Jojo Rabbit

Release: Friday, November 8, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taika Waititi

Directed by: Taika Waititi

New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.

Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.

Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.

The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.

Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.

When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”

Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.

Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.

“I think it’s best we Nazi each other right now . . .”

Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”

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

Photo credits: Twitter; IMDb 

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Theater 

Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”

“. . . Party!”

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.variety.com 

The Upside

Whoops, wrong poster. That’s my fault. Here we go:

Release: Friday, January 11, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Jon Hartmere 

Directed by: Neil Burger

I am an unapologetic fan of Kevin Hart. He’s the reason I stood in the line that never was for The Upside, an update of a hugely successful French film from 2011 that goes by several names: The Intouchables/Intouchables and Untouchable. Of course, the added bonus was Bryan Cranston starring opposite him and in the role that François Cluzet played in the original. I have to cop to my own ignorance here: I wasn’t even aware this was an American remake until I started seeing the vitriolic comments bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

Well, in this case ignorance seems to be bliss with a capital B because while I laughed on a few occasions and generally enjoyed myself, in my heart of hearts I knew what I had just seen wasn’t very good. Yet since I have no reference here I really don’t know the scale of terribleness we are dealing with. (It should be noted that I have heard the name The Intouchables before, I just didn’t realize this film was a remake of that. Nor that the story was quite so universal — with Indian and Argentinian versions both released in 2016.) As a dramatic comedy based on true events, the American update neither packs a comedic nor dramatic punch — it’s a bowling lane with the safety barriers up, with the adapted screenplay by Jon Hartmere just reeking of unoriginality. Amiable, but safe.

Still, the upside here is I was right to use Kevin Hart as my motivation. He’s actually quite good, toning down his typically spasmodic antics to fit the part of Dell Scott (Omar Sy’s Driss Bassari in the French version), an ex-con who strikes up a most unlikely friendship with a wealthy aristocrat named Phillip Lecasse (Cranston), who has been left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. This is a genuine performance from Hart, who begins the film needing three signatures from prospective employers to prove to his parole officer he is making efforts to turn his life around.

Two are easily acquired with Dell making no attempt to conceal his lack of interest in actually getting hired, despite the fact his relationships with his son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex-girlfriend Latrice (Aja Naomi King) are in shambles. The third finds him “applying” for what he assumes is a janitorial position, albeit in the penthouse of a high rise deep in the heart of the city. Growing impatient while waiting to be seen by Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) — he’s supposed to pick up his son from school, you see — Dell jumps the line of interviewees and forces an awkward introduction, to which a wheelchair-bound Phillip responds positively, amused by his brashness. Dell’s got the job, if he wants it — this to the dismay of Yvonne who knows categorically this presently homeless man isn’t cut out for it.

The Upside is, presumably like its forebears, about breaking through those racial/economic barriers, crossing the street to see life from a different perspective. If the French film was criticized for handling such themes and ideas with kid gloves, The Upside is getting excoriated for bashing us over the head with them: THEMES! RECOGNIZE THEM! For Dell it is also a fight-or-flight situation as he soon learns that the position he’s ambivalent about accepting is about as far removed from the custodial arts (shout-out to Dave Chapelle!) as one can get. He’s to become a “life auxiliary,” a responsibility that will require round-the-clock care of Phillip, including daily catheterizing and other private matters. Initially he chafes against the strict rules governing his new role. Yet, the movie must continue on, in spite of Yvonne’s Three Strike rule.

Billed as the first true feel-good film of the New Year, The Upside is content with strolling down the most obvious, predictable avenues in all of Manhattan. There is nary a scene or character arc that surprises. Some of the writing is Razzie-worthy (Golshifteh Farahani being saddled with one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve heard in this young year). Hart and Cranston are indeed the bright spots, while Kidman manages a level of empathy as the third-wheel who eventually warms up to Dell — his, shall we say untraditional approach to being a live-in caretaker proving to be more liberating to Phillip’s state of mind than could have ever been expected.

