable task of emphasizing the psychological process of internalizing thoughts and feelings we generate in response to daily interactions with the world. In other words, he has to rely heavily on highly abstract concepts to do much of the steering. Things like longing for a way to mend the wounds his brother and his father share after the death of another family member, or a way to make himself feel love rather than being motivated by the idea of love. Very little of that translates to something that viewers can consume on a visual or aural level. Hence my spending large chunks of the film somewhat detached, mesmerized almost exclusively by Chivo’s consistency behind the lens.

Seriously. It’s like the guy didn’t just recently win his third consecutive Academy Award.

Malick might be a genius. Paired with the record-breaking Chivo, he’s a force to be reckoned with even though the man needs perhaps more help than any working director today in bringing his unusually high-concept visions to life. But he also might be crazy. Many say the two are inextricably linked — the gap between creativity and sanity seemingly widening the higher up the ladder of creativity you climb. I’m more comfortable describing Knight of Cups as a crazy leap of faith taken on his part, requiring so much of his audience while giving them so little to work with on any sort of practical level.

So in the end . . . was it third time’s a charm with Knight of Cups? For me it certainly wasn’t. This is perhaps the most alienated I’ve felt by his directorial approach but I also left the theater lost in thought about the world outside of that very building. I was accounting for my physical presence for a much longer time than was really necessary. I might have been talking to myself. I can’t decide if what happened to me in the aftermath made any sense or if that just makes me sound crazy but I do know it is such a rare thing to come out of a movie and keep thinking about it long after you’re back home. Even if those thoughts ultimately leave you exasperated.

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Recommendation: One of the infamously strange Terrence Malick’s strangest and least satisfying efforts, Knight of Cups is a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the name. In fact it’s been a pretty tough sell to anyone, even those Malick fanatics. (Are there many of those?) Consider yourself a fan of abstract filmmaking? Signing up for this wouldn’t be the worst thing you could do but word on the street is there’s another Malick offering coming right down the pipe this year so it might be best to wait for something even MORE new and even MORE shiny.

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.”

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

Straight Outta Compton

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Herman; Andrea Berloff

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

F. Gary Gray’s first directorial outing in six years debuted last weekend to the most successful opening for a musical biopic in cinematic history. Ignoring the 20 years that have elapsed since the tragic passing of N.W.A founder Eazy-E the occasion might not seem auspicious, but for anyone who has been keeping track they would hardly describe the film’s release as straight out of nowhere.

It probably would help make an already solid production even more absorbing if I weren’t so ignorant to the history and culture this iconic group were simultaneously being molded by and molding themselves. To me, Gray’s latest seemed like a random and trivial release. That’s why it has taken me a week to get to it. And though it still feels more random than commemorative there’s very little about its raw power and dynamic beat that feels trivial. Straight Outta Compton is a very good film, made so by the fact that you don’t need to dig hip hop to appreciate the gravity of this story.

Its total run time of two and a half hours at first seems daunting — ultimately it is a little too long — but the number of scenes in which checking one’s phone is tempting is kept to a surprising minimum. Like N.W.A in the prime of their hard-hitting and layered lyricism, the narrative is a well-oiled machine, boasting fluid pacing, lasting momentum and confident direction. More importantly, since there will be far more than gangsta rap fans in attendance, the chronicle is straightforward and digestible, navigating the tumultuous formative years through to the crescendo of success and ending, as many musical biopics do, on a bittersweet note as the group fragments.

Compton requires a modicum of patience, particularly in the opening third where Gray takes his time developing by-now highly recognizable personalities in the form of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (played by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Interestingly Arabian Prince, despite having a role in the formation of the group, was deemed too much of a peripheral character to warrant inclusion. The opening sequence sees Eazy-E flirting with death during a chaotic police raid on a drug den, a nod toward an alternative future a few of these young men might have faced were it not for the forthcoming tête-à-tête shared between E and Dre in a night club, the same club in which the latter had been struggling for some time to get himself recognized as a DJ/producer.

It’s not long before the pair are able to spin an argument that will convince Cube to leave his current group, C.I.A., as well as the high-spirited DJ Yella and loyal MC Ren to offer their talents to this mix of raw, surprisingly focused talent. A rudimentary sound studio becomes quickly filled with groupies and curious listeners. And then E is approached by music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), with whom the rapper co-founds their first label, Ruthless Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Giamatti could have been the x-factor in Compton as his celebrity status, despite his affinity for disappearing into his roles, flagged up a potential distraction. But once more he pulls a Houdini, seemingly comfortable with a striking wave of white hair and that glint in his eye that gives us pause for concern whether he is a man to be fully trusted. You can almost picture an honorary gold chain necklace draped around his neck but fortunately this is not a movie built upon stereotype or offensive fabrication (despite the real Heller’s reactions to his portrayal).

