The Scarlett Johansson Project — #4

We’re more than halfway through 2020 (and thank goodness for that), and yet not quite halfway through The SJP (thanks to a delay up front in Jan/Feb). In case anyone has noticed there hasn’t been a whole lot of organization to this feature, which I have actually enjoyed. There was a version of this where I went through her career in chronological order, but I like the freedom of skipping around and picking and choosing roles more at random.

So that’s how we are kind of circling back this month to where this whole thing began, addressing the second of two performances she submitted last year that brought her deserved widespread acclaim. 2019 turned out to be an exceptional year for Johansson, for there was this other bit of business she had to take care of with the whole Avengers: Endgame thing.

This month’s selection is the first adaptation I’ve featured in the SJP, though I may be using the word ‘adaptation’ loosely here considering how dramatically (and tonally) different the book and movie version of this story apparently are — to the point where by the time you get to the end of the movie you’re really only halfway through the book. This insightful article over at SlashFilm catalogs the many differences between Christine Leunens’ book and Taika Waititi’s movie. The movie version is more of a crowd-pleaser than the source material seems to be, but even with that knowledge I still found the movie uniquely charming and impactful. It didn’t crack my Top 10 favorite movies last year but it was really close.

Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. (IMDb)

Character Background: Rosie is a widowed mother who, like many Germans, faces a profound challenge. She is trying to raise a good child during Nazi occupation, to foster an environment of love, compassion and positivity — the key ingredients she believes one needs to overcome hate and oppression. That proves to be especially daunting given the power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Her husband has been KIA. Her son, Johannes, played by a very impressive Roman Griffin Davis, is coming of age and feeling the urge to join the ranks of his fellow countrymen. He imagines the Führer as his friend who gives him some guidance. To fulfill his “patriotic duty” he signs up for a Hitler Youth camp where a series of events leads to his ostracism and further compounds his mother’s despair.

But Rosie is more than just a single parent, albeit one with an unbelievably upbeat attitude considering the climate. She’s an active member of a secret anti-Nazi movement, her bravery on full display at various times throughout the movie as we see her disseminating leaflets across town, encouraging the townspeople to resist Nazi control. However her moral obligation brings the danger of the outside world into her own home when Jojo, after discovering the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) Rosie has hidden in the walls of their house, begins questioning everything around him — including his own mother’s patriotism.

What she brings to the movie: energy; compassion; strong maternal instinct. Johansson gave birth to daughter Rose in 2014, making the character she’s parenting in the film only a couple of years older than her actual daughter. Her tender portrayal of motherhood and her use of humor to cope with unfathomably dark times is a real boon to Taika Waititi’s vision — after all, his movie was sold to us as an anti-hate satire, not a straight drama or even historical drama. While the writer/director himself got most of the attention playing a dolt version of Hitler, she’s the movie’s best asset. Despite her sketchy German accent, she turns in the movie’s best performance and her chemistry with Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely wonderful.

In her own words: “Being a parent myself was just invaluably helpful to me. I had empathy for Rosie’s plate that I may not have had insight on otherwise. She was just a joy to play. She’s a warm, lovable character that felt really comfy to me. And I wanted that to come across, that she’s just comfortable and kind of sugary and warm.”

Key Scene: I really like this scene as it both encapsulates the sweet relationship between mother and son and the personality of the movie itself. It’s a small moment in a movie full with much showier ones but it’s also one of the few innocent moments we see between Jojo and Rosie, where they’re talking about something that is, for a lack fo a better word, ordinary. Relationships. It’s a nice moment because for much of the movie these two are painfully at odds with one another.

Bonus Clip (because I just love outtakes!): 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: LA Times; IMP Awards

Just a Quick Thought: Remembering Kobe Bryant

Sunday, January 26, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult and surreal day for hoops and sports fans in general. I’d like to pause my movie reviewing for a second to remember basketball player Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away a day after Lebron James, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed him for 3rd place on the NBA all-time scoring list. As Saturday night turned to Sunday, we went from historic highs to tragic lows. To say this weekend has been an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. 

TMZ first reported the news that the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar and five-time world champion died in Calabasas, CA Sunday morning in a helicopter crash that left no survivors. He was 41. The total number of victims and their identities are, as of this writing, still unknown. [UPDATE: one of the nine victims has been identified as Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.] The cause of the accident is currently under investigation. Reportedly the private chopper was en route to a basketball practice in the Thousand Oaks area.