The Upside imparts wisdom that’s forgotten as soon as the credits roll, though I can’t quite bring myself to say I regret seeing this. Sometimes it’s the company we keep in these ultra-generic movies that can make a difference. And Hart and Cranston, who clearly enjoy one another’s company on set, make that difference here.

Recommendation: 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no getting around how disposable Neil Burger’s The Upside is, but I really liked how predictably good its leading men are. Needless to say, if you’ve seen the original version you probably will leave this thing rather exasperated. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I’m sorry you gotta have a surprise party in your huge mansion. Some of us have real problems. I’m fighting to see my son.”

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

Queen of Katwe

queen_of_katwe_ver2_xlg

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

medina-nalwanga-and-lupita-nyongo-in-queen-of-katwe

Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

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

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

The Lady in the Van

'The Lady in the Van' movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

The Lady in the Van is really good if you like watching movies about the elderly, the homeless and the incontinent. (Spoiler alert: I don’t mind them.) Maggie Smith, who is the lady in the van, is a real piece of work in this British comedy about London playwright Alan Bennett and the homeless woman who parked her van on his driveway and stayed put there for 15 years.

Mancurian director Nicholas Hytner takes from Bennett’s book of the same name, a book that has already seen a stage production with Smith in the titular role as the housingly-challenged Miss Mary Shepherd. Hytner’s adaptation is a modest farce generally concerned with the struggle between two main characters as one fights for their right to be and the other fights for their right to be in peace.

The film was shot on location in the northern London district of Camden Town, at the very house and driveway where the squatting happened. While observing Shepherd and Bennett’s interactions, Van ruminates on a variety of personal and social issues, not least of which being the nation’s treatment of the homeless — controversy over squatter’s rights emerges as one of the more intriguing narrative cruxes. But it’s also a measuring stick for personal growth. Bennett seeks more recognition for his West End plays that aren’t doing so well. And like Bennett we would like to know what befell Shepherd to put her into such dire straits.

The film certainly feels like it’s adapted from a play. You can imagine the set. There are only so many people we keep seeing out and about and they show up in such regular intervals it seems a little too coincidental. The world feels oh-so-small and quaint and controlled as they come and go from stage left and right. It’s a piece that revolves around one unusual prop — her hideously yellow van (well, it was once a morose mixture of green and gray before she “painted” it). And there’s a brilliant narrative device that splices Jennings’ performance into two distinct manifestations: he plays Bennett, the perpetually distracted writer and Bennett the tenant, who is desperate to figure out how to get rid of the cantankerous old woman. Much of his time on screen is spent arguing with himself and Jennings really makes it amusing.

As much fun as Jennings is this is still Smith’s show. Dressed in layers of tattered rags and under makeup that gives the impression the woman has traveled many more miles and endured very hard times indeed, Smith is essentially mummified for the part. Visually its amusing (sort of) but even this wardrobe can’t conceal the gravitas of a performer with the kind of experience Dame Maggie Smith has. She teases out just enough vulnerability as a former Nun now facing life on the street, coloring a complex character with shades of empathy — if only just shades — that keeps us entranced, despite a lethargic pace.

Van isn’t anything flashy on the outside (save for that oddly out of place Monty Python-esque segment towards the end that takes place in a cemetery) but on the inside it is surprisingly cozy and well worth spending an afternoon with, unlike its titular character. She’s certainly no uptown girl.

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 7.44.27 PM

Recommendation: One for the Maggie Smith fans, The Lady in the Van pairs farcical comedy with heartfelt drama about life on the streets. Offers an interesting look at a transient way of life, a lifestyle that doesn’t make its way into too many films sadly (you might have to go to Sundance and other high-profile film fests to find more like it). Performances invite you in and consistently entertain, with Jennings making for a lovable put-upon and Smith a stubborn force to be reckoned with.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the carer. She is there, I am here. There is no caring.”

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

Eddie the Eagle

'Eddie the Eagle' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Sean Macauley; Simon Kelton

Directed by: Dexter Fletcher

Eddie the Eagle is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and good for it. It’s the kind of movie you really want to stand up and cheer for — and hey, maybe you even have. Did you throw some of your popcorn at those sitting near you who didn’t seem to be getting into it as much as you? I know I did.

