Month in Review: September ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

As Green Day’s very own Billy Joe Armstrong once whined: wake me up when September ends. (I guess I overslept, because it’s now October and all the trees are thinking about getting naked.) If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world right now, Setbacktember has been a disheartening month, politically, socially and morally. But I have literally edited myself ten times here trying to figure out a good way of expressing my thoughts about recent events without going on a rant. I failed, epically. (If you want to read one of those drafts out of morbid curiosity, here’s a link.)* There’s already too much negative energy in the room right now anyway, so I’d rather talk about the good movies I’ve seen this month. While escapement has been rather difficult to say the least, here is what I have been seeing/doing/being a snob about.

It’s important right now to not feel de-feeted.


New Posts

New Releases: What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters); mother!; Wind River

Blindspot Selection: Reservoir Dogs (1992) · The nucleus of everything Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an economically produced, yet chatty and hyper-violent crime thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single room. Its plot focuses squarely upon a group of jewelry thieves who, after bungling a seemingly simple job, suspect a traitor to be in their midst.

Though rough around the edges, this bold and brazen feature debut demonstrates Tarantino’s EAR for natural dialogue, not to mention characters that feel plucked right from the seedy streets of a more dangerous side of America. While certain scenes that tend to ramble on offer a little too much transparency with regards to budgetary constraints (his overhead famously rose from a very modest $30,000 to $1.5 million after actor Harvey Keitel signed on as a producer and agreed to take part), these small-time, thin-tied crooks whose volatile, panicky temperaments make for often uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing, anchor the movie. They’re sloppy, but they’re at least icons of criminal slop. Between Steve Buscemi’s “I don’t tip waitresses” Mr. Pink and me discovering that Sean Penn has a younger brother, and can do C-R-A-Z-Y so disturbingly naturally it may not even be acting, I might well have discovered the one Tarantino movie I will constantly be surprised by no matter how many times I watch it. This shouldn’t work as well as it does.

(Also, why is Tim Roth playing a guy named ‘Mr. Orange?’ He spends far more time being red!)

A Four-Pack of Film Reviews

Good Time · August 25, 2017 · Directed by the Safdie brothers · The criminal life has never looked so stressful and unsexy in the Safdie brothers’ highly emotive and constantly subversive look at life as a desperate youngster trying to survive on the streets of a side of New York you don’t usually see in the movies. The film appears to provide rising star Robert Pattinson another showcase for his not inconsiderable dramatic talents, but what it actually does is offer the former Twilight star his best shot of Oscar glory in years. Possibly the best he’ll ever have. Gah, if only the movie had better timing. As Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Pattinson reaches deeper than he ever has to construct the profile of a truly desperate young man, a criminal lowlife who does well to reject every attempt the viewer makes to feel for him. Connie finds himself enduring a night from hell when he makes the rounds trying to free his mentally handicapped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a Rikers Island holding cell in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. The energy of the film is what strikes you most, radiating directly from Pattinson who rushes about the scene like a Tasmanian devil, destroying lives and burning out like a comet himself in the process. It’s quite simply an awesome performance and the film essentially lives or dies on whether you find him effective. The Safdie brothers are a duo you’re going to want to keep an eye on going forward. (4.5/5) 

The Big Sick · July 14, 2017 · Directed by Michael Showalter · A romantic comedy standing defiantly against the odds, this based-on-a-real-life-courtship offers more than just the deets about how Pakistani-born actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (screenwriter Emily V. Gordon). Cultures clash and toes are trodden upon — often painfully — as Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggle to reconcile their radically different upbringings along with the expectations heaped upon them both by family and society at large. This uncommonly emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening story is not always pleasant to endure. It often feels like real heartache, and that’s a compliment of the highest order when it comes to this genre. One of the year’s greatest surprises, and yet more proof that Nanjiani is among the more disarming comics working today. (4/5) 

Their Finest · April 7, 2017 · Directed by Lone Scherfig · Lovingly crafted and superbly acted by a likable ensemble led by Gemma Arterton, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s testament to the power of propagandistic filmmaking also doubles as a rousing tribute to the strength and courage of one woman who managed to ascend to a position most women living in 1940s Britain could only dream of — being regarded as equal amongst their male peers. Aspects of Catrin Cole’s personal and professional lives are rather well-balanced, though it’s undoubtedly her rise to prominence as a screenwriter on the production of an epic reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuations that weighs heavier here. While Sam Claflin’s contributions as an already-established screenwriter who initially struggles to curb his chauvinism are earnest, his increasing prominence threatens to undermine the film’s seriousness of purpose in its thematic explorations of female empowerment and independence. Still, Their Finest is just too finely acted to become caught up in the lesser details. Arterton is complemented by an almost exclusively British cast, with Jake Lacy providing some American color to proceedings as an Allied hero/wooden actor. (3.5/5)