The loss is felt far beyond the NBA courts and even the sporting world.

Bryant leaves behind a legacy of brutal competitiveness and inimitable determination on the hardwood. One of the first players to go straight from high school to the pros, the prolific scorer racked up an astonishing number of accolades and achievements over a career that spanned 20 years, five NBA Championships (three consecutive) and two Olympic Games (where he won Gold with the Americans, 2008 and ’12).

Notable Mamba Moments include being named back-to-back NBA Finals MVP (2009, ’10) and making 11 All-NBA First Teams, nine NBA All-Defensive First Teams and 18 NBA All-Star Game appearances. He’s responsible for the second-most points ever scored in a single game, dropping 81 on the Toronto Raptors back in 2006 (sorry Jalen). In April 2016, during his final competitive game, a home stand against the Utah Jazz, Bryant peaced out by cashing in 60 in a hair-raising display of just what he is capable of. It was the kind of end to an odyssey that not even Hollywood screenwriters could have concocted.

The accolades didn’t stop when he unlaced his sneakers for the final time; in 2018 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film for Dear Basketball, a heartfelt tribute to the game he loved, lived, breathed and slept.

It’s a surreal day, even for someone like me whose relationship with Kobe was more described by admiration than passionate fandom. It’s sickening to think we’re in an era without the Black Mamba. That’s plain wrong. Not since the loss of flamboyant sideline reporter Craig Sager in 2016 have I felt a celebrity death so palpably, and it’s really kind of silly to even say I’ve been affected considering I’ve never had the chance to even be in the same zip code as these famous people. It’s just another stark reminder — not that I needed one four days removed from the four-year anniversary of my own mother’s passing — of the true fragility of life.


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30 for 30: Seau

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018 (ESPN)

→ESPN

Directed by: Kirby Bradley

When ESPN Films announced they would be making a documentary about Junior Seau, the megastar linebacker who played for over a decade for the San Diego Chargers and who tragically took his own life in 2012, I figured pretty much right then and there it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to watch. Boy I hate being right sometimes.

I have no particular allegiance to west coast football. Maybe the Seattle Seahawks, but then that was when it was the Legion of Boom, when Pete Carroll, that wily old dog, still had in his bag of tricks Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and one or two other defensive monsters. I don’t subscribe to the 49ers and I’m certainly no diehard Raiders supporter. I am even less knowledgeable about the San Diego Chargers and, embarrassingly, Seau’s time there — what he meant to his teammates, the organization. He was a citywide icon whose brutal style of play betrayed his warm personality. Yet I had only ever affiliated him with the New England Patriots. That image of him facedown on the turf in agonizing playoff defeat is the most vivid one I have of him as a player.

Seau is a moving tribute to the man that gave me a better idea of his character, both on and off the gridiron. It addresses the challenges he faced in his personal life, coming from a large Samoan family whose lofty expectations, especially those of his father, and financial strife instilled in him a sense of responsibility from a very young age. The fifth child born to Tiaina Sr, a rubber factory worker and custodian, and Luisa Maugu Seau, who worked at a commissary in SoCal as well as a laundromat, Junior, naturally gifted as he was, worked relentlessly to develop himself into a pro-caliber player, ultimately going fifth overall in the 1990 Draft. Blending together blistering highlight reels with emotionally charged interviews with family (his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, along with his sons who have the VERY difficult task of reading to camera a few select entries from their father’s diary, which grows increasingly disturbing as time goes on), along with friends and former teammates, director Kirby Bradley delicately constructs a celebration of a life that must necessarily also look at the darker side of the beloved defensive linesman, attempting to make sense out of what happened to him in his post-playing days.

Only in the aftermath was it revealed one of the most indomitable spirits the NFL had seen in years had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which, once-upon-a-time, went by the somewhat less threatening name Punch Drunk Syndrome. The same disease riddling the domes of other former football greats who had either taken their own lives or had passed from other causes only for it to be discovered in them as well. At the time it was really only associated with boxers, but of course CTE doesn’t discriminate, for the cruelly sluggish, subtle incipience of the symptoms (forgetfulness at first, drastic personality/behavioral changes later) is incurred by repeated blows to the head, something that may be pronounced in football and boxing but is absolutely not limited to those arenas. In 2016 BMX bike rider Dave Mirra took his own life, without warning, after a lengthy career in which he sustained countless concussions. As of this writing he is the first known action sports star to have developed CTE.

