WHITE BOY RICK (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When “based on a true story” appears, we can usually bank on either a hero or criminal as the subject. A good person, or a bad one. With this story, we get a teenager who is basically a good kid, but one who does bad things for what he believes are good reasons. It’s likely to test your empathy and judgment. Director Yann Demange (’71) brings us the story of young Richard (Rick) Wershe, Jr through a script from writers Andy Weiss and brothers Noah and Logan Miller.

We begin in 1984, the height of the “Just Say No” era, when Rick (a terrific debut by newcomer Richie Merritt) is a 14 year old living near poverty with his dad and older sister. Mom walked out years ago. Rick helps his dad in the firearm resale business (some legal, some not). Richard Wershe, Sr is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is outstanding as the dreamer who desperately wants a better life for himself and his kids. Unfortunately, the man simply lacks the capacity to do better. Sister Dawn is played by Del Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), and Dawn is an addict who leaves/escapes home with her boyfriend. This is most definitely not “The Brady Bunch”.

Detroit was in the midst of a rapid and tragic decline, and the east side where Rick lived had already hit bottom with crime, violence, drugs and poverty. Rick’s teenage resume would read firearms dealer, known gang associate, FBI informant, gunshot victim, cash-flowing drug dealer, baby daddy, rescuer of sister, and server of life sentence. It was quite a run for someone who hadn’t yet celebrated birthday number 20.

Director Demange shows us how two sides were played against the middle, with Rick being stuck in the middle with no hope for escape. We even see a TV clip of SERPICO for a bit of foreshadowing into life as an informant. What makes the film work, beyond the remarkable true story, is how each of the main characters is humanized to the point that we understand what makes them tick. Dad (McConaughey) is a dreamer who thinks he can sell enough guns to finance a chain of video stores that will be successful enough to keep his family together. Daughter Dawn tries to escape her “loser” dad by numbing herself with drugs and running off with the first guy that will take her. Son Rick takes advantage of his ability to create trust by trying to serve his father, a drug kingpin, the FBI, and himself. These three all seem to have good hearts and best intentions, but nothing every really works out for them – despite dad being a glass-half-full kind of guy

This is also a story of contrasts … especially between black and white in many situations. We learn the difference between ‘black jail time’ and ‘white jail time’, and the FBI obviously chose Rick because he was a white kid who infiltrated a black crime ring – he even gets invited to the local skating rink to hangout, and to Las Vegas for a Tommy Hearns fight. There is also the way Richard Sr sees himself as “above” the criminals as he protests the proliferation and danger of drugs, while then turning around and selling guns to those who peddle drugs. Selective morality.

The FBI recruits Rick to feed them information by threatening to arrest his dad. He is coerced into the world of selling drugs and then later railroaded by the Feds so that they could wash their hands and walk away “clean”. Because of their influence, Rick is later sentenced to life in prison for non-violent offenses. Of course, he was surrounded by violence, and even the victim of it, but it begs the question of whether the punishment fit the crime. We are never sure if we should feel empathy for Rick, disgust at the system, or frustrated and fed up with a society that set this into motion.

The supporting cast runs deep. Bruce Dern and the rarely seen Piper Laurie are Rick’s grandparents, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane play the influential FBI agents. This marks a 25 year reunion for McConaughey and Cochrane from their appearance in DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Also appearing are RJ Cyler (“I’m Dying Up Here”) as Rick’s friend Boo, Brian Tyree Henry as a detective, and Eddie Marsan and Jonathan Majors as drug dealers.

A surprising amount of humor is mixed in with the gritty crime stuff and family struggles. There is even a comical FOOTLOOSE moment at the drive-in – providing yet another contrast between blacks and whites. Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (“71) works wonders in some of the least appealing settings you’ll likely find in a movie, and his approach perfectly complements our personal conflicts on who to pull for throughout this quagmire.

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THE CHILDREN ACT (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are some actors who are so talented that they elevate most any material to a watchable status. Emma Thompson is one of the few. She is an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and for Best Actress (HOWARD’S END), and her career is comprised of interesting characters … many made so because of her performance. The film is directed by Richard Eyre, who has two terrific films in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006) and IRIS (2001), and adapted from his own novel by Ian McEwan (ATONEMENT, ON CHESIL BEACH).