No matter how you slice it, Eddie is a competent feel-good film, undoubtedly the product of its well-matched leads more so than the writing or direction. This latest reminder of the uniqueness of the 1988 Olympics in Calgary lives and dies on the chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton, the latter seemingly trying out something different from his break-out role in last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. This is a genuine effort, one that not only brings the best out of Jackman but makes it that much easier to overlook this underdog story’s shameless underdog-isms.

This is the dramatically (and comedically) overhauled story of British ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who dreamed of becoming an Olympian from a very early age and wound up competing in Calgary as the first British ski jumper in six decades. His story is retold with liberal dramatic license in this fun and charitable package that sees a young man fighting desperately to represent his country. Indeed, Eddie is not a story of podium finishes, it’s about establishing a goal, committing to it and proving naysayers wrong.

The Eagle had a lot to overcome, not the least of which his being a social outcast due to his peculiar dress style and severe underbite and generally being considered ‘bad for the sport,’ a sport that prides itself on image. He was also somewhat physically ill-equipped: he was extremely long-sighted and had to wear thick glasses that often restricted his vision when they fogged up in the cold and he was much heavier than the average skier which hindered his speed considerably on the jump. As if all that wasn’t enough, he entered the Games without any sponsorship or financial support, funding himself entirely through odd jobs as a plasterer, a career path his dad much preferred him take.

Even behind impressively dorky glasses the make-up and costuming fails to truly dork-ify the good-looking Cestrian but it’s the heart the actor puts into it that matters. Egerton carries himself with such dignity, his character’s unshakable sense of purpose unmistakable in this earnest and warm performance. We follow him to a German training facility where he’s determined to learn the ins-and-outs of jumping, an effort that quickly lands him in the hospital. His antics eventually attract the attention of Bronson Peary (Jackman), a once-upon-a-time ski jumping extraordinaire who has since turned to the bottle and now spends his days driving around a snow groomer at the very training facility Eddie has come to.

Peary is a manifestation of real-life mentors John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn who influenced Eddie when he trained in Lake Placid, New York. Peary is the quintessential has-been, and though Jackman’s talents are somewhat limited by the cliché, his backstory, which revolves around a fall-out with fictional ski legend and his former Olympic coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken), is just believable enough to earn some empathy.

After that obligatory ‘thanks for the offer, but no thanks’ phase passes Peary realizes he has a chance to redeem himself by helping Eddie prepare for the qualifying jumps. Despite there never being any such rule in place before, the British Olympic Committee implements a minimum 60-meter distance be cleared by all athletes who want to be considered for inclusion, the general consensus being this will be the end of the Brit’s campaign. Before you know it Peary has switched from the booze for breakfast to drinking cups of milk (just like Eddie) in an act of solidarity and pure heart-string-tugging moviemaking.

Eddie is very much manipulative and cheesy. A synthpop-heavy soundtrack shoehorns in nostalgia for a bygone decade as the production design and casting don’t necessarily scream ‘the 80s’ and there’s not enough coverage of the event, much less the Olympics as a whole, to genuinely place us in that time. But the music does and is perfectly suited for the cheesy affair — one training montage cleverly spoofs Rocky. The soundtrack also confirms the notion that the production has no qualms playing by the rules, unlike its namesake hero. It’s okay if you’re rolling your eyes. I’m (probably) not going to throw popcorn at you.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.56.53 PM

Recommendation: Eddie the Eagle isn’t anything you haven’t seen before but it is refreshing in the sense that it doesn’t obsess over winning as the only measure of success. In fact it hardly even pays attention to podium-bound athletes here and the framing of Eddie as a success story based on his never giving up is a quality more sports films should aspire to featuring. Not everything is about winning or losing. And boy is that a cliché.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 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 

A Very Murray Christmas

A Very Murray Christmas movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sophia Coppola; Mitch Glazer; Bill Murray

Directed by: Sophia Coppola

A Very Murray Christmas is kind of an odd package. It’s a fairly self-indulgent vanity project but only in the best way possible. I mean, how do you say ‘no’ to Bill Murray?

