MY DAYS OF MERCY (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. There have been some fine movies centered on death row. These include: THE GREEN MILE (1999), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003), and TRUE CRIME (1999). The only one I can remember that even comes close to also being a love story is MONSTER’S BALL (2001), and if you’ve seen it, you would likely agree that it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy story of romance. With this latest, however, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer and British writer Joe Barton combine for a romantic story where death row plays a vital part.

Ellen Page stars as Lucy. She travels around the country in a well-worn motorhome with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz, UPSTREAM COLOR) and their little brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), as they partake in the anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the prison gates as the next execution takes place. Across the parking lot, the pro-death penalty side hold their own signs and keep their own vigil. Lucy’s eyes lock on those of a striking young woman from the other side. When they meet, the ironically named Mercy (Kate Mara) aggressively flirts with the shy and confused Lucy, and the two sneak out for drinks at a bar.

Soon Lucy is anxiously awaiting the next protest so that she can meet up with Mercy. The sexual tension builds as they get to know each other, and their awkward friendship turns romantic. Their activism for different sides of an important topic doesn’t have any negative impact on their attraction to each other. Each woman has been personally affected by the death penalty, and as viewers we struggle with the idea that these two lovebirds part each time with what amounts to ‘see you at the next execution!’

Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990) plays Lucy’s death row dad, and Brian Geraghty (THE HURT LOCKER) plays the attorney who is simultaneously working on his case and on Lucy’s sister Martha. The acting here is top notch as Kate Mara balances the two sides of Mercy, and Ellen Page flashes her familiar JUNO snark – albeit with the heft of a wisened adult. Ms. Seimetz adds to her list of always-interesting characters, and has a couple of truly outstanding scenes.

Blending love and the death penalty makes for an unusual combination, and we do understand that folks choose their side based on personal belief and circumstances. For the film, the death penalty issue is a bit of a distraction to the story of these two people, though it’s admirable that Mr. Barton chose to give them a personal stake in two different cases, rather than the same – which we would expect in a lesser movie. The use of “last meals” is quite creative, as we see the actual food, as well as the name of the inmate, the crime, and the prison.

The fallout from executions is widespread. Perhaps no one wants a narrative film focused entirely on such a depressing and divisive topic. We do ask ourselves if a romantic relationship is even possible for two who are diametrically opposed on such an emotional topic. It’s an ending that lets no one off the hook easily. Life is hard. So is death. Make your choices wisely.

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WILD ROSE (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.

Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.

We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.

Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.

** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY (“30 FOR 30”, ESPN)

July 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat chowing down on a hot dog at the ballpark, and I’ve even been known to have one too many on occasion(s). What’s impossible to imagine is cramming a few dozen in my mouth in a 10 minute window – while a bunch of others are standing alongside me doing the same thing. That, my friends, is competitive eating. It’s a “sport” that became famous in the United States thanks to a 144 lb. Japanese wisp of a man named Takeru Kobayashi, and then it became even more popular when laid-back California dude Joey Chestnut began breaking records.

Documentarian Nicole Lucas Haimes pays tribute to the impact of both men, while providing the background for each … and still giving the competitions the attention they deserve. The film kicks off in Coney Island on July 4, 2006 at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Kobayashi wins his sixth consecutive World Championship title, and his closest competitor is newcomer Joey Chestnut, who is devastated by his loss – beginning the biggest rivalry in competitive eating.

Throughout the film, we learn more about each man, and just how important the contests are to them.  For Kobayashi, who came to America in 2001, he quickly embraced the notoriety and life as a celebrity. A frequent competitor, he joined right into the crazy marketing stunts – once losing to a grizzly bear in 2002. He became part of “The Simpsons”, “Saturday Night Live” and other mainstream vehicles.

2005 marked the first time ESPN covered the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating, and that was also Joey Chestnut’s first time to compete in the Nathan’s contest. He was shocked that a small guy like Kobayashi could out-eat him and was considered a God in the arena. He also learned about preparation, as Kobayashi was all about precision and training. Chestnut’s parents and brother are interviewed and we see how his approach changed as he became more serious. The quiet, somewhat shy Chestnut had his world rocked in 2007, and he has since become more comfortable with the fans and with his secure spot as a legend in the sport.

We are also introduced to George Shea, the director of Major League Eating (MLE), and how his devotion to marketing and hyping the sport, turned it into a televised international battle between Japan and America – all for the “mustard belt” and $10,000 awarded to the champion. Mr. Shea doesn’t come across as very likable or trustworthy, but is given his due for helping the eating competitions attract thousands of attendees.

