Pig

Release: Friday, July 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Michael Sarnoski; Vanessa Block

Directed by: Michael Sarnoski

Starring: Nicolas Cage; Alex Wolff; Adam Arkin; Darius Pierce; David Knell

Distributor: Neon

 

 

****/*****

On the outside Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut appears to be ripe material for Crazy Nic Cage. This is a story about a man living in the woods who gets his pig stolen, then ventures into the city to find his pignappers. Sounds like the recipe for a future cult classic Midnight Movie — John Wick only with oinks instead of barks.

Defiantly, Pig veers off that beaten genre path and gradually reveals itself to be a much deeper movie than action-driven, bloody retribution and one whose concerns go beyond a missing animal. An existential drama paired with a buddy adventure, the story encroaches on some familiar territory — grief and loss, change and disillusionment are perennially en vogue themes — but if you dig below the surface of those broader ideas you’ll find a lot more flavor as questions are raised about materialism and commerce, the price of things weighed against the value of relationships.

Everything in this movie feels fine-tuned, whether it’s Pat Scola’s beautiful framing of the pacific northwest, the powerful emotive quality of Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein’s string-based score, or the near-palpable aroma of the exquisite dishes that come to bear quasi-supporting roles. But it’s the acting that tends to stand out. Truth be told, as headline-grabbing as its leading man is and though the cast sheet may be small, every performer brings their A-game and makes Pig a surprisingly absorbing experience.

Wisely calibrating the exotic impulses that have given rise to his larger-than-life persona, Nic Cage turns in one of his most affecting performances to date as Robin Feld, a respected Portland chef who has turned his back on city living for a more humble existence out in the woods. Subsisting on the outskirts of the City of Roses without so much as a cell phone, his only companion is his truffle pig upon whose snout he relies for some good eating and a bite sized bit of business. His lone contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), an opportunist who sells locally-sourced luxury ingredients to the highest bidder in town, hoping one day to escape the shadow of his father Darius (Adam Arkin).

Introduced as the weekly headache Rob must endure, the loud and brash Amir is quickly pulled in as a full-time participant, his foibles swiftly coming under the microscope in the same way Rob’s privacy inspires questions. When a midnight assault shakes up his peaceful existence the two reluctantly team up and head to the city for answers. The ensuing adventure pulls us into a strange, esoteric world through a network of back passages and secret doors, while the most privileged access remains in the conversations shared throughout — keenly observed moments that give us a good sense of who these men are and what motivates them. Along the way, a series of revelations threatens the tenuous thread of trust they’ve managed to build, particularly as the full complexity of the film’s relationships comes into clearer focus.

As the list of potential thieves shrinks and Rob’s desperation grows, the superficial setting plays just as much of a role as any character, human or otherwise. Steeping the drama in the highfalutin, pricy world of haute cuisine, Sarnoski turns Portland’s bustling food scene into an ecosystem teeming with predators and disingenuous types. It’s a cold, harsh environment where business is kind of like the Wild West — there’s poaching and territorial disputes and a sense of lawlessness. What justice there is seems to be out of reach for Rob, a ghost on the scene for a good decade who has lost all the credibility he once had. It’s not a flattering portrait of foodie culture but it feels, like the dialogues throughout, brutally honest. 

Pig could have easily been overcooked in the wrong hands. Slow but never boring, downbeat and moody without being overwrought, the movie surprises beyond its centerpiece performance(s). There is a level of elitism to its world and to the characters that could serve as a barrier to entry and yet it all feels incredibly relatable, in large part due to the compassion Sarnoski finds for his characters and the trust he puts in his performers. One memorable sequence finds Rob and Amir preparing a meal for a special occasion. It’s an intimate moment that seems to encapsulate the slow-burn sojourn as a whole: Pig is a labor of love, each morsel ultimately savored because of the time and care put in to the preparation. Movie title be damned, Sarnoski’s vision is profoundly human.

Trying not to stew over it.

Moral of the Story: Though perhaps not one for animal lovers, Pig‘s emotional realism and enigmatic character work make it an easy recommendation for more than just Nic Cage apologists. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” 

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.eater.com 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

One of the things that I really like about, you know, not setting any rules as to how I go about these actor profile things is that chronology is never an issue. I can jump and skip around in an actor’s filmography as if time never mattered (this post’s belated publishing is proof that it indeed doesn’t here on Thomas J). Picking and choosing roles more or less at random has been liberating. 

