Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.forbes.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.” 

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

Adult Beginners

'Adult Beginners' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeff Cox; Liz Flahive; Nick Kroll

Directed by: Ross Katz

Fans of FX’s The League, here’s a movie you’ve kind of been waiting for. Kind of. And maybe ‘waiting for’ is extreme. Regardless of my lack of enthusiasm towards star Nick Kroll, Adult Beginners finds a way to encourage a more well-rounded performance out of Ruxin by making him a nanny instead of a ninny.

Jake (Kroll) is responsible for the collapse of his upstart tech company when it immediately goes bankrupt, costing the jobs of many and subjecting him to their understandable rage. Feeling terrible, mostly for himself, he finds himself with no choice but to move in with his sister Justine (the always welcome Rose Byrne) who has settled down with her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale) in the suburbs. In their house life is hectic, what with Danny working long hours in his blue collar day job, Justine being pregnant with their second child and their son Teddy (played by twins Caleb and Matthew Paddock) proving to be quite a handful.

Ruxin . . . er, I mean Jake ingratiates himself for several months with his sister who is every bit as unsure about what his next moves are going to be as he is. Unfortunately Danny and Jake don’t exactly hit it off from the get-go. In exchange for his temporary living arrangement, Justine asks if Jake wouldn’t mind babysitting their kid — it’d really help them out. Plus, you know . . . responsibility and stuff.

I suppose this is the part where I start accusing Adult Beginners of underachieving, and to be sure this family-oriented comedy is lightweight. I should be more specific. This isn’t family friendly material but rather a spotlight on relationships and how they evolve as people grow older and take on new, larger responsibilities. (You might be wondering what any of that has to do with the swimming pool on the poster. You see, neither Jake nor Justine know how to swim and yet Justine has enrolled her son in a beginner swim class. As it becomes clear to the instructor, the adults probably could benefit from a beginner class of their own.)

Adult Beginners plays out episodically rather than as a fluid film, with few plot threads enduring the full 90-minute runtime, save for the tension between Jake and his brother-in-law, the aquaphobia and Jake’s transitioning into the life of a stay-at-home dad. But it’s perfectly serviceable, even if bordering on inconsequential; a harmless comedy that’s more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, one that speaks to the mundanities of every day life.

If nothing else it’s a showcase for the more sensitive side of Kroll who has spent much of his acting career portraying a somewhat insecure, neurotic man-child with a smoking hot wife who can’t quite satisfy him the way his obsession with fantasy football does. Here, even though he still exudes some of the foibles of that character, Kroll overcomes and matures in an organic way that neither feels manipulative nor unrealistic. Though one can’t help but feel he benefits greatly from being surrounded by a reliable, talented cast.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 2.32.39 PM

Recommendation: Adult Beginners gets by on the charm of its cast and a strong sense of the family unit. It’s nothing more than minor comedy but the cast and crew have more than enough chemistry to make the whole experience worthwhile sitting through, at least just once. And there’s something comforting about watching people older than you who are still trying to get their shit together. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “You can basically take the last three years of my life and light them on fire.”

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 Wolfpack

The Wolfpack movie poster

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

Short film director Crystal Moselle’s first feature-length documentary probably would have never happened if she weren’t on the right street corner at the right time of day. Her chance encounter with the Angulo brothers on the streets of New York one afternoon would seem like serendipity had it not been for the director and the boys sharing one major interest: a love of movies. For the subjects of this incredible film, maybe the statistical improbability of their run-in is more like karma.

Six young men with long-flowing, dark hair, dressed to the nines á la the guys from Reservoir Dogs and running down a New York avenue would probably seem to many a cause for concern, a group with only mischief on their minds. But Moselle wasn’t intimidated as much as she was fascinated by their presence. Four years later and their life story — or the story as it had been controlled up until that point — would serve as the basis for one of 2015’s most intriguing and unique documentary films.

The Wolfpack captures the Angulo family as they go about living in a cramped four-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At film’s open the family dynamic reveals nothing untoward: boys are being boys and re-enacting their favorite scenes from their favorite Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan movies (albeit with a creative fervor that should have them nominated for best home-made costumes). Mom and dad are elsewhere. Their young sister is separated, less interested in the collective cinematic obsession.