It’s a movie but not a movie; a musical but not really a musical; a short story without much of a tale to tell. It’s roughly an hour of Murray lamenting being left alone for Christmas Eve as he’s holed up in the famous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan as a blizzard rages outside, preventing anyone from traveling anywhere and from taking part in his Christmas Special in which he is to live broadcast a number of classic tunes for the masses to enjoy.

Then the weather intensifies and shuts down the production, leaving him to his own devices in the hotel lobby, where he slowly starts gathering random hotel guests and staff members together for an impromptu session of Christmas caroling. In essence, this is Murray’s way of saying Happy Holidays without resorting to social media. It’s a live recording of him nudging even the grumps into the holiday spirit. He starts off the film in a lousy mood and slowly overcomes his depression as said guests gather round in drunken merriment.

Despite the aimlessness of it all, A Very Murray Christmas is a good bit of fun. It’s cozy and will fill your heart with warmth come the surprisingly entertaining introduction of Miley Cyrus and George Clooney in a bizarre dream sequence that results after Murray collapses in the hotel lobby after drinking one too many shots of tequila.

It’s a who’s who of the Murray entourage. The guest list is rather impressive: Amy Poehler, Paul Shaffer, Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph, Michael Cera, Demitri Dimitrov, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, David Johansen, Miley Cyrus, Julie White, Chris Rock, George Clooney (he seems to be owing Murray a favor after Murray did Monument’s Men) and members of the band Phoenix all donate their time to the cause.

Ultimately this is nothing you will regret having missed but for the Murray faithful, this Christmas special makes one feel as though this is the closest they can get to actually interacting with the great Bill Murray. That in itself is a gift.

A Very Murray Christmas

Recommendation: Fans of Bill Murray are going to greatly enjoy this while anyone else who isn’t so much a fan are probably going to find it a chore to sit through. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 56 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t even know how to express my shame in this moment. The Murricane skulking down the back stairs like some $25 an hour, Twin Cities hooker.” 

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.theguardian.com 

The Road Within

Release: Friday, April 17, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gren Wells

Directed by: Gren Wells

The Road Within is far from a realistic take on how mental illness affects one’s ability to socially interact but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t incredibly uplifting and heartwarming. Gren Wells has created a wonderful pick-me-up and that’s all you really need to know.

I suppose I could go into more detail, else this would be the shortest film review ever.

The schmaltzy-titled film follows a trio of teens who break out of a mental health facility and embark on a three-day expedition during which they bond, sharing in their anguish and collective suppressed emotions. The goal of the journey is for Vincent (the emerald-eyed Robert Sheehan), who has Tourette’s, to reach the ocean and scatter the ashes of his recently passed mother. He is joined by his roommate Alex (Dev Patel), a boy of similar age who is perpetually overwhelmed by his obsessive compulsive disorder, and a girl sporting purple-dyed hair played by Zoë Kravitz. Her name is Marie and she’s battling anorexia.

Vincent’s father (T-1000 Robert Patrick), unable to cope with his son’s turbulent behavior in the wake of the tragedy, sends him away to this facility run by Kyra Sedgwick’s Dr. Rose, a counselor who means well but is fairly incompetent. Given her hands-off approach and Vincent’s determination, the mechanism for the story’s development still feels a bit too clumsy: all it takes for Vincent’s wishes to come true is for Marie to stumble upon his room one day, flirt ever so slightly with him, and then steal doc’s car keys. It’s fairytale-esque how easily they are able to break from their shackles (and a tiny bit naughty — she stole car keys, thief . . . THIEF!)