We are introduced to British High Court Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) as she announces her opinion on a case involving conjoined twins. As an expert in family law cases, Judge Maye is respected for fairness and decisiveness. Just as the reality of her crumbling marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) hits, she is drawn into yet another case where emotions (and media) are running high. Adam (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK) is in dire need of a blood transfusion, which his Jehovah’s Witness religion and parents will not allow.

It’s at this point that we believe we are in for a stressful courtroom drama facing religious intricacies. However, there is very little to the court case – only the highly unusual step of the judge visiting the sick minor in the hospital. The highly anticipated moral dilemma never unfolds, and instead we get an oddball friendship, ever-creepier stalking sequence, and emotional unmasking. It’s a bit of a letdown. Are we to believe that Judge Fiona Maye is conflicted about anything?  She doesn’t appear to be. She made up her mind to focus on work, and only seemed to have forgotten to mention this to her husband, whose wants push him towards infidelity.

Jason Watkins has a terrific turn as Nigel, the judge’s meticulous assistant who is there in good times and bad. The story could be viewed from a woman’s perspective on how the dedication to career comes with a cost, but that same cost would likely be paid by a man in this situation as well. The title of the film is specific to a British law in dealing with aspects of minors, making the court case even less suspenseful than we might think. It’s not a courtroom drama per se, and it doesn’t dive deep enough to be a look at a dysfunctional marriage, and it’s simply too bland to be the study of a workaholic carrying guilt over never having kids – shouldn’t this issue have been resolved by now, given the age of this couple? It’s a crazy “R” rating over one line of dialogue, and it’s really Ms. Thompson’s performance that provides the only reason to see the film.

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A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the vein of Gillian Flynn/David Fincher’s GONE GIRL and Paula Hawkins/Tate Taylor’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN comes yet another vanishing woman mystery. This latest is based on Darcey Bell’s novel (screenplay by Jessica Sharzer), only this time the biggest twist comes with the selection of Paul Feig as director. That’s right, the director best known for BRIDESMAIDS and other comedies, tackles a ‘whodunit and what did they do’.

Neurotic Mommy Vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mother to a young son, and she’s the overly perky and perfect mom that causes other parents to sneer and snark behind her back. She’s also so desperate for human connection that she’s willing to befriend Emily (Blake Lively), the martini-guzzling fashion industry executive who is a hands-off mother to Stephanie’s son’s friend. We soon learn that martinis and playdates shouldn’t be mixed.

Stephanie and Emily share dark, personal secrets. Emily discusses the financial woes she and her husband Sean (Henry Golding, CRAZY RICH ASIANS) are experiencing, even though they live in an ultra-modern mansion. He had success with his first novel, but has been hit with writer’s block since marrying Emily. Those secrets pale in comparison to what Stephanie unloads, leading Emily to anoint her with a crass (though quite accurate) label that no one would relish. Of course we later uncover Emily’s truly dark (and deadly) secrets go far beyond possible late payments on the mortgage.

As the two ladies bond, we get the feeling that Emily is playing some type of game with the always-cheerful Stephanie, though to what end we aren’t sure. One day, Stephanie does Emily a “favor” and then Emily disappears without a trace or word. The days pass and a sexual energy develops between Stephanie and Sean, while Stephanie users her Vlog as a tool in her amateur sleuthing.

It’s tough enough to pull off a mystery, but a mystery-comedy is nearly the unicorn of cinema. Director Feig is at his best in the comedic moments – especially those featuring banter between Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Lively. Their scenes together are the highlights of the film … well, those and the French pop soundtrack, including “Ca S’est Arrange” over an opening credit sequence that is itself, worthy of admission. The film is oddly structured, yet still entertaining. Act I is really a dark comedy and budding friendship between polar opposite personality types, while the rest is a messy mystery with some interesting elements.

Strong support work comes courtesy of Andrew Rannells, Aparla Nancherla, Kelly McCormack, and Jean Smart, though two standouts are Rupert Friend (“Homeland”) as Emily’s boss and a character seemingly straight out of ZOOLANDER, and Linda Cardellini (“Bloodlines”) as an unhinged artist tied to Emily’s past. The downside is that most of these scenes add to the comedy-sketch feel, which clashes so harshly with the mystery element that the sharp edge needed in the script becomes quite dulled.