Fairly early on it’s difficult to ignore a crushing sense of stagnation, though. This isn’t a home of hoarding nor of physical abuse leading to the complete dissolution of the family unit. Rather, the Angulos have been living a hermitic lifestyle because of their father, Oscar. The Peruvian immigrant fundamentally disagrees with the way in which American society runs. Intensely afraid the dangers and influences of the outside world would have a negative impact on his family, he has rarely allowed them to leave the building. He keeps the only key to the apartment and monitors his wife’s weekly grocery trips. We’re not talking about a situation where the boys are restricted to socializing only on the weekends. This is total isolation.

This was a situation that had been ongoing for 14 years prior to the director stumbling upon them on the street. One of the older brothers informs us that a good year might have yielded a half dozen trips outside, while during a particularly bad year they never got out at all. Ventures outdoors were more likely when the season’s right. The same applied to their sister and their mother, who had been homeschooling her children while collecting on welfare. (Oscar also fundamentally disagreed with the concept of holding down a job.)

Moselle’s work isn’t the most tightly focused documentary you’ll see, but that’s because she’s aiming at extracting the essence of the Angulo’s personal relationships and how film has shaped and informed their lives. She’s there for the good times as much as she is for the bad; even though interviews remain fairly casual and lighthearted, a lingering look in an eye or a reluctant smile tells another story. There are moments where anger and bitterness surface, though the Angulo boys are, with these extreme conditions considered, remarkably well-adjusted. Polite, well-spoken and each intelligent and thoughtful, it’s often difficult reconciling their potential with the sheer number of opportunities that they’ve been denied.

The Wolfpack offers a fairly disturbing story but it’s never confronting. It’s intimate and honest; moving and at times absurdly comical. I’m left wondering, after viewing the footage themselves, if any of these brothers would end up owning this on DVD. They strike me more as the action/thriller/crime-drama crowd but after all they’ve been through together, re-watches of their own history could prove to be both a powerful reminder of history and a reinvigorating push forward into the future.

Recommendation: An inspiration for cinephiles everywhere, if there ever were one. Er, . . . one not named Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This quietly powerful documentary serves as a testament to the power of film and of brotherhood. Undoubtedly one of the year’s most memorable stories. Highly el-recommended-o.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

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

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

TBT: Toy Story (1995)

new tbt logo

Given that today is a holiday I don’t really celebrate being British and all, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go back and visit an absolute classic from the mid-90s. Upon reading up on the film I realized it is also the 20th anniversary of the release, which by all accounts made feel quite old. It’s also surprising to me that it has taken me until now to feature 

Today’s food for thought: Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear

Toying with our emotions since: November 22, 1995

[VHS]

One of the great tragedies of life is that it always changes. Nothing stays the same. The notion of a child’s toy collection having lives of their own, getting into trouble and having adventures in clandestinity (i.e. when no human is around or paying much attention) is the epitome of creative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its poignant commentary on the nature of change and how people — in this case, toys — adapt to and more often than not benefit from it.

Tom Hanks’ Woody finds his little cowboy boots turned inside out when a new toy arrives in Andy’s room in the form of Tim Allen’s sophisticated, tech-savvy, Star Command-loyalist Buzz Lightyear. Worried that Andy’s attention is, at the very least, going to be henceforth split between his old buddy and a new shiny ‘play thing,’ Woody goes on the defense, making sure Andy’s room and all that it contains doesn’t make him very welcome. It’s a fruitless effort, because in a matter of minutes Buzz manages to win everyone over with his flying abilities and his voice-activated thing-a-ma-jigs.

This film, the simplest of the three, rarely leaves the confines of Andy’s room, much less the house, and when it does, the world feels massive: massively unexplored and massively intimidating. When Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window and inadvertently turns the rest of the toys against him, he is chosen reluctantly by Andy as the single toy he gets to take to a family outing at Pizza Planet. Buzz soon confronts Woody about the situation, and just when their future looks as uncertain as it could possibly become, they fall into the clutches of the evil Sid when Buzz mistakes a rocket-shaped arcade game for the genuine article. Potentially damned to a life of destruction, the odd couple must resolve their differences and find a way back into the loving arms of Andy.

Yet there are issues further complicating the end game. Buzz still thinks he’s a legitimate space ranger and Woody is still hated by the rest of the toys, who believe he intentionally eliminated Buzz out of jealousy. The pair may be imprisoned, but ultimately they’re within reach of all that was once familiar — they can even communicate with the other toys through open windows — but at this point in the story the two groups may as well be on opposite sides of the planet. And not even Slinky believes Woody is a good guy anymore.