The time has finally come for a healthy discussion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (and thus far his only feature directing credit). Back in 2013 the amiable and ever-busy native Angeleno broke the ice with a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the sacrifices and benefits of relationships, taking a modern, sex-positive approach to the subject and the nuances thereof — the corrosive effects of pornography and pop culture on one’s expectations of real sex; the difference between genuine, emotional connection and the thrill of infatuation. 

Despite the film taking its title from the fictional and life-long womanizer Don Juan, a name used to pin down the general attitude of men devoted to the Lothario lifestyle, Levitt’s direction balances baser instincts with more complex feelings in a way that satisfies far more than it feels manipulative and cheesy. The cast is small but fantastic and, predictably, does great work with well-written characters.

Scarlett Johannson as Barbara Sugarman in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. (IMDb)

Character Background: Don Jon is a film with a strong personality. With it being set in a part of the country that also boasts a strong (some may say abrasive) personality, it’s no surprise the characters are going to let you know what’s on their mind, usually by yelling. Barbara Sugarman is a good example, a strong cuppa who isn’t afraid of dropping a few f-bombs in a sentence for proper emphasis. And really everything about her is emphatic: girl talks loud, walks fast and chews gum for the work-out. 

Barbara is a pretty shallow individual. She’s all about the artifice, how something appears rather than how it feels. One of the things that needs to be made clear is that Barbara is no villain, despite the character arc eventually pushing the viewer’s sympathies far more to Jon’s side. Not for nothing, she is very up-front about some of her principles. Don’t lie and everything will be all good. When Jon violates that simple rule, we understand her anger. What’s less reasonable is her expectation that relationships aren’t about work, it’s about comfort and pampering. Fine if you’re a Royal but in reality, at street-level, it takes two to make an effort and it would seem Barbara is putting in the wrong effort, or at least diverting her resources to the wrong cause.

Ultimately she is walking on a different side of the film’s thematic avenue. Unable to accept a man who prefers doing his own cleaning and taking care of his space, believing talking house chores is “unsexy,” Barbara fetishizes her knight in shining armor, attempts to contrive it in the same way Jon’s carefully curated collection of pornos has given him a far too specific code for stimulation. 

What she brings to the movie: Temptation. Sex appeal is largely the point of the character, though Barbara’s perfectly manicured image is also symptomatic of something rotten. Scarlett Johansson is of course the quintessential blonde bombshell but as this feature has gone to show she’s a talented actor capable of conveying depth across a diverse range of roles. So it’s almost anti-Johansson to take on a role that’s the very definition of the cliché of beauty being only skin deep. 

As a native New Yorker she also makes the thick Jersey accent easier to buy. It’s still affected, but is nowhere near as odd to hear as it is from her California-born co-star. 

In her own words: “I had romantic ideas when I was a kid. I don’t know, I always liked people who didn’t like me. I always wanted what I couldn’t have, and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is. It is something about our own ego, I think, it strokes our ego, the idea of the chase, the challenge. When you actually think about it realistically, would you ever want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”

Key Scene: An interesting moment, this one. Is this invasion of privacy? Or is that beside the point? Healthy debate time! Sound off in the comments. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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

Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of ScreenSlam 

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

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; www.nytimes.com 

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!

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.forbes.com

A Quiet Place Part II

Release: Friday, May 28, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: John Krasinski 

Directed by: John Krasinski

Starring: Emily Blunt; Millicent Simmonds; Noah Jupe; Cillian Murphy

 

 

 

 

****/*****

Speech is silver, silence is golden.

The old proverb has turned into a post-apocalyptic motivational poster in the brave new world John Krasinski has created with A Quiet Place, one in which survivors of an alien attack must mute their every move, their every syllable to avoid being gobbled up by these terrifyingly sound-sensitive invaders. When characters do communicate words and gestures carry weight. Sorry to the aliens, but it is the human factor — fear of failure, coping with loss — that is bringing audiences back for a second helping. The question is, was the prolonged wait worth it?

Short answer: an enthusiastic (but whispered) ‘Yes.’ The secret sauce may not have the same kick twice, for now we’re expecting unbearable silence, but Krasinski has great insurance against damages done by the element of predictability: He’s got strong characters (now handled by Part 1 scribes Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) and the caliber actors to take those creations to an even higher place. Big Tuna’s genius stroke, though, is in shifting the perspective to the kids, turning Part 2 into a legacy film wherein the younger actors have much more agency and influence over events. If the original was an allegory for parental fears of failing your kids, Part 2 swings the other way — Regan’s fear of not measuring up to Dad coming through in her damn-the-torpedoes attitude as she increasingly takes matters into her own hands.