There is a caveat to that, though. Or, I guess a second. The biopic isn’t immune to all forms of stereotype; that it focuses so intensely on the group (read: the trio of E, Cube and Dre) means there are casualties of Gray’s fixations. Women — special shout-out to Felicia! — fare worse than the police, coming in droves, forming the requisite mise-en-scene once the group starts stockpiling dollar bills faster than ideas for potentially future hit singles. But given the lyrical content of much of N.W.A’s work, is the visible misogyny all that shocking?

This could be controversial, but I argue that the harmony between Compton‘s scantily clad extras and Cube’s verve for undressing and (swear-word)ing them umpteen to the dozen doesn’t quite ring alarm bells like the racial tensions that ever more define the thrust of the narrative. A well-timed insertion of footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent fall-out inspire outrage, an outrage that strengthens our bond with these characters. If N.W.A’s personal experiences with the hostile LAPD didn’t create a united front then this disturbing news reel is the insurance Gray needed. The acquittal of the officers on obvious charges — abuse of power and excessive force, the mechanism that drove songs like ‘F**k Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ — signals a low point in the sociopolitical climate specific to the film and the decade it damns in its final act.

Compton is consistently compelling, becoming a party as quickly as it turns ugly, examining extraordinary lives in perpetual transition. While it’s not always fun to watch it is important and the three-act structure serves the material well. The voices of Compton needed more microphones, a bigger stage. In Gray’s testament to the power of music they get both.

Recommendation: Straight Outta Compton is a very well-acted and confidently directed tale that serves its unique subject well. It’s a testament to the quality of Gray’s direction that it remains a highly involving story even when knowing next to none of the lyrics that have popularized N.W.A since 1986. I highly recommend giving this a watch on the big screen as these personalities, as influential as they have been, somehow feel even larger than life in this format.

Rated: R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”

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

Dope

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rick Famuyiwa

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance darling isn’t particularly revelatory filmmaking, but it’s much more intelligent than its dopey title suggests, rejecting racial stereotypes and erasing cultural gaps as confidently as it embraces its young leading trio as a righteous symbol of individualism.

Dope channels an infectious spirit à la executive producer Pharrell Williams’ hit single ‘Happy’ via a cast brimming with fresh, relatively undiscovered talent, evolving its giddy comedic approach through a series of misadventures experienced by three geeky teens growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood referred to as “The Bottoms” — translated geographically, Inglewood.

There’s Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), who’s trapped in the ’90s with his flat-top haircut and loud clothing; Diggy (22-year-old Kiersey Clemons in her first big screen role), a lesbian who cares not for what anyone thinks about her preference for dressing a little differently; and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s very own Tony Revolori), who may seem like a misfit but his 14% African blood speaks for itself, thank you very much. The threesome jam in a punk-rock band and are very close, but the film places extra emphasis on Malcolm as his investment in academics and in trying to get into Harvard make for a character that shames most archetypal movie teens. He’s focused on what’s most important to him, while trying to avoid ending up on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.

One afternoon he’s not so lucky, targeted by A$ap Rocky’s Dom as he bikes home from school down a particularly dangerous street. The encounter introduces Malcolm to a whole new world he’s woefully ill-equipped to deal with, a world where drugs, violence and gang affiliation reign supreme. When his delicate flirtations with Dom’s former flame Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) grant him admission into a club party, he ends up with some precious cargo in his school bag, subjugating him and his friends to the kind of sudden attention no one wants or needs.

Dope is sheltered comfortably under the ‘coming-of-age’ umbrella, making quick work of establishing an environment which its oddball characters desperately need to outgrow and move away from. Contrary to the relationship Malcolm shares with his geeky friends, it is with Nakia whom he chases the same light at the end of the tunnel. They both are college-bound hopefuls, though unfortunately Nakia’s aspirations hardly take center stage or much of the stage at all. The negligence doesn’t come at the cost of the film’s enjoyability, though Dope‘s failure to fully develop Malcolm’s female equivalent is a backwards step given its adherence to creating real people in real environments. Ultimately, Kravitz fulfills the requirements of a slightly less obvious token girl, one whose preference for book-smart boys rather than the street-wise thugs she’s surrounded by isn’t enough to escape cliché.