The Road Within doesn’t play out as something that would happen in real life yet the adventure is too much fun to dismiss altogether. It features an incredible performance from the young Sheehan, who I was convinced actually had Tourette syndrome. His brown curly hair a perpetual mess and his face beset with worry, Sheehan’s Vincent is hugely empathetic despite his inability to control his temper when his tics have subsided. The 27-year-old actor masterfully steers his teenaged character through emotional turmoil that’s in addition to his literal knee-jerk reactions and spasms. That it becomes difficult to watch on occasion (and listen to — be prepared for a stream of profanities in the early going) is a credit to how committed Sheehan is to inhabiting this head space. It’s easily the crowning achievement of the film.

Less effective, but affecting nonetheless, are Patel’s Alex, whose crippling paranoias have him constantly wearing latex gloves and render him unable to slap his newfound friends a high-five in a brief celebratory moment, and Kravitz’s headstrong yet visibly physically unhealthy Marie. Over the course of their adventure, one which finds the actors juxtaposed against the breathtaking backdrop of Yosemite Valley, their precarious states begin to act as a galvanizing agent — “we’re all sick so we aren’t that different from each other” — though frequently the development rings hollow. I simply couldn’t buy into how quickly the characters moved past their severe illnesses, shedding symptoms as if they were layers of clothing.

The story isn’t completely lacking in validity. Vincent finds himself attracted to Marie (naturally), a development that only compounds Alex’s sense of loneliness and frustration over his condition. While romance is hinted at, it’s wisely handled with vulnerability and even an air of distrust. And while the melting of Vincent’s father’s icy exterior over the course of the story as he and the doctor set off in pursuit of her stolen car and the three renegades similarly sends up red flags, Robert Patrick has the acting pedigree to make the sudden shift somewhat legitimate.

One need look no further than The Road Within‘s emotional conclusion to find everything that’s wrong, and right, with Wells’ handling of the material. It tidies up much too quickly and leaves viewers with the impression that the hellish travails prior to the kids’ rebellion will no longer exist; this is a happily-ever-after for people who sadly do not travel down such a finite road. Mental illness, like an addiction, is permanent. It’s inescapable. It’s infuriating. However, none of these shortcomings are enough to drown the piece. It may be sentimental and unrealistic but The Road Within is immensely enjoyable. It’s optimistic and upbeat, easy to embrace. This is the kind of film you’ll want to reach for when you find yourself enduring a particularly rough stretch, even if you may not suffer from any kind of ailment at all.

Recommendation: The film has its flaws — and quite a few of them — but this is a winning road trip comedy that I recommend on the backs of an incredible performance from Robert Sheehan (as well as Dev Patel and Zoë Kravitz). Upbeat and entirely inoffensive (save for the litany of swear words in the opening third), The Road Within offers something for all but the most cynical of viewers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know, there’s a clown in my head and he shits in between my thoughts and he forces me to do the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate moment. So relaxing is pretty much the one thing I cannot do.”

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.shaanig.org

TBT: Starsky & Hutch (2004)

Screen Shot 2013-11-28 at 4.45.09 PM

Okay, so while I was unable to cook up a post today that would feature a certain bird that we, as Americans, are entitled to gorge ourselves on all day today, I hope that the little symbol thing on the ticket above will suffice for “theming” out this week’s throwback. . . (And while we are at it, let’s not forget the millions of Native Americans we have trampled in getting to this point. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!) After cycling through lists of quote-unquote classic Thanksgiving-related films, it became clear that this was going to be a difficult post to keep aligned with the theme of buddy-feel good comedies AND today’s holiday theme. Also, I came to realize how few films on these lists I had actually seen. There were more than several that would qualify, but unfortunately these titles are only available for DVD delivery through Netflix so they wouldn’t necessarily be here in time to review for today. While Planes, Trains & Automobiles was my film of choice for today, I think what I found instead will do just fine. It may not be one that sits right with everyone, but it qualifies for the two things I’m looking for in films of yesteryear on this month’s TBT

Today’s food for thought: Starsky & Hutch

starsky_01

Release: March 5, 2004

[DVD]

It’s no hit television show from the seventies but Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are intent on making you believe that they can do it, too.