More or less picking up right from where we left off in 2018, barring a prologue that gives us the origins of the creatures in chaotic fashion, A Quiet Place Part 2 wastes no time in justifying the big-screen treatment while along the way introducing some new faces and new albeit not surprising threats. Krasinski, who returns as sole screenwriter this time (and for a brief cameo in the film), sacrifices the intimacy of Part 1‘s more insular location for a larger playing board loaded with even more hazards, some of which truly catch you off-guard, while others might have you cringe for the wrong reason.

Jump ahead 474 days and the Abbotts, the world’s most resourceful family, are now on the run, bereft of Dad and the relative safety of their farmhouse. They are down but far from out. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt — Edge of Tomorrow; Looper), with her surviving children Regan (Millicent Simmonds — A Quiet Place; Wonderstruck), Marcus (Noah Jupe — Honey Boy; Wonder) and newborn in tow, is hoping, perhaps against hope, for someone out there to be kind enough to let them in.

They eventually come across a grizzled man hanging out in a dilapidated factory. It turns out to be an old friend from back in the day, Lee’s buddy Emmett (Cillian Murphy — Peaky Blinders; Batman Begins), now uncannily sporting a face covering and a shell of his former self having failed to protect his own family. Understandably he’s reticent to allow anyone else in to his safe space. Of course, uh, he does (otherwise this is going to be A Very Short-lived Quiet Place). It’s not long before the kids are getting restless and Regan, by way of Marcus, discovers there may well be other people worth saving out there. Maybe, upon uniting with them, both factions can help each other. Marcus, however, is not as willing to embark on a suicidal Stand By Me-esque venture into the unknown. And Emmett has made it clear there is nothing out there left to save.

A very likable cast goes a long way in offsetting some of the movie’s shortcomings. For example, it helps to have Murphy and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel; Blood Diamond) fulfill archetypes. While the latter is almost comically incidental to the plot, discarded in a third-act sequence that feels rushed at best, he at least brings a quality of calm to a movie where quietude usually does not translate to peacefulness. As a flesh-and-blood character Murphy fares better. His presence, which evolves from estranged, put-upon uncle to supportive father-figure, becomes integral to the sequel’s themes of perseverance and learning how to move on, especially when he begrudgingly agrees to return Regan to Evelyn.

Part 2 is certainly the louder film. That’s not a bad thing. As the narrative opens into a trident of nerve-racking objectives that finds each Abbott uniquely in peril Krasinski blitzes us with moments of pure thrill while never compromising the humanity at the heart of his story. In fact some of the best character work in either film can be found in Part 2, whether it’s Regan showing compassion for a man who clearly is not her father (skilled in nonverbal communication, possessed of the patience required to work through such difficulties in moments of high anxiety), or Marcus battling something more than monsters as he holds down the fort/furnace while Mama Bear goes searching for precious supplies of oxygen.

Superficially Part 2 doesn’t offer a vastly different experience than what we went through in 2018. I’m not sure it is actually a superior movie but consistency counts for a lot here. Thus far we have two films whose structural integrity very much resembles that of the Abbott’s old farmhouse: Plenty of reliable, sturdy support beams in the form of well-worn genre tropes but also a few really neat, custom bits you won’t find anywhere else. It’s those little details, the way Krasinski and company relate the characters to situations, that will make A Quiet Place worth returning to again, hopefully sooner.

Ya did good, son.

Moral of the Story: The rare sequel that truly works on a conceptual as well as emotional level, A Quiet Place Part 2 welcomes audiences back to theaters in exciting, chilling fashion while laying a clear foundation for more to come. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Run!”

Check out the “nerve-shredding” Final Trailer here! 

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.buffalonews.com 

Glass

Release: Friday, January 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

All the pieces finally fall into place for M. Night Shyamalan and his long-gestating superhero trilogy with Glass, in part a direct sequel to 2017’s psychological thriller Split as well as a belated return to the awe-inspiring identity crisis established 19 years ago in Unbreakable. Glass is far from perfectly polished, but against all odds the third and final chapter not only justifies its own existence, it justifies everything leading up to it, notably the ending to the last installment.

For what it’s worth, Anya Taylor Joy wasn’t the only one being held captive that day. I was such a prisoner of the moment, convinced the writer/director had just written and directed himself into a corner he was at the same time being pressured into by modern industry trends. But this knee-jerk reaction failed to take into account that Shyamalan had wanted to expand upon ideas established in Unbreakable years ago but just couldn’t get a studio to bite on a Part 2. In fact Split‘s compellingly deranged anti-hero was extracted from a ditched subplot in Unbreakable and in (one of Shymalan’s favorite things) a twist of fate, that film, unlike its predecessor, was immediately embraced critically and commercially. And now here we are, at the end of the line — the culmination of what we should, I suppose, formally recognize as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Not a very sexy name, is it?