Nonetheless, and despite strong supporting performances, Moore’s fish-out-of-water remains the driving force behind Dope‘s emphasis on individuality. Malcolm, determined to put “The Bottoms” behind him, ironically turns to dope-dealing as a way to rid himself of the contents of his bag. Handing the bag over to the proper authorities is obviously out of the question. The narrative devotes most of its time to the boy desperately attempting to dispose of the stigma of a misled youth possessing illicit drugs and weapons. One scene in particular brilliantly showcases how close Malcolm comes to succumbing to stereotypes. Fortunately, the incident is a rare blemish on an otherwise thoroughly endearing character.

It’d be more accurate to describe the moment as Dope‘s most piercing truth about human nature, on how certain societal pressures render even the most strong-willed susceptible to change. Malcolm, even with his myriad rare qualities — you know, the kind that afford him a daily ass-beating in school hallways — is far from a role model. One of the more ridiculous but oddly satisfying cultural probes is this group’s fascination with talking as though they were from the street. They constantly refer to ‘bitches’ and ‘dope’ despite their physical appearance indicating they’ve rarely (if ever) been in tough circles, at least up until this moment wherein they’ve been forced to conform to them.

Dope‘s vibrant characters brushing shoulders with the brutal realities of street life in particularly impoverished communities like “The Bottoms” makes for surprisingly entertaining viewing. The title may betray Famuyiwa’s seriousness of purpose, but there’s no denying the dynamic energy and off-beat, charming performances from his young stars do its coming-of-age themes justice.

Recommendation: To belabor the point, the film’s title is unfortunate. It’s likely going to have a negative effect on attendance. Although, its wide release is exciting and the sharp wit and incredibly fun characters deserve to be seen by far more than those who are actually going to spend the money on a theater viewing. Anyone up for an alternative to this weekend’s major Pixar release ought to take a chance on this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Some brother really needs to invent an app like Ways to Avoid All These Hood Traps.”

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 D Train

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Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Directed by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Ah, the time-honored ‘Act Like a Jackass at Your High School Reunion’ plot.

Even though it’s a far cry from consistent entertainment, The D Train presents a valid argument for staying away from said social function if you’re not in the right mindset. Although I admit I would be more inclined to attend mine (happening within a matter of weeks) if I could get either of these movie stars to come and crash the party. . .

Head of reunion committee Dan Landsman (Jack Black) wants to compensate for his status back in high school by convincing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the most popular guy in school, to attend the humble little get-together after seeing him in a national commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. “Hell-to-the-yay-yeah,” Dan says, in thinking that what he has seen is Oliver truly making a name for himself post-grade school.

Dan’s presumption gets him on a flight out to California to visit Oliver in a desperate attempt to pitch the idea. But it’s not quite that simple. In excusing himself from his job for an extended weekend, Dan inadvertently involves his boss Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) by selling the trip as an effort to expand their business. In one of many examples of writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s rather contrived script, Dan passes Oliver off as the business contact. This is only possible after the pair. . . e-hem. . . establish a repartee the night prior. Talk about an awkward scene.

The D Train chugs along with little consideration for tonal or logical consistency. It toots its horn for being a comedy but in truth it’s closer to black comedy, and not just because of who stars in it. Black’s character is something of a jerk whose ostracism from most social circles doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It is odd, though, how quickly Marsden’s slick and suave Oliver takes to him when he arrives, especially given the disinterest he advertises when the two first speak on the phone.

The poster may advertise this as a buddy-comedy, but in truth the spotlight falls on Dan and his desperation for redemption. He’ll all but ignore his family, even refusing to give relationship advice to his son Zach (Russell Posner) who is this close to getting into a threesome at the ripe age of 14. (“Dad, you should be proud of me.”) Empathetic, Dan is not; though we may at times feel sympathy towards him when he’s fully backed into a dark corner. This is largely due to Black’s strong presence, juggling comedy and drama often in the same scene.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him — nor Marsden for that matter — too harshly in the context of a story that favors humiliation, melancholy and selfishness. Kathryn Hahn’s Stacey as the under-appreciated wife is an oasis of kindness, but she’s undervalued both by her husband (apparently she’s known Dan since high school) and questionable characterization.

Contrivances extend beyond the little stunt Dan manages to pull over his boss and they include Stacey’s willingness to let Oliver crash with them at the drop of a hat, not even blinking an eye when he brings his Hollywood partying lifestyle home with him; Dan’s plan for financially reinstating Bill’s company following Dan’s essential bankrupting of it because of that one little lie he told. In fact the entire plot is one long shot in the dark that even fellow members on the reunion committee acknowledge as such.