Most every director dreams of being Hitchcockian, and that dream tends to push them towards this genre. Unfortunately, most end up disappointed, their films end up disappointing, and the genius and difficulty of what Hitchcock achieved is reinforced. It’s clear Director Feig is a fan of the genre, as he includes nods to DIABOLIQUE, GASLIGHT, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and even Nancy Drew. However, acknowledging classic noir isn’t enough to qualify for the label. The film has its moments, Ms. Kendrick is once again stellar in her role, and most viewers will find it entertaining despite the messiness.

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AMERICAN CHAOS (2018, doc)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Politics in the United States is an embarrassment to any citizen who is paying attention these days. And by “these days”, I’m referring to at least a couple of generations, if not even more. The bickering between and within political parties is more closely related to playground arguments than debates among statesmen. The most effective wall being built is the one between the two sides – it’s a wall that has little to do with reason or “the greater good”, and everything to do with standing steadfast in one’s belief that an opinion is a fact that should be shared by all. Enter stage and film producer Jim Stern … a self-described political junkie.

Mr. Stern grew up in a house of “Kennedy Democrats” and all but worships former President Barack Obama. He opens his film with clips of past Presidents, dating back to Theodore Roosevelt, and states his purpose as a desire to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump. It’s an admirable mission, and Mr. Stern is to be commended as one of the few extremists (on either side) willing to listen to what the other side is saying. It’s 9 weeks after the election, and Stern is in the audience for Obama’s farewell speech. He (Stern) has tears in his eyes, as the man he so admires is being replaced by one who inspires little faith or respect.

We now flashback to 6 months prior to the election. Stern paraphrases Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and pledges to try and understand the other side by getting to know their point of view. His road trip takes him from Florida to Cleveland to West Virginia to Arizona. Stern’s approach is to present himself as a neutral interviewer so that folks don’t get defensive, and instead just open up about their views. He speaks to a man who is a legal immigrant from Cuba, a Midwest Pastor who is every bit as adamant in his beliefs as Stern is in his own, a conservative radio talk show host in Arizona who eloquently states her case, and folks in West Virginia who just want the coal mines back up and running so that they might escape poverty. One of the men he speaks with is part of the infamous Hatfields and McCoys feud, and he admits to voting for Obama twice – but is now convinced Trump is the best hope for rescuing the state’s economy.

Stern uses the ongoing campaign as the structure for his road trip and story, and doesn’t shy away from admitting Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech was a turning point … as was the last minute renewing of the FBI investigation into her actions. But since we know all of that, what is most fascinating here is listening to regular folks … voters … providing insight into their viewpoints. These mid-America citizens are tired of politicians being bought and sold. Trump was saying what these people were thinking – he was reaching out to (mostly white) disaffected voters. Stern is stunned at the ovation Trump receives at the Republican convention in Cleveland. He is surrounded by tens of thousands of Americans who don’t believe what he believes. It’s a powerful moment for him and the film.

“They hate her (Hillary) and they hate Obama too.” Stern is hit with the harsh reality that his idol is not idolized by all. His most accurate statement is that blue state voters and red state voters simply do not understand each other. With so many of one group clustered in California and the northeast, while the others are spread across the middle of the country, it’s really no surprise that these citizens have different views and needs. It’s also not surprising that since the “mainstream media” is equally clustered in those two geographic areas, that information distributed is skewed towards those views and issues. Abortion and gay rights appear to be non-factors in his discussions, while jobs, corruption and illegal immigration are what matter.

Again, Mr. Stern is to be commended for letting these citizens speak their mind. It’s a nice contrast to another high profile documentarian renowned for editing to prove his own well-publicized views. Stern’s brother was a key negotiator in the Paris Accord, so he certainly has a personal stake in the drastic political change. In fact, we often see his true emotions despite his ability to remain impartial to those speaking on camera. Election night with violin music is a bit too much, but for the most part, Jim Stern and Atticus Finch work together here to enlighten the “other” side.

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ANOTHER TIME (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dating back to H.G. Wells’ 1895 book and 1960 film THE TIME MACHINE, time travel has long been a favorite and familiar trope for filmmakers and writers. It’s been a central topic for comedies (BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE), science fiction (LOOPER, INTERSTELLAR), oddities (PLANET OF THE APES, DONNIE DARKO), adventures (BACK TO THE FUTURE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), and romance (SOMEWHERE IN TIME, ABOUT TIME).