What Seau isn’t — and somewhat surprisingly given its unique position what with the subject being both alarmingly young (he was only 43) and one of, if not the highest profile player thus far to have died as a result of CTE — is a savage condemnation of the league and in particular Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose lack of response to the mounting statistics linking football with brain damage surpasses naivety to the point of bordering on inhumanity. Perhaps positivity outweighing negativity is apropos for its subject, an upbeat teammate, devoted husband and energetic father who had time for everyone and then some.

The slow slide towards the inevitable is what makes this 30 for 30 a particularly disturbing account. It isn’t simply that we know the ending already; it’s all the little gory details of a life coming undone at the seams that is just horrifying to watch. News reports of domestic violence and of an inexplicable vehicular incident are brought back up, and for what seems like an eternity Seau feels punishing in its own inability to explain. To Bradley’s credit he intentionally does this, wisely sidestepping controversy brought on by forcing theories or summarily dismissing all behavior as a direct result of vicious football hits. This is a complicated story with a number of dynamics at play, both personal and circumstantial — new and unfamiliar stresses bearing weight on his later years, as well as the loneliness of his struggle, his inability to reconcile not just being a famous football player and deep down knowing he needed help, but specifically being Junior Seau — someone who could not say no to helping someone else in need.

In the end though, for as rough as the going gets, Seau educated me and the sheer volume of praise he receives from both his contemporaries and his former teammates (then-Chargers QB Drew Brees and retired defensive linesman Marcellus Wiley) proves that his sickness never stood a chance of actually being the thing that would come to define him. There is a beautiful scene at the end where scores of fans take to the cerulean waters of the San Diego coast, where Seau often went to surf and to be at peace, and the prevailing sentiment here is undeniably one of profound love. That goes a long way in off-setting the waves of misery we must endure along the way.

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“Buddyyyyyyyy!”

Recommendation: Seau is an emotional ride that will most immediately attract the attention of the Chargers faithful and passionate football fans on a broader scale, but I think this film also does a great job of telling the tragedy of Junior Seau from a fundamentally human perspective.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

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It Comes at Night

Release: Friday, June 9, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film that traps the audience along with two families in an abandoned house in the woods that, over the course of a slow-burning 90 minutes, turns into a cauldron of fear, mistrust and paranoia as they try to survive an unnatural threat that is terrorizing the world.

In his 2014 debut, the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama Krisha, Shults kept things in the family by casting several of his own relatives, including his aunt in the lead. It was an inspired decision that rewarded Shults with both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and plenty of post-festival buzz. His preoccupation with the family dynamic continues here, with the story centered firmly around a patriarch, Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, who must negotiate a tricky situation when he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are discovered by another survivor.

In 2017, Shults is keeping things brutally real. It Comes at Night is a punishing, indie-esque horror/thriller hybrid that proves to err is indeed human, except during the apocalypse, where it becomes pretty much fatal. The story remains a simple and grim portrait of survivalism. Shults spares not one second in establishing a tone of solemnity as the movie opens with the euthanasia of an older family member who seems to be in the final stages of something awful. Gone are the days of hospice care; now when they get sick we simply dump our loved ones in a shallow grave and light them on fire. Forced to take part in these unpleasantries, Travis starts to have recurring nightmares.

Preexisting tensions get ratcheted up another notch when a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) stumbles upon their remote outpost. While being interrogated by Paul, having spent the night gagged and bound to a tree, he explains he has come looking for water, that he didn’t know the house was occupied, and that he’s legitimately desperate. After some thoughtful beard-stroking Paul decides that at the very least, the newcomer doesn’t seem sick. He will travel with Will to trade for supplies as Will claims to have an abundance of food. Sarah suggests they bring Will’s wife and child back with them so they can increase their security against any future break-ins. (Plus, you know, it’d be nice having company around other than the Grim Reaper.)

Details of what caused the catastrophe remain sparse throughout the film. We don’t even know much about what it is that ails us, other than it’s contracted through physical contact. And that it’s bad. Really bad. There’s something distressing about the unknown and Shults exploits that fear to extreme effect, accumulating all of the film’s miseries and supposed lesson-learning into one spectacularly devastating finale from which you will need days to recover. It’s an admonishment for our predictable behavior, for when we, even in the most desperate of situations, just can’t help but try to fuck each other over. The nihilism on display is both tragic and refreshingly honest.