Changed environments and slowly changing perspectives force a contrived, but nonetheless effective, reconciliation between a psychologically weakened Buzz who, after a bit of plastic brainwashing, is convinced he is now Mrs. Nesbitt, and a cowboy who recognizes phrases like “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” indeed have a shelf life. (Of course, Woody is more concerned with the literal sense of that term, not wanting to end up on a dusty shelf for the rest of his life.)

Toy Story, the first in a long line of incredibly successful Pixar campaigns, became so influential it spawned a trilogy of adventures featuring the jealous pull-string cowboy and his former intergalactic rival. And for once, the universe within which these adventures were first created seemed spacious enough to warrant further exploration. Toy Story is one of few sagas that actually builds naturally upon what came before, satiating audiences who fell in love with the original with grander aspirations and more complex schemes that would take the toys right out of the toy chest and confront them with the harsh realities of “real world” environments. In some senses, these movies are almost too good for children. It’s like handing them a piece of German chocolate and expecting them to know the difference between that and a Hershey bar.

As a child I don’t think I ever ‘got’ what was going on in the lives of these once-fictitious toys in a larger sense; it certainly never occurred to me that there would come a day when Bo Peep, Slinky, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, the Etch-a-Sketch, the barrel of monkeys, Mr. Spell and an infantry of green plastic soldiers would be faced with an existential crisis: the proposition of being sold off to someone not named Andy. Similarly, as a child, I didn’t quite understand that life would perpetually get more difficult with each passing year and eventual decade. I always thought the bubble would never pop. In fact I couldn’t even tell I was floating in a bubble.

This animated classic set the bar for a studio that would go on to create an unprecedented run of high-quality cinematic releases but for some reason I care much less about what came after as I do about this mid-90s release. Make no mistake, though: I loved Inside Out and in all likelihood I’m going to greatly enjoy The Good Dinosaur. I skipped out on Cars, Planes, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. In essence, Toy Story is virtually all I know about the world’s most successful animation studio. I’m scared of and don’t welcome all that easily the concept of things changing. But maybe it’s time to start embracing it.

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Recommendation: One of this blogger’s very favorite movies, Toy Story just gets things right on every level: characters, visual presentation, story, music, the comedy, and profound themes like accepting and embracing change and making new friends. As one of the very first movies I saw in theaters, I have to say I had no idea then how good this movie really was and still is. This is such a memorable experience that I love revisiting time and again.

Rated: G

Running Time: 81 mins.

TBTrivia: Jeffrey Katzenberg often gave notes that he wanted more edge. Pixar presented an early draft of the film to Disney on November 19, 1993. The result was disastrous. The film was deemed unwatchable and John Lasseter recalls simply hanging his head in shame. It presented Woody as a “sarcastic jerk” who was constantly insulting the other toys. Katzenberg took Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider in[to] the hall after the screening and asked him why it was bad; Schneider responded that it “wasn’t theirs anymore.” Disney immediately shut down production pending a new script. The story team spent a week on a new script to make Woody a more likable character, instead of the “sarcastic jerk” he had been.

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.blogs.disney.com 

Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

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JCR Factor #6

Greetings one and all. Thanks for joining Mr. Reilly and I for another edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. We move into September and back into drama with a look at a character I’ve only very recently been introduced to.

This month, I have to be honest, is a rather random selection. I’ve been patiently waiting for an opportunity to get to some of his bigger roles, like the glaring omission I still have in the form of his part in Gangs of New York. Perhaps there are other roles he has that I haven’t seen that are a bit more substantive than the last couple I’ve focused on. If anyone has suggestions, I’d glad to hear them and see where I can go next month. To find more related material, visit the Features menu up top and search the sub-menu Actor Profiles.

John C. Reilly as Dan Brown in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Character Profile: Dan Brown fits the profile of a typical 1950s husband. The sole breadwinner of the household, he goes off to work each morning at 8 to come home to a wife and child around 5. Soft-spoken, polite and generally easygoing, he seems a perfect gentleman. But beneath the surface there’s an emotional coldness about him, as Dan has been maintaining a distance between himself and his wife for some time. It has gotten to the point where he’s oblivious to his wife Laura’s increasing dissatisfaction with her lot in life as a housewife. On the occasion of his birthday, all Dan can say is how thankful he is of having a loving, caring wife. Whether he’s aware of quite how disturbed Laura has become being left alone at home all day every day, isn’t very clear. But if Dan says he’s happy then that’s all that matters, right?