Glass technically begins three weeks after the conclusion of Split, reuniting us with David Dunn (Willis the Bruce) and his now-grown-but-still-believing son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), running a little Bruce Wayne-like operation in the back of David’s own private security firm, with Joseph keeping online tabs on the seedy activity taking place in the shadows of metro Philadelphia while his father “goes for walks,” physically immersing himself in those shadows, brushing up against — well, you know how it works. We first see The Overseer, as he’s now known amongst internet fanbases, taking down a punk with a mean-spirited YouTube channel, confronting him in his own house and overpowering him by some margin in a bit of gleeful fan service.

The story proper is set into motion when David and the notorious kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are escorted to a remote psychiatric facility after a skirmish that spills out into the streets. Even though David successfully frees a group of high school cheerleaders Kevin and his multiple personalities (a.k.a. “The Horde”) have chained up in a warehouse, not everyone views his vigilantism as being in the best interests of the public. Kevin’s behavior is much less defensible; why they are both punished equally here kind of defies reason, but then again airtight logic has never been one of Shyamalan’s superpowers as a writer. Regardless, the pair are going to be having a little chat with a Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a very specific kind of delusion. The “I believe I am a superhero” kind of specific.

This of course is the same facility housing David’s nemesis, Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who, despite his near-comatose appearance, is under the most severe scrutiny given his propensity for manipulation and deception. Dr. Staple’s job is to convince her patients that what they have been experiencing are merely complex coping mechanisms after having lived through trauma. Yet within the context of the entire saga, the character — less a human and more a plot device, granted — represents an evolution in perspective. Unbreakable posed the question of whether or not superheroes really walk among us and it did so by comparing the naivety of Joseph versus that of his father; the point of view was private, personal, highly contentious. In Glass that perspective is systematically denied. Instead this is about an institution that believes it has the ultimate perspective. As the woman in the white lab coat suggests, if superheroes are real why are there only three of them?

If you want dissenting opinions, you’ve come to the right place. I was really impressed with what Shyamalan was able to create on such a modest budget, funding the $20 million project himself. (I wonder what my life would be like if I had that amount to throw at one thing.) Budgetary constraints are on display everywhere: they explain why we are for a large portion of the film trapped more or less in a single room with a “field expert” who enjoys bludgeoning her patients (and us) with medical jargon and bureaucratese. They explain the incident in the parking lot, the pistol and the pothole — the latter representing a truly creative resolution for something we all saw coming. Yet I can’t say the low overhead necessarily enhances the experience, either; it’s never less than a nagging thought that the film might have gone a different direction with just a little more money behind it.

Whether that would have been a more satisfying direction is obviously speculative. Going out with a bigger bang might have been more visually gratifying, but it would also risk violating the code of understatement Shyamalan has remained faithful to. As it stands, there is a surprising amount of weight that accumulates at an emotional and psychological level, and it is still the performances that make the movie. In its closing moments the actors are reaching some pretty spectacular heights (Willis aside, I won’t dissent on that widely-held opinion). I maintain that Mr. Glass is up there with some of Jackson’s career-best work, he’s a tragic and complicated figure. Meanwhile, McAvoy somehow one-ups his previous effort in Split by embracing even more of The Horde. In the process he illuminates his internal pain and turmoil in ways we haven’t yet seen.

Despite several blemishes in the script (inept orderlies, anyone?) and the fact Shyamalan reaches for but never quite achieves profundity, Glass ultimately succeeds in bringing closure to a series and a unique set of characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this is either a swan song or a magnum opus. It’s simply a compelling film chockfull with geeky references to comic book lore and the culture surrounding it, and it is arguably his best effort in nearly two decades.

“Do it! Say osteogenesis imperfecta one more time . . .!”

Recommendation: Glass isn’t the event film most comic book adaptations are compelled to become and that alone feels refreshing. Getting to see all three characters share the screen is exciting, with James McAvoy being a true stand-out. The story is absolutely steeped in the language of comic books (becoming super-meta at the end with certain characters observing how reality is merging with events depicted in the comics — a nice touch even if a bit silly), and yet I think there is plenty here to recommend to viewers who aren’t hardcore about collecting and reading comics.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This was an origin story the whole time.”

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

The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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

Beautiful Boy

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Luke Davies; Felix van Groeningen

Directed by: Felix van Groeningen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Everything.”

“Everything.”

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

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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

A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

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