Recommendation: To be perfectly blunt: if steamy sex scenes as rewards for characters who have endured the impossible are what you seek from your movies, you’re standing in the wrong line. But for those who appreciate horror that doesn’t condescend or stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is harsh as all hell, they’ll find much to latch onto with this beast. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “If they’re sick, then I am too.” 

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

Embrace of the Serpent

embrace-of-the-serpent-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

el_abrazo_de_la_serpiente_2

Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

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30-for-30: Angry Sky

30-for-30 Angry Sky movie poster

Release: Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

Tom Petty wrote a song once called “Learning to Fly.” One lyric in particular stands out: ‘Coming down is the hardest thing.’ The song’s harmless of course, but that part of the chorus seems hauntingly apt for the experiences of one Nick Piantanida, amateur parachute jumper and all-around daredevil in the 1960s.

Angry Sky features the New Jersey chutist’s three attempts to break the world record for highest sky dive, using a manned balloon that would achieve a height of 123, 500 feet (20+ miles) above the Earth. On each attempt something would go wrong and, tragically, the problems only became more complex and life-threatening with each effort.

Because of the malfunctions, Piantanida never technically accomplished his goal of becoming the first person to jump from the stratosphere. However he did set the standard for highest manned balloon flight, a record that stood until October 2012, when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull in an event that has to be seen to be believed, successfully broke the sound barrier by falling 24 vertical miles.

Jeff Tremaine is once again on hand to deliver a story about sensational extreme sports enthusiasts, constructing an adrenaline-spiking piece that, while never revolutionary in its delivery, puts a very human spin on a story and subject matter that seems alien to anyone else not caught up in the culture and science of this kind of boundary-pushing thrill seeking. Tremaine interviews family, friends and colleagues who reflect back on the life of a man who could never be convinced not to do the thing he was trying to accomplish.

In some senses Piantanida could be viewed as a selfish individual. Attempting such a jump, not once but three times over the course of a year, necessarily carried with it the implication that he may be saying goodbye to his wife and three children on each occasion. The drama builds in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore a sense of egotism and impatience over becoming world famous.

Angry Sky has little interest in demonizing anyone. Its purpose doesn’t amount to calling someone crazy (even if he is). Like any documentary with its head in the right place, it aims to explore the things that make a person complex. You could make the argument he is a man of simple pleasures, always seeking the most powerful adrenaline rush possible.

But we’re also introduced to a guy who never quite grasped the concept of team sports. He could have been a great basketball player but he had to do things his own way. He joined the Armed Forces after high school and earned the rank of corporal. Afterwards he got into rock climbing, and with a friend established a route up the north side of the 3,000-foot Auyántepui, the mighty Venezuelan plateau over which Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, spills.

Tremaine manages to straddle the line between being specific with the information he chooses to keep and appealing to a broad audience. Skydiving is a rather obscure sport yet he knows it’s a pool well worth wading into. Piantanida’s story may be the first (and it may ever be the only) documentary on the sport in this film series, but that question, the one we’re all thinking — what makes a person want to put themselves at such a risk? — more than justifies the film’s existence. Why so high, Nick? Why so high?

Baumgartner also briefly features, and though he doesn’t say much, he offers some context for the ambitions of this young man. If his iconic free fall a mere two years ago was enough to take away the world’s collective breath — and it really was quite the incredible thing to watch — remember some guy had tried to do this with much less technology nearly a half century ago. Yeah, that was Nick Piantanida.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Nick Piantanida about to attempt a world-record skydiving jump

Recommendation: Obscure, but fascinating. Story may well appeal to more extreme sports junkies than any other group but it’s one of the more interesting stories detailing how a strong personality and danger-courting pursuits often go hand-in-hand. Well worth a watch if you’re into action sports. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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30-for-30: The Prince of Pennsylvania

The Prince of Pennsylvania movie poster

Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jesse Vile

The Prince of Pennsylvania, a collection of testimonials about the life and times of Pennsylvania-based professional wrestlers who were wooed by eccentric millionaire John du Pont with promises of pristine training facilities and room-and-board to go along with the unique prospect of honing their skills without distraction, will go down as one of the most chilling additions to the ESPN family of films.