It · September 8, 2017 · Directed by Andy Muschietti · The horror event of the year failed to strike fear into my heart (though that’s not to discredit Bill Skarsgård as the titular freak, who is kinda-sorta fun). A tediously long and uninteresting slog through horror cliches, Andy Muschietti’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel plays out like a haunted house attraction in which you are constantly being led around by a tour guide who tells you you can’t touch anything. (Out of fear of ruining the magic, I would assume.) As everyone knows by now, It of course isn’t over. Chapter One merely describes the initial encounter with a shape-shifting demonic entity from King’s imagined Macroverse, in which the teen protagonists must do battle with not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but a ring of local bullies whose threat often and ironically drowns out that of the central villain in his own movie. If only the kids (minus Jaeden Lieberher‘s “Stuttering Bill”) facing down their demons were in the slightest bit developed, maybe I would have been able to use my heart instead of my brain to get over Muschietti’s disappointingly workmanlike treatment. (2/5) 

Blogging News

More music might be in the future on Thomas J! We are drawing nearer to the one-month mark to my next Dream Theater show, this time in historic Asbury Park, New Jersey. That post will drop sometime late November. As we’ve seen lately with how I follow through on Blog-related promises, I can’t capital-P promise, but how bout I just lower-case-p promise for now?

Word.

* Ha! you got duped; there is no link, plus now you’re wasting time reading this!

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

Midnight Special

'Midnight Special' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Add Midnight Special to the short but increasingly compelling list of reasons to keep an eye on Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, an understated drama set on the bayou and one of a select few credited with reinvigorating Matthew McConaughey’s career circa 2013.

Yeah, no big deal. Nichols only ignited a revolution. (Not that the actor hadn’t shown promise before; McConaughey’s dramatic chops in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe are surely impressive but for the sake of argument let’s just ignore those right now.) It’s been three years since that much-talked about film and the spotlight moves away from the McConaissance and back towards the man in charge: what would he be bringing to the table this year?

Michael Shannon leads the charge in this brilliant genre-defying adventure involving a boy with a special gift that makes him the target of both a government manhunt and a religious cult convinced that the end of days is nigh. Shannon, in a comparably restrained capacity, plays a quietly conflicted man named Roy and is first seen held up in a motel room with his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). (I know, that pairing is almost too good to be true . . .)

They have a child with them, by all accounts a normal-looking pre-teen and apparent fan of comics we first meet wearing blue goggles and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. This is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher in an incredibly nuanced performance) and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s a victim of a kidnapping. We don’t even know what the men plan to do with him or where (or what) their final destination is.

What we do know is that the boy is precious cargo to both Roy and Lucas, evidenced in how they’re constantly shuffling in and out of the shadows between each location, and that his sudden disappearance from “the farm,” a closed community of religious zealots led by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer and whose female population adheres to a strict dress code (braided hair, long dresses and muted colors), is significant enough to warrant the investigation of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a brilliant young NSA investigator working alongside the FBI. In fact the government intervenes during what was presumably going to be another of Meyer’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and begins conducting interviews with many of the members, looking for any leads to the boy’s whereabouts.

Nichols controls the pace of his boldly original screenplay such that we spend much of the earlygoing not even sure where our sympathies ought to lie: the way the government agents threaten the cult with the repercussions of committing high-level treason makes it easier to believe there’s a serious situation unfolding here. (You see, Alton is thought to have prophesied a doomsday event based on a set of numbers, coordinates perhaps, that correspond to the dates and numbers of certain sermons delivered by Father Meyer — numbers he couldn’t possibly know.) On the other hand, Roy and Lucas fail to exhibit any signs of behavior that make us worry for Alton. But just what is their end game? And why can’t Alton be exposed to sunlight?

At its core Midnight Special is a chase movie that pits the trio — soon to be a foursome when Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, exiled from the farm years ago, enters the picture as a pivotal rest stop for Roy and Lucas late in the story — against a series of strange occurrences that threaten to derail their plans with Alton. There’s more than a whiff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his brand of romanticizing the unknown even as Nichols continues to ground the ongoing hostage situation in reality. But science fiction isn’t the only flavor you’ll find in this little cinematic confection.

As Nichols continues peeling back the layers, the thick veil of clandestinity falling aside to expose a vision that threatens to become unwieldy — but that which stays on just the right side of ridiculous — we’re treated to a moving family drama as well as a cliffhanger of a government conspiracy thriller, one that bravely explores the borders of where discovery and science mesh up against religion and faith. In fact Midnight Special has so much going on within its relatively efficient hour-and-fifty-minute runtime the temptation to reveal more nifty details poses a greater challenge than does the task of assigning this thing a genre. So many cool things happen that I want to spoil right now.