Annnnnd. . .to some mildly amusing degree, they can. As actors they may not replace the vintage nonchalance of the show’s Paul Michael Graser and David Soul but this contemporary match-up ekes out some pretty good laughs and even a heartfelt moment or two in this loosely-dramatized story of two cops who are first getting to know each other when they’re out busting up huge drug deals in the fictitious Bay City, California.

Much to director Todd Phillips’ credit, his film serves as a prequel of sorts to the events that occur in the four-season-long T.V. series, and as such this story is afforded a greater amount of playing room it might not have otherwise had if it were strictly trying to follow or recreate a particular arc or theme. Indeed, this does succumb to the typical unlikely-partnership formula more often than it reaches for great(er) comedy, but as far as buddy-comedies go, one can do far, far worse than this guns-n-girls “remake.”

As a ‘prequel,’ Starsky & Hutch takes us back to a time where both cops’ egos were largely unknown to one another; where the anally-retentive but street-smart David Starsky was ignorant to the particular charms and intellectual superiority of blond Kenneth ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. Part of the fun of this film is watching the two get to know each other better. No male actor plays ‘looking annoyed’ better than Ben Stiller. And is it just me, or is that crooked nose Owen Wilson has intentionally part of his charm? Either way, the two make for a largely entertaining duo when the plot kicks it into high gear, somewhere near the middle.

Hot-headed Starsky and cool-hand Luke. . .er, Hutch have been charged with chasing down any leads that may uncover drug kingpin Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn)’s ultimate plans for drug distribution in Bay City. He’s been able to concoct a type of cocaine that is completely undetectable. From one coke-head to another, I hope you know that this plot development is simply ludicrous, since the narcotic is virtually undetectable to begin with. This little nuance is something shiny and new that Phillips wanted to add to his story for want of not coming across as ‘lame, ‘square,’ or ‘unhip.’

Also, he thought it’d be totally groovy to give Vince Vaughn something to be upset about. When he learns that one of his drug pushers screwed up his job, he kills him and leaves his body to float up on shore (as they are out on Feldman’s yacht in the open ocean at the time). Insert Starsky and Hutch into the equation (i.e. the reason viewers should care). The two must find and track down the true source of the drug using any means possible: getting into a threesome with cheerleaders, peer-pressuring Snoop Dogg Lion into being a golf caddy, adopting completely ridiculous disguises for some freak named Big Earl (Will Ferrell)’s perverted amusement. There are some other good moments as well, but these are the events that come to define Starsky & Hutch, the movie.

As its own product, it does just well enough subsisting on broad humor and thinly-written, semi-poorly-conceived story developments to pass. A quick browse of mainstream aggregate review sites (Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, Metacritic) indicates a significantly lower audience rating than its critical consensus, and this I feel is owed more to the fact that this is an entirely different, standalone Starsky & Hutch experience. Stiller, for once is really funny in a lead role and his chemistry with the amiable Owen Wilson is what drives the energetic little narrative. It may not “feel” like a Starsky & Hutch adventure to fans of the old show, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this film shouldn’t exist, either.

Besides, that’s the worst case scenario we’re talking about. Most should find this a perfectly entertaining film that won’t involve a great deal of brain exercises.

Stiller and Wilson have an undeniable repartee in this modern adaptation, whilst unexpected contributions are made from the likes of Snoop Dogg Lion (damn it, again!), Vaughn (who really just chews scenery and acts like an asshole), Matt Walsch (as Eddie) and of course, Amy Smart and Carmen Electra as the two cheerleaders. The obligatory cameo from the originals — Graser and Soul — puts Phillips’ comedy over the top and into “acceptable” territory.

My shameless inclusion of this photo tells you everything you need to know about what I think of the movie update of the beloved TV series

My shameless inclusion of this photo tells you everything you need to know about what I think of the movie update of the beloved TV series

3-0Recommendation: Though it’s pretty obvious the film was made with an entirely new generation in mind, Todd Phillips’ sense of humor blends well with the classic good-cop/awkward-cop routine. There may not be enough here to convert loyal viewers of the show but for anyone interested in seeing ANYthing Starsky & Hutch-related, this should satisfy the Thanksgiving palate.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Do it.”