This is a film inspired by the perspective of a Philadelphia native who had only heard about the fatal shooting of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, older brother of (also gold medalist) Mark Schultz, by word of mouth and through news articles. It was almost like an urban myth, how the benevolence of a local millionaire had completely — and rather quickly — deteriorated into paranoiac and violent behavior; how a self-proclaimed ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist became a cold-blooded murderer.

Director Jesse Vile, whose debut feature Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet was very well-received in 2012, knows his proximity to the event isn’t the driving force. Underpinning the emotional heft is the interview with Mark Schultz, a man with remarkable stoicism considering the kinds of things he has to talk about here. Naturally, his words are the most valuable to us as he’s unquestionably the source most directly affected, but other former teammates and even du Pont’s ex-wife help give the story its shape.

A pattern begins to emerge. Accounts recall a major change in du Pont’s behavior in the early-to-mid ’90s, almost a decade removed from Team Foxcatcher’s success at the 1984 Olympic Games in which the Schultz brothers both won their gold. Not that the guy was exactly ever ‘normal.’

Du Pont, the youngest of the four children of William du Pont Jr. and Jean Liseter Austin, wasn’t so much a born competitor as he was bred into one. Like the thoroughbreds trotting around the sprawling hills of Liseter Hall Farms, he knew no other life than trying to be better than someone else. Over time, his determination to be the best at something developed a state of mind that remained simultaneously unstable and vulnerable, susceptible to misinterpretation.

Case in point: when he approved Dave Schultz, the amiable, beyond talented brother to come to his exquisite training grounds and mentor Mark, du Pont struggled to accept the shift in the power dynamic, a shift he perhaps perceived and exaggerated. Du Pont insisted on being called Coach, and insisted on taking on members of his own team to feel as though he were a pro athlete himself. To anyone else this was plain self-denial and delusion, but to him these were all small victories. He had to win the battles as well as the war, though his behavior rarely suggested to anyone he was a General of anything.

While speculation as to what was happening in his mind will likely never run its course — du Pont might just be the walking definition of an enigma — The Prince of Pennsylvania‘s willing to try to delve into the physical reality, turning cameras to the trees and surrounding vegetation as voiceovers describe the man as becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea that there was someone (or something) on the property wanting to kill him. Lingering shots of du Pont staring off into the distance, surrounded by nothing but the walls of the mansion, are eerie and distressing.

Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher may have covered the same ground only a year ago but the documentary has a much more personal feel to it. Miller’s interpretation of events broadened the scope of what was happening at the farms to make a commentary on the nature of patriotism and national pride, using du Pont’s off-kilter worldview to lead viewers to a place they perhaps never wanted to go but had to if they were to understand the kind of situation wrestlers like the Schultz brothers had gotten themselves into. The drama has been remembered more for the prosthetics and the intensity of performances, and although Mark Schultz publicly criticized Channing Tatum’s portrayal of him, it will still make a great companion piece to this documentary, and vice versa.

The stories of both Dave Schultz and John du Pont are likely to haunt the Newtown Square area for some time. They’re both tragic and difficult to reconcile. Dave had his life taken away without reason or warning, and the man responsible will always look reprehensible by comparison. But the fate of a man who only had friends his mother paid for and whose success was measured by what kinds of trophies he could amass on a mantlepiece is pretty difficult to process as well. Du Pont died in a prison cell at the age of 72 in 2010 having been convicted and declared mentally ill but not insane. He was born into isolation, the same place where his life ultimately ended. The inconspicuous manner in which he died doesn’t quite compare to the wrongful death he himself caused, but it does prove the end of an arc that was only ever trending downwards.

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Recommendation: Dark and deeply rooted in emotion, The Prince of Pennsylvania serves as fascinating albeit upsetting insight into the infamous events surrounding Team Foxcatcher. As the Hollywood production proved, one doesn’t need to be a follower of the sport to appreciate the story. This doesn’t quite carry the dramatic heft of that big budget production, but it carries a weight all its own that is impossible to ignore. A great watch for those interested in getting a better idea of what this situation was all about.

Rated: TV-PG

Running Time: 50 mins.

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In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

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Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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Beasts of No Nation

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation represents another first for the mecca of online streaming media that is Netflix, becoming its first original feature-film debut, and a potent one at that.

