FOUR GOOD DAYS (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Drug addiction provides bountiful harvesting for emotional message movies, though I’ll admit to some difficulty in relating to the subject matter. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) has worked with co-writer Eli Saslow to adapt Saslow’s 2016 Washington Post article, “How’s Amanda: A story of truth, lies and American Addiction”. It’s an all-too-common tale of how addiction ruins lives and tears families apart. If not for two strong lead performances, Garcia’s latest movie would be just ‘another log on the fire’.

The filmmaker has re-teamed with his ALBERT NOBBS star, Glenn Close, who plays Deb, mother to Molly (Mila Kunis), a 10 year drug addict who shows up at mom’s house asking for help “getting clean”. Of course, mom has heard this too many times over the years. See, Molly has not only stolen from her mother and lied to her frequently, but she’s also been through detox/rehab 14 times over those 10 years. Deb initially refuses to let Molly in the house, but relents the next morning and drives her straight to the detox center. The doctor tells her she qualifies for a new magic shot that will block the drug cravings and effects if she can stay clean for four days (hence the film’s title). Any drugs in the system will cause complications, and likely prove fatal.

So Deb babysits Molly, who we learn has two kids by her ex-husband, Sean (Joshua Leonard). Turns out, he’s not such a great guy either. I’m certainly no expert, but it appears to me that Ms. Kunis goes all-in as an addict, replete with rotted teeth, damaged skin, and an attitude that warrants a swift kick. Ms. Kunis was excellent in BLACK SWAN (2010), but it seems she spends most of her time in comedies. She proves again that she has some dramatic chops, and hopefully will continue to