Since time travel has crossed many genres, it only makes sense that a filmmaker looking to tackle the topic would understand something new must be brought to the party, if a new project can hope to have any appeal. Director/writer Thomas Hennessy and co-writer Scott Kennard attempt to blend romance with a dose of science and philosophy, but unfortunately, even as a low budge B-movie, it just comes across as a lackluster effort with a too-simple script. I’m not familiar with director Hennessy’s TV work on “Bugmashers” and “Ten for the Chairman”, but his background as a cinematographer should have at least resulted in a more visually impactful film.

Justin Hartley (“This is Us”) stars as Eric Lazifer, a successful Account Manager who saves his money, watches science shows on TV, and is easily “bored” by the married women who hit on him in bars. So, Eric is a fiscally conservative Brainiac who looks like a male model … clearly a rough way to go through life. Eric’s best bud Kal (James Kyson) serves as the comic relief, and is one of the few who bring some energy to their role. A recent company acquisition has Eric’s boss (Mark Valley) mandating he iron out the details with that firm’s leader Julia, played by Crishell Stause (Mr. Hartley’s real life wife).

It’s pretty easy to see where this is headed. Eric falls hard for Julia. However, she fails to swoon for his ice cream-philosophy-romance recipe since she is already engaged to a great guy. So Eric does what any guy would do … he tracks down disgraced Physics professor  Dr Joseph Goyer (Alan Pietruszewski) so that Eric can travel back in time to meet Julia before she connects with her fiancé. It’s a solid and logical plan with very little chance for something to go wrong (!). If the story was ever on track, it’s here that it really flies off the rails. Watching Eric assist the Physics expert with solving unsolvable equations is just a bit too much.

On the bright side, this segment allows Eric to meet a bartender named Ally, played by Arielle Kebbell. Ms. Kebbell definitely brings a welcome screen presence to this otherwise uninspired project. The soap opera look and feel likely relegate this one to the world of streaming, where, if it’s lucky, it might find some time travel obsessed viewers.

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HAL (2018, doc)

September 6, 2018

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There may never have been a director with a comparable streak of 6 films in terms of quality and variety as Hal Ashby delivered between 1971 and 1979. At least 4 of those films would be included on a list of my all-time favorites. Ashby was a maverick filmmaker during an era when filmmaking style and tone shifted, and he was at least partially responsible for some of that change. Amy Scott (fittingly trained as a film editor) chose to make Ashby the subject of her directorial debut, and we can only assume her admiration for his work and curiosity about his later career was her inspiration.

HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), THE LAST DETAIL (1973), SHAMPOO (1975), BOUND FOR GLORY (1976), COMING HOME (Best director nomination, 1978), and BEING THERE (1979) are the films that comprise the aforementioned “streak”, and are also the projects that afforded Ashby the opportunity to work with such industry talents as writers Robert Towne, Jerzy Kosinski, and Waldo Salt; cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Michael Chapman, and Caleb Deschanel; and actors such as Ruth Gordon, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Lee Grant, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, and Peter Sellers. All of these folks contributed to the edge in independent filmmaking that arose in the 70’s.

Director Scott works diligently to paint a full portrait of Ashby the man, so that we might better understand the odd career arc. A challenging early family life pushed him to grow up too fast, and with 5 marriages balanced by 5 divorces, it’s likely that Ashby was never destined to be a settled down family man. His drug addictions served to undermine what was already his difficult and demanding style on set, and his trademark look of long scraggily hair and unkempt beard ensured he was never mistaken for an industry insider.

Much of what we learn comes from the voice of Ashby himself, courtesy of audio tapes. Other insights and remembrances come from interviews with: Judd Apatow, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Lisa Cholodenko, Caleb Deschanel, Jane Fonda, Lou Gossett, Lee Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Alexander Payne, David O Russell, Cat Stevens, Jon Voight, and Haskell Wexler. We also hear from legendary director Norman Jewison, who gave Ashby his first job as film editor. Ashby later won an Oscar for Best Editor on Jewison’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) … and the clip shown of him accepting the award highlights a man who barely resembles the man we would come to recognize over the next few years.