But I won’t. I’m not that guy. (Or am I?) No, I’m not. But I really, really, really, really want to. Suffice it to say that Nichols’ latest is just one of those rarities that get you excited to tell everyone, including the person you’re sitting next to at the dentist’s office about. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have for some time. I love Midnight Special, for everything it is and everything it is not. For all of the success it finds in challenging the brain while appealing strongly to the heart. I cannot wait to see what the guy does next.

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Recommendation: Midnight Special marks the fourth film Jeff Nichols has directed (and written, to boot). He’s a promising young talent that likes dealing in real, flesh-and-blood characters and intriguing premises that keep viewers involved from start to finish. It’s also a movie that offers terrific performances, the most pleasantly surprising coming from the increasingly hard to find Kirsten Dunst. If any of that appeals, you need to check this one out. Pronto, Tonto. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I’m always going to worry about you Alton. That’s the deal.”

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

St. Vincent

st-vincent-poster

Release: Friday, October 24, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

In St. Vincent Bill Murray is the sort-of-bad guy, and Melissa McCarthy is the sort-of-saint. The role-reversal almost seems self-congratulatory it’s so overt. But does that make this comedy a bad movie?

That largely depends on how you define ‘a bad movie.’ That nine-letter phrase can imply so much. So let’s, before the headache, establish that ‘bad’ in this case translates as lazy; predictable; easy. In which case, you might as well stick a fat check mark in that box. St. Vincent rests on formula when it’s strongest and tugs violently on the heart-strings when all else fails. Had it not been for solid performances (I suppose here’s where I could include ‘predictability’ within the parameters of ‘bad movie’) this unapologetically manipulative and downright boring affair would likely be one of the year’s biggest letdowns.

Bill plays a curmudgeon named Vincent — a veteran of some war (let’s call it the Vietnam War — that’s the one where American troops were appreciated the least, right?) who these days is more comfortable with a bottle of whiskey in hand rather than a woman. But he’s not completely stupid. He makes sure to exude the one other classic symptom of hardened-vet status: a fascination with ladies of the night. In particular, it’s this Daka girl — I can only hope Naomi Watts isn’t usually this annoying — whom Vincent is taken by. He manages to scrape by with a pack of cigarettes and his shitty home cooking and makes regular rounds to the horse track to pay off whatever debts he owes to whomever it may be.

Oh yeah, that reminds me: Terrence Howard is in this.

Vincent’s ability to wall himself off from everyone becomes a character defect best disposed of when the script calls for it; i.e. when young and earnest Oliver (an undeniably excellent 11-year-old Jaeden Lieberher) needs a place to hang out for a few hours while his hard-working mommy (McCarthy) slaves at the hospital to pay the bills after moving to Brooklyn in the wake of a nasty divorce. Credit needs to also be given to McCarthy who, for the first time in some time, seems to be caring about what she offers a film. She’s fantastic. She’s the rock currently holding the two together as she staunchly defends her right, as a good and basically decent human being, to entrust another person to look after her son while she tries to fix things at home.

Too bad her mistake was to loan the babysitting reigns to next-door-neighbor Vincent. After all, isn’t he a man still trying to make things work with a stripper? In a series of “unlikely” events — made actually quite likely given the grouch’s understandable routine of bars, booze, and race track backtrackings — the man and the boy grow into a weird friendship of sorts. Again, this is at the behest of this script. I see no natural development here. (Nor do I have much inspiration to go back and find it, either.)

While enrolled in a private Catholic school, Oliver is asked by his teacher (Chris O’Dowd) to find someone students know, or know of, who may have qualities befitting a saint. Well gee-golly-willickers — I wonder who our fearless Oliver is going to pick? Surely not the bastard who once guilt-tripped his own mother into paying for the fence (and the fucking tree branch) that the moving company she hired was truly responsible for destroying. Yup. That’s the one. Yeah.

In the same way I’m willfully dismissing St. Vincent as a hollow exercise director Theodore Melfi is trying to prove his production has depth; originality. It relies heavily on Bill Murray to provide the gravitas, Melissa McCarthy the humor, and the child actor the quotient of precociousness a film like this needs to survive. Well you know what? It all just fails. Nothing about it seems saintly or even vaguely redeemable.

bill-murray-and-jaeden-lieberher-in-st-vincent

2-0Recommendation: I really don’t recommend this to many. For fans of Bill Murray, go watch Ghostbusters; pop back in the Caddyshack DVD; Moonrise Kingdom; hell, go re-watch Space Jam for something that better showcases his talents. Just stay away from this if you’re thinking all things Bill Murray. Unfortunately I’m in a bit of an awkward position because Melissa McCarthy is indeed saintly here. She’s great because she offers a great counter-balance to the permanence of Vincent’s depressive state, which is something Murray sells to great effect.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “A saint is a human being we celebrate for the sacrifices they make, for their commitment to making the world a better place.”

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