If you lose JCR, the film loses: . . . not much. I don’t want to say Reilly is miscast here but he could certainly be replaced by just about anyone in this role. Dan is so peripheral he almost doesn’t matter. I watched this movie with the impression he had a much bigger role to play but this particular character simply does not bear much weight on the overall narrative. And it is certainly not a knock against Stephen Daldry’s drama. His film relies far more on the strengths of its female leads than those of the males, hence Reilly’s skill set isn’t really ever put on full display.

That’s what he said: “The thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea of our happiness.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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TBT: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

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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.

gohippitygohumpters

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. . !”

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Spare Parts

spare-parts-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Elissa Matsueda

Directed by: Sean McNamara

Well-intentioned but also thoroughly cliched, Sean McNamara’s strict adherence to the inspirational Wired.com article ‘La Vida Robot’ still manages to surprise with an atypical performance from George Lopez.

Lopez plays Fredi Cameron, a substitute teacher whose inexperience with the troubled Carl Hayden Community High student body is predicted to eventually overwhelm him. A grilling interview with the principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) suggests he should take his engineering mind elsewhere. His character is actually an amalgamation of real-life instructors Fredi “Ledge” Lajvardi and Allen Cameron and is a personality that meshes well with Lopez’s kind eyes and warm smile.

Mr. Cameron decides to tough it out and soon discovers a group of students with some unique talent, the likes of which are doomed to be overlooked in favor of the statistical probability their undocumented status in the States will lead them down a dead-end road. There’s Oscar (Carlos PenaVega), a senior with aspirations of joining the Armed Forces after school and whose confidence masks his deep-seated fear of being deported; Lorenzo (José Julián), a 16-year-old with a penchant for getting into trouble on the streets but more importantly a mind for building and designing things; Cristian (David Del Rio), a genuinely good kid whose youth belies one of the sharpest minds in the community, possibly in the greater Phoenix area and whose home life has him living in a small shed off to the side of the house; and Luis (Oscar Gutierrez), a quiet and unconfident young man undoubtedly conscientious of his physical size and self-assessed lack of practical skills.

The foursome rally around an extremely amiable Lopez even as he’s somewhat reluctant to invest his own time in the school’s robotics club. He sees the kids desperately need some direction, but it’s not until he’s finally won the support of a cute colleague (Marisa Tomei), who believes the students don’t need any more misleading, that Mr. Cameron realizes his passion for engineering can actually marry with his desire to help others. The robotics club sets their sights on the underwater robotics competition hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara where they will have to pit their $800 robot, built out of PVC piping and nicknamed ‘Stinky,’ against teams with arguably more talent, confidence and community support and most assuredly more financial aid.

The end result of said competition is a foregone conclusion since there’s now a film based on the story, but in getting there the journey really has to be seen to be believed. Spare Parts falls back on trope after trope but it’s not doing this to intentionally harm anyone’s image, least of all those of the student subjects. If anything — and here’s a more cynical way of considering the production — this is a career-booster for the Californian talk show host who has made a habit of providing ridiculous faces and fluff commentary on his show Lopez Tonight. Here he is putting in substantive work and it is appreciated. The actors portraying the students leave a stronger impression than Lopez, though and are the real stars of the show. Convincingly portraying the utter despair and turmoil that their individual situations have thrust them into, these relatively undiscovered actors will hopefully pick up some more work later on down the road.

Richard Wong’s gritty and saturated color palette tends to flick the dirt and grime of the Phoenix area in our faces with an effectiveness that might overshadow any other element present here. This world looks and feels real; intimate and often dimly-lit settings emphasize serious overtones that are otherwise frustratingly undermined by cringe-inducing dialogue and contrived plot development.

Spare Parts manages to sustain its enthusiastic spirit and reverence for not only Joshua Davis’ excellent in-depth examination but the team itself. It is a joy to see a visual interpretation of an extraordinary chapter in this Phoenix-based school, a school that has since gone on to receive global recognition for its technical achievements. However, that’s nothing compared to what these trials and tribulations have done for young Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian and Luis. How do you not applaud these kids.

george-lopez-in-spare-parts

3-0Recommendation: An uplifting family drama through-and-through it’s difficult not to root for Spare Parts. It’s full of heart but also filled with a lot of things that could have been done much better to limit the eye-roll factor. And why, again, does Marisa Tomei have to be relegated to such a restricted role? Ugh. I’m getting tired of this; she’s better than this! Or, maybe not? Cliched or not, this is a story that does deserve to be watched. I give it one-and-a-half Roger Ebert thumbs up (one of my thumbs is like, turned sideways . . . or something).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not adults, they’re kids. Every day in a hundred ways they are told they are worthless. . .”

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