The fates of some of the characters in The D Train are almost too good for them. Almost. However, this is the stuff of farcical modern comedy. More often than not what Mogel and Paul come up with is pretty damn amusing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m closer to calling this a B-grade movie experience, it’s not totally deserving of the D-grade.

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2-0Recommendation: You are likely to find far worse films in Jack Black’s rather inconsistent comedic backlog. On the other hand, he has been better elsewhere. But the pairing of him with James Marsden is very interesting and these two together make up for some of the film’s many shortcomings. Come for the jokes and the high school drama, but maybe not for the story.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “It’s like one of those charity events. They bring out the celebrities; if Dave Schwimmer goes, everyone goes.” 

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 

TBT: Almost Famous (2000)

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As Will Smith notes in Independence Day, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. And while I knew, deep down, there would not be any fat lady singing to indicate this feature had truly ended, I also knew there was no way I could stop doing these posts. It’s the longest-running feature on the blog! Fortunately I have, in my estimation, something kind of important to talk about to jumpstart the conversation about films from years past. And it is actually one I am lifting from this Top That! list I had posted a little while ago, which you can check out here. Okay. I think that’s enough links for one intro.

Today’s food for thought: Almost Famous.

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Following Stillwater since: September 22, 2000

[Netflix]

Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it really does make sense. Rock stars are cool and rock journalists are . . . not. I wonder what that says about film critics, about those who try hard to be included in the spotlight but never will — doomed to remain tantalizingly on the fading edge of the spotlight while trying their damnedest to understand that which they are covering for their stories in an effort to perhaps better understand themselves.

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s turn-of-the-century (millennium, actually) film about a young aspiring journalist who stumbles into the industry only to haphazardly fall back out of it after following a fictitious rock band around the U.S. in an attempt to get his first cover story published, Crowe was confessing several things.

First, the obvious (and quite cliché): fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Patrick Fugit, billed as William Miller but clearly miming Cameron Crowe at age 15 when he himself was contributing articles to Rolling Stone magazine while still attending high school, learns this the hard way. When a rock critic he greatly admires sends him on his first professional assignment to cover headliner Black Sabbath, William inadvertently gets swept up in the experiences — many thrilling and others not so much — shared by the members of Stillwater with whom he forms a bond during their 1973 American tour.

Second, if Almost Famous was even close to an accurate rendering of some of his experiences, then writing about rock’n roll was the gig to get, despite bitterness frothing in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cautionary monologues bookending William’s adventure. “Don’t befriend the bands you meet . . . ” (whoops); “You will never be as cool as a rock’n roll celebrity. People like us, we’re not cool.” If the relationship between Crowe and Rolling Stone taught him anything, it’s how to write a great screenplay. Perhaps the transition into writing movies was less a stepping stone as it was inevitable, the precursor to actually being cool.

And of tertiary importance: if you were a die-hard rock fan, the 70s must have been a rough ride. Band leaders Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) take center stage in representing Stillwater on and off the tour bus, naturally, as the two lead guitarists. The pair exhibit varying levels of enthusiasm over having a journalist along for their tour as they have serious concerns about how their image may be affected when William (a.k.a. “the enemy”) publishes his story. Struggling to maintain relevance in an era of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and Dancing Queens the members are keen on steering William in the direction they wanted his writing to take them, which is to say, towards the limelight of bigger stages.

Almost Famous is uncanny in many ways but it truly excels in creating tension between personal and professional goal-setting. New band managers entering the fold add to Stillwater’s misery; an air of distrust and uncertainty surrounding the wide-eyed journalist’s intentions thickens as time passes. Then toss Stillwater groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, iconic) into the mix as Russell’s ex and the first to take an interest in William at the Black Sabbath concert, and suddenly the lives of rock journalist and professional rock band don’t seem so incongruous. It’s the warning Hoffman’s Lester Bangs was providing all along.

Crowe may have tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70s music scene, but he also struck a deeper chord. This was something of a personal journey for him and it would be a mistake to think, despite how good Patrick Fugit is — hell, how good any of the members of this sprawling ensemble are — Almost Famous served primarily as an actor’s showcase. This learning experience is tinged with pain, nostalgia, envy, regret, sorrow, elation. The cast sublimely navigate these emotions in a story that begs to be revisited time and again. For all of these reasons and more, Crowe’s fourth directorial effort has been rightfully regarded as a classic.

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4-5Recommendation: An almost perfect film experience, watch Almost Famous for the nostalgia, for the music (there are 50 credited songs used here), for the performances, for the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (who was sick the entire time), for the plane scene, for Penny Lane — for all of it. If Almost Famous doesn’t appeal, music dramas are clearly not your cup of tea. And I guess, that’s cool too . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: A literal coming-of-age story: Patrick Fugit’s voice apparently broke (deepened) during the making of Almost Famous.