We learn that his ever-present battle with studio executives likely led to his not getting the opportunity to direct TOOTSIE, and more importantly to me, we get an explanation of what happened to Ashby’s 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) – a film I always thought was oh-so-close to being a great 80’s movie, but instead was a bit of a mess. And now we know why. There may not be a more revered and respected filmmaker and influencer of other filmmakers … certainly not one who is less discussed. Ashby’s BEING THERE ranks with the very best political satires of all-time (yes, even DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB), and few could juggle comedy and drama any better. Hal Ashby died from cancer in 1988 at age 59. Was it his uncompromising manner or was it the effects of drugs that brought his career to a halt, and prevented him from achieving the blockbuster status of his peers Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg? We’d like to think it’s the age old ‘art vs. commerce’ argument, but that simply doesn’t hold up. Regardless, for a few years, no one did it better than Hal Ashby, and he did it his way.

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THE WIFE (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. THE STEPFORD WIVES was stocked with some men’s ideal of the perfect spouse … attractive, dutiful, always ready to serve. In director Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of the novel by Meg Wolitzer (screenplay by Jane Anderson), Joan Castleman is all of that and more as she constantly caters to her literary giant of a husband, writer Joe Castleman. It’s 1992 in coastal Connecticut, and in only a few days, things will change dramatically for Mr. and Mrs. Castleman.

When we first meet this long married couple, they are in bed – she’s sleeping soundly, while he’s full of anxiety and anticipation over a phone call that may or may not happen. See, Joe is up for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and when the early morning call from Stockholm does come, Joe eagerly prompts Joan to listen in on the extension (it’s 1992, so these are land lines). As the authoritative voice on the other end announces Joe’s prize, it’s the look on Joan’s face that tells us that, for her, this is no celebratory moment. The facial expression is quite powerful, and it’s our first inclination that 6 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close (as Joan Castleman) is delivering a performance as memorable as her work in DANGEROUS LIASONS and FATAL ATTRACTION (only this time there’s no bunny).

Jonathan Pryce is spot on as the narcissistic Joe Castleman. He’s clearly addicted to the pedestal upon which he sits and the corresponding adoration from worshipping fans. He’s the type of guy who thinks he’s doing Joan a favor by mentioning her in his speeches and calling her over to be part of his oh-so-important conversations. But as good as Mr. Pryce is, this is a tour de force from Ms. Close. She’s always a step ahead of her husband – finding his glasses, ensuring he takes his pills, and monitoring his diet and sleep. It’s the Nobel Prize phone call that stirred some long-suppressed feelings; lighting a fuse that will leave us anxiously awaiting the fireworks.

Max Irons (Jeremy’s son) plays an aspiring writer and son to Joe and Joan. David’s bitterness towards his father is evident throughout and his desperate attempts to gain his father’s respect are nothing short of heart-breaking. Christian Slater plays Nathaniel Bone, a would-be biographer of Joe Castleman … if only Joe would give him the time of day. Nathaniel is often quite intrusive in his pursuit of the truth – at least what he hopes it would be since it would make a fantastic book. Karin Franz Korlof plays Linnea, a young photographer assigned to Joe during the Sweden trip. It’s an odd role as none of the other winners have their own photographer … but not as odd as the small talk amongst the various category Nobel winners. Those scenes, and the verbal exchanges, are as awkward as one might imagine.

Director Runge utilizes flashbacks to 1958 Smith College to provide us a foundation and narrative for the relationship between Joe and Joan. She was once a budding star writer under the tutelage of the young, married professor. Her flirting, babysitting and writing all worked to win Joe over, and they were soon married. Young Joe the professor is played by Harry Lloyd (great-great-great grandson of Charles Dickens), and young Joan is played beautifully by Annie Stark (Glenn Close’s real life daughter). These early days and an encounter with a broken female writer (played terrifically by Elizabeth McGovern) lead Joan to surrender her writing dreams and put her support behind her husband. Shooting down the purity of “a writer must write”, McGovern’s beaten down character instead says “a writer has to be read”.

Glenn Close will likely receive much Oscar chatter for her role. Her transformation from dutiful sidekick to self-enlightenment is a performance laden with subtle and nuanced signs of resentment. Her early disquiet could be compared to a volcano – the inside building towards eruption while the outside remains strong and majestic. Living a lie never becomes truth … even after 30 plus years.

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