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

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

TBT: Anger Management (2003)

new-tbt-logo

Even though today’s entry is indeed an Adam Sandler picture, this one retains a little bit of value. At least with me it does. Until I am being overthrown by another writer on this blog, Sandler has a decent chance of me actually sticking up for his antics. . . just this one time. Whatever it is about this match-up, it works, and works well; though what comes out of this film is nothing unusual and nothing that wouldn’t sway opinion necessarily of the guy one way or another either, but somewhere in here there’s gold and it also qualifies as being ‘feel-good.’ 

Today’s food for thought: Anger Management

Anger-Management

Release: April 11, 2003

[DVD]

In this episode, Sandler gets tasered by an overzealous airline marshall, gets his ass kicked by a Buddhist monk, and finds out that his really cute girlfriend might have eyes for someone else. If this sounds to you like every other Sandler comedy ever made, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Thanks to Anger Management‘s casting director this film gets infinitely more interesting because of the pairing of another angry Sandler with an equally off-the-handle Jack Nicholson, as they star in this somewhat memorable comedy as Dave Buznik and Dr. Buddy Rydell, respectively.

After getting into a tussle with a flight attendant, Dave finds himself court-ordered to undergo several weeks of anger management/therapy. It is there that he runs across Dr. Rydell again — it’s the same man he sat with on the plane (who may or may not have started all of this). Making the mistake of assuming this guy is on his side leads Dave to think the therapy session will not only be easy to get through, but ultimately something he won’t have to endure. Unfortunately, things don’t go well during his first session and his temperament is revealed to everyone quickly. This is when Rydell recommends that the number of sessions should be doubled.

Under Rydell’s supervision, Dave finds his life becoming more and more oppressive. First he’s forced to partner up with the insufferable Chuck (John Turturro) and participate in some kind of demented buddy-system, wherein each person is meant to be able to vent frustration to someone outside of the class. Lucky for Dave, he’s been saddled with the worst of the worst. The two prove to be trainwreck waiting to happen, and indeed Dave snaps again at a bar, forcing Judge Daniels (Lynne Thigpen)’s gavel yet again. She demands that Mr. Buznik undergo intensified, round-the-clock therapy which would required Dr. Rydell to move in with him and completely overhaul his life.

As the movie goes on, Rydell steps up the ridiculousness with each of his lessons, requiring Dave to stop everything and anything that might trigger anger and even make audio notes of any progress he’s making. Apparently part of the treatment will also involve getting felt up by Woody Harrelson-as-transvestite:

Eventually Dave finds himself unable to tolerate the seeming injustices that are being done to him, as he doesn’t consider himself to be THAT angry of a person. He reaches his breaking point when Buddy suggests that Dave and his girlfriend (Marissa Tomei) take a break for awhile.

Anger Management is by no means a brilliant movie, but it suffices as a decent buddy-comedy that takes Sandler and Nicholson to some pretty funny places. It’s minor work for Jack, that’s for sure, but interestingly enough, Sandler becomes much more watchable when the two begin to really bump heads late in the film (literally and figuratively). Nicholson is clearly having a nice time collecting a paycheck and making up words like “gooze-frabba” and spouting out silly one-liners that seem to only enrage Sandler’s character.

The interplay between the two leads, along with some highlights from John C. Reilly, Harrelson, and Heather Graham works well enough to carry this film for an hour and forty-five minutes.

fucking-hilarious

3-5Recommendation: This won’t change the minds of anyone who’s already opposed to Adam Sandler’s school of comedy but at the same time, it’s not like this is Sandler at his most obnoxious, either. (We might leave that distinction up for grabs among his more dismal failures Jack & Jill, Zohan and That’s My Boy.) However, if you do buy into the fact that Sandler just likes to have a good time on-set — this must have been a real treat for him getting to work alongside a legend like Jack — and make movies about the good times he and his Hollywood friends share, Anger Management is a good one to pick up and talk over for half the time. Sometimes films are best watched half-heartedly.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

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