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

McFarland USA

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Release: Friday, February 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Cleveland; Bettina Gilois; Grant Thompson

Directed by: Niki Caro

Is this the part where I openly admit to becoming teary-eyed watching a Disney film? Or is that just way too honest?

. . . . . hello . . . ? Guys . . . . . . ?

Ah well, whatever. Good chance I’m just talking to myself now, but nonetheless it’s nice being reminded of how many ways movies can offer surprises. Family-friendly McFarland USA is the most recent example, transcending mediocrity while still relying on shopworn techniques to construct its story, one that is as wholesome as it is sensational given its drawing upon real life events.

Kevin Costner is a disgraced high school football coach named Jim White who finds himself having to relocate his family to Nowheresville — er, excuse me, that’s McFarland, a tiny Californian town few maps have ever bothered mentioning — as he seeks another coaching job at a high school that’s predominantly Hispanic. Although hired because of his football résumé Jim suggests to the school’s principal, much to the chagrin of Assistant Coach Jenks (Chris Ellis), that McFarland High start up a cross country running team. He sees in several members of the squad some serious talent, but talent that’s more useful off the gridiron. Having no experience coaching track or cross country before Jim’s chances of finding success are pretty apparent from the get-go, but it’s not until he manages to corral seven young boys, including the unstoppable Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) that a real opportunity begins to present itself.

McFarland USA begs comparisons to the inferiorly budgeted and marketed Spare Parts, a production featuring George Lopez that shines a light upon four young Latino high school students possessing brilliant minds but lacking the financial and societal support needed for their potential to be fully realized. Trade intellect for athleticism, Arizona for California and a talk-show host for a seasoned action star and you get the latest effort from director Niki Caro. The drama at times mirrors that of the kids of Carl Hayden High, in particular a scene in which Jim White drives his rapidly rising young star athletes to the beach so they can have their first glimpse of the ocean. It should be said that this sequence is handled with much more grace and passion but it’s difficult shaking that feeling of déjà vu if you’ve sat through both films.

But where Spare Parts had the difficult task of selling audiences on the magnitude of the motivation required for these immigrant youths to compete in something as obscure as an underwater robotics competition, McFarland USA embraces its broader audience appeal by crafting a sense of warm community and fictionalizing a rallying cry behind an upstart sports team. Cross country running makes for an interesting twist on an all-too-eager-to-inspire genre. At the risk of scribbling out yet another cliché, we’ve been beaten over the head more than enough times with the pressures, heartbreaks and pitfalls of football stardom. As an avid sports fan, I say this not because my goal is to mislead anyone but because it’s simply true: football dramas are far too easy to find.

It’s also no secret Disney prefers creating cinema that values community-building rather than the destruction thereof, and McFarland USA continues in that tradition. As the Whites transition from minority status in a town where no one’s a stranger to another, to becoming the reason McFarland begins receiving recognition amongst the more affluent surrounding suburbs there is a surprising amount of satisfaction gained in experiencing the growth, both personal and communal. Jim goes from being jokingly nick-named ‘Blanco’ to being revered as Coach as a series of growing pains galvanizes the group over the fall of 1987.

Added to this, Caro’s ability to homogenize these two cultures cohabiting within the Californian border. We see Jim’s eldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) entering into young womanhood upon her 15th birthday during an extended vignette that serves as a highlight of the film when her father throws her a “quinceañera,” and her burgeoning romance with Thomas (arguably the best runner) furthers the notion that this family is not likely to abandon McFarland, even if Jim may have better job prospects on the horizon given his remarkable achievements. The respect between both groups is something that helps to balance out the film’s fixation on competition during the race day events.

There’s nothing truly original about McFarland USA, and yet the film excels in delivering entertainment and packaging an inspirational true story unlike many mainstream sports dramas have in recent memory. Anchored by wonderful performances from Costner and Bello in tandem and visually enhanced by a vibrant Disney color palette — this is a beautifully shot film, with particular emphasis on the landscapes during the races as well as the costume design — you might find yourself every now and then counting cliches but at the end you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself secretly cheering.

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3-0Recommendation: McFarland USA relies on some old-hat filmmaking techniques but that doesn’t distract from the pure enjoyment of watching this town come together. There is so much to like about this one that anything less than a solid recommendation just wouldn’t be fair. Any fan of Kevin Costner shouldn’t pass this one up, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”

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