Kobayashi’s story is a bit more poignant as he explains how hurt he was to be turned into the villain after being idolized as the name and face of the sport. He enjoyed the applause, not the booing and chants of “USA, USA” for Chestnut. Even Kobayashi’s wife and father offer some insight into the man that energized the sport … and who will always be linked to the rivalry with Chestnut. This is a personal story for both, despite the aggressiveness involved with shoving broken hot dogs and wet buns down their own throats.

*** This episode of “30 For 30” airs on July 2, 2019 on ESPN

watch the trailer:

http://www.espn.com/videohub/video/clip?id=27058741&categoryid=null

 


MAIDEN (2019, doc)

June 27, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to Ron Shelton’s BULL DURHAM (1988), a favorite sports phrase emerged: ‘announcing one’s presence with authority’. Perhaps no better phrase exists to describe Tracy Edwards at the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race. The 24 year old Edwards was the skipper-navigator of the first all-women crew to compete in the race … a grueling every-three-years event where yachts are sailed around the world in multiple stages/legs.

Director Alex Holmes takes us back to Ms. Edwards’ childhood. We see home movies, interviews with friends, and hear stories to prove she wasn’t the easiest child to raise. Maybe too much time is devoted to this section, but it picks up when we get to adult Tracy’s story about how she was first attracted to the race and got involved as a cook on one of the vessels. She talks about being treated like a servant by the crew and how that inspired her idea to assemble an all-woman crew and race their own boat.

The interviews include other skippers (men, of course), the journalists who covered the race (men, of course), and the crew members from the Maiden. We see them today, and have the “then” photos and clips to gain an appreciation of the 30 years that have passed. We hear that “being girls is like being disabled in the sailing world”, and one can sense the attitude (even today) of the competitors.

The race covers 33,000 nautical miles, but Ms. Edwards’ historic voyage started long before they set sail. She speaks to the difficulty of fundraising – two years of almost no money, and how Jordan’s King Hussein not only inspired her, but also assisted. A second-hand boat at a reduced cost put the crew to work on rehabilitation, and this ‘sweat equity’ likely made them more determined than ever.

The probability of not making it is high.” Self-doubt and insecurities bubbled up. Once the race got underway, the women were a team. Terrific archival footage puts us right there with the crew – massive waves, ice on the sails, incredible cold and wind. These obstacles from nature care not if the crew is man or woman. Ms. Edwards’ leadership is on full display during the various legs of the race. It’s clear by the end that they have gained respect of those who doubted them, and the warm reception proves how strong their fan base was. It’s certainly not the first sports movie featuring underdogs. In fact, the Jamaican bobsled team is a comparison that comes to mind as a group of dedicated competitors given little chance to succeed by those ‘in the know’. Here’s hoping the inevitable Hollywood dramatization never occurs, as no actor could tell it better than those who performed the work and raced the race.

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THE QUIET ONE (2019, doc)

June 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very few rock stars would be content having the nickname “Stoneface”, or having a documentary on their life titled “The Quiet One”, but then Bill Wyman is not a typical rock star. Having quit The Rolling Stones after being a member for 31 years, Wyman allows director Oliver Murray to present his life … a life meticulously documented and cataloged through home movies, photographs, memorabilia, and personal diaries.

Most of our glimpses of octogenarian Wyman show him hunched over a desk in what appears to be the basement of his house. The room is painstakingly organized by year and category on multiple shelves. It has the look of a library or a Smithsonian backroom. We see musical instruments, photo albums, diaries and other collected items of note. Some of Wyman’s own videos and photographs are used to chronicle his life. It begins in his childhood in war-torn London as German bombers fly over, sending Wyman’s family into the air raid shelters.

We learn of Wyman’s first band, The Cliftons, and how he transitioned to playing bass by default. It’s interesting to hear Wyman speak of his musical influences, starting (obviously) with Chuck Berry, and then spiking with Duck Dunn, the bassist for Booker T and MG’s. His heartfelt recollection of meeting Ray Charles is a reminder that music is more than a job … it’s the make-up of a musician.

A documentary about the bass player for the greatest rock band of all-time would likely focus on the glamour, drugs, debauchery, hit songs, and world tours … and director Murray (his first documentary feature) touches on all of those. However, this is really an intimate look at Bill Wyman the person, more so than Bill Wyman the rock star. We learn the source of his stage name, his closeness to late band member Brian Jones, his anti-drug stance, his military stint, and about his 3 marriages – including the scandal around his second to the much younger Mandy Smith.

Wyman’s own personal archives provide the foundation for much of what we see on screen. It’s an impressive collection and he comes off as quite an introspective fellow. When discussing his bass playing, Wyman states, “If you play it right, you don’t get noticed.” The film opens with the raucous “Paint it Black”, and as much as I hate to differ with Mr. Wyman’s description, we quite easily notice his bass is the driving force behind the classic song. He quit the Stones after 31 years (and one final world tour) to concentrate on family, explore music with his own band, spend more time on photography and travel, author a few books, consult, and organize his diaries and memorabilia. For “the quiet one”, the archives tell his story.