Despite voluntarily sacrificing potential business, major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Carmike are throwing a hissy fit and refusing to screen the picture, deeming its online availability a violation of their exclusive 90-day release period. Too bad for them. While the convenience Beasts presents to anyone with a Netflix subscription suggests it will be readily consumed by the masses, its thoroughly brutal subject matter is likely to put it at odds with a great many subscribers. This is a film of almost impenetrable darkness, fabricated out of the stuff of real-life nightmares reminiscent of the Darfurian and Liberian conflicts. Needless to say it takes some courage to watch, at least without pausing.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing probe into a war-torn, nameless West African nation finds a young boy named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah in a brilliant and heartbreaking debut role) falling into the clutches of a rebel army led by Idris Elba’s sadistic Commandant after Agu flees into the dense forest away from violence recently visited upon his town, violence that has just claimed the lives of his older brother and father. His mother and younger sister manage to make it onto a cramped bus bound for the nation’s capital. Beasts is so consistently bleak that although we never see the pair again, we may as well assume they don’t make it there alive, either. I suppose it would help to be more positive and just assume the opposite, but who really knows.

Fukunaga’s uncompromising vision finds much success in a lack of structure, in unbridled chaos; this is a film centered around child soldiers committing war crimes that grown men would be desperate to forget for the rest of their lives. In fact, that’s one of the subtler tragedies evoked by the quite incidental fate Agu meets when he’s plucked out of the lush canopy by an intimidating man surrounded by kids of varying ages and threatening countenances. Watch how quickly the boy is stripped of his innocence. One particularly gruesome scene suggests Agu loses it in one fell swoop, yet this ‘initiation’ merely marks the beginning of the fall.

Beasts is somewhat aimless in its traipsing through endless overgrowth and through towns just like the one Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a mute boy with whom he bonds, have been ripped away from, yet there’s a method to Fukunaga’s madness. And that is indeed it — madness. The Commandant takes great pleasure in his propagandistic leadership, while the film zeroes in on the specific relationship he has with his newest recruit. We learn through Agu’s eyes how everyone else has been similarly brainwashed, convinced that it is the war that has done this to them and their families. The leader (who apparently always looks “all right”) has merely saved their lives and now they must avenge what has been lost. (Of course, he’s not a true malefactor without having ulterior motives, like earning a long-sought promotion, which, in effect, demonstrates the degree to which the guy actually cares about his troops.)

Beasts, which was not only written and directed by Fukunaga but produced and framed as well, manifests more as an unfeeling, journalistic observation than a damning political statement. There’s a part where the group is patrolling an open road and gets passed by a vehicle carrying what are obvious outsiders, armed with cameras and looks of horror as Agu and Strika flank Commandant while mimicking his thuggish comportment. However intentional the parallel is remains unclear, but our status as third-party to these atrocities puts us in that vehicle from which we look on, helpless to do anything. The neutrality works insofar as it allows the violence to unfold frankly and from all angles, much of it being dispensed by our tortured protagonist.

But that same neutrality clashes with the internal monologue Fukunaga inserts at sporadic intervals; Agu expressing on more than one occasion how he doesn’t remember time passing, that he fears God is no longer paying attention to him. His thoughts come infrequently to the point where they interrupt rather than compliment the perspective driven by camera angles and a focus on the dynamic between the follower and the leader. Regarding the latter, it helps that Elba is absolutely outstanding in this vile supporting role, but it’s a shame he all but disappears from the frame somewhat surprisingly. Fukunaga leaves just a little too much interpretation up to us by failing to bang his gavel and sentencing the bad guys to whatever fate they deserve.

Would a less ambiguous conclusion have made Beasts an easier watch? Of course not. And it wouldn’t have made the film any easier to forget. But it might have helped crystallize just what we’ve gained by trudging through two hours of hell. All the same, this is a project that displays great confidence in delivering gut punches by focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of war, and a part of the world that doesn’t receive the attention it ought to. Filmed on location in Ghana, this is a beast of a film.

Recommendation: Not exactly an easy watch, Beasts of No Nation represents a grim reality that mainstream films have for too long ignored. Granted I don’t think the concept of child soldiers perpetrating war crimes makes for an easy pitch, so good for Fukunaga for committing to it and for involving a quality actor in the British thespian. Amazing performances all around, in fact. If you’re strong-willed, you shouldn’t let this one pass you by. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

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Straight Outta Compton

Release: Friday, August 14, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Herman; Andrea Berloff

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 147 mins.

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

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