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TOY STORY 4 (2019)

June 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, it’s another instant classic from Pixar. No, we shouldn’t be surprised. Their track record is beyond compare. But I can’t help it. How the heck do they do it time after time, movie after movie? We have known (most of) the characters for 25 years now, and this fourth entry seems every bit as fresh and creative as the first one. We like these characters, and it doesn’t matter that they are animated. We laugh and cry and worry about them as if they are our friends.

Tom Hanks returns as our favorite cowboy Woody (yes, he still has a snake in his boot), and Tim Allen is back as Buzz Lightyear (still unable to grasp that he’s not a real space ranger). Also returning is Annie Potts as Bo Peep, now a strong, independent “lost” toy with excellent survival and scavenging skills. Some new toys and voices inject real pizazz to the adventures. Christina Hendricks charms as Gabby Gabby, a doll quite desperate for her own kid; Keanu Reeves shines as Duke Caboom, a showboating motorcycle stunt rider who may not be as daring as his big talk; and Tony Hale turns Forky into a lovable little cockeyed spork-toy. Also bringing fun and a new comedic element are the hilarious team of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as Bunny and Ducky, respectively.

The opening sequence takes place 9 years ago, and we see how Bo Peep became separated from the others, and how the toys transitioned to Bonnie and how Bonnie transitioned to Kindergarten, and how Forky transitioned from trash to toy. And fear not, the old favorite toys are all here: Wallace Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie (I expected a bigger role for her), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, and courtesy of archival recordings, two posthumous appearances by Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, and Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown.

With his first feature film as director, Josh Cooley follows up his screenplay for the brilliant INSIDE OUT with a touching and superbly funny film. The screenplay comes from Andrew Stanton (2 time Oscar winner, FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) and Stephany Folsom, while the original story credits are many, including John Lasseter in his last project with Pixar. Even though the film is Rated G, it should be noted that it’s a pretty complex story for youngsters, and the Charlie McCarthy dolls are kind of terrifying – at least to me and Forky. TOY STORY (1995), TOY STORY 2 (1998), TOY STORY 3 (2010) get the send-off they deserve, so “move your plush” and go see it! Randy Newman is back with a new song, as well as the familiar melody and lyrics from his Oscar nominated “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” … a friend indeed.

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MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the era of sequels and spin-offs, and every studio dreams of franchises they can squeeze for profit again and again. The 4th entry in the MIB franchise {MEN IN BLACK (1997), MEN IN BLACK II (2002), MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)}, is certainly more spinoff than sequel, although there is a nugget that ties it to the earlier versions. While we get a new cast and a new director, there are plenty of familiar elements to satisfy loyal fans, although winning new ones may be less likely.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are reunited from THOR: RAGNAROK and AVENGERS: ENDGAME to take the leads as Agent H and Agent M, respectively. Replacing the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty tough challenge, even for two likeable and talented actors. Because of that, it probably makes sense that director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, 2015) and co-writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (also co-writers on the original IRON MAN, 2008) take the film in a slightly different direction. There are two key story lines: discovering the “mole” within MIB, and protecting the world’s most dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Hemsworth overplays his dashing, somewhat inept super agent (a cross between Bond and Clouseau) who charms his way out of every situation, and even though he doesn’t fit the MIB we are accustomed to, he’s fun to watch and good for some laughs. Ms. Thompson (so good in CREED) is the brainy rookie who spends two decades trying to maneuver herself into a position at MIB, and once she does, it’s clear she belongs. Back from the third film is Emma Thompson as Agent O, a senior MIB manager who interviews and hires Molly. Rafe Spall is Agent C, Agent H’s internal adversary, and Liam Neeson is High T, the bureau chief. Rebecca Ferguson appears as Riza, Agent H’s handsy former squeeze turned villain in a cool fortress. Dancing twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play two shape-shifters (a description that doesn’t do justice to their skills).

The story bounces from Paris to Brooklyn to London to Marrakesh to Paris to Naples. It’s a pretty wild adventure with the snazzy guns and futuristic vehicles we’ve come to expect. In fact, the Lexus reps the brand quite nicely. Molly’s backstory is provided early on as the kind of kid who reads Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in bed, and the film offers some clever touches with office artwork and the early years of MIB (Gustave Eiffel), but overall it just seems to be missing something. Fortunately, while H and M are saving the world, Kumail Nanjani as Pawny (voice) is saving the film. His little character provides the most laughs and the most creative punchlines. The franchise has enough of a loyal following that the film should do fine, however it will be surprising if this one can replicate the success of the first 3 films … although, you guessed it, the sequel to the spin-off is teed up.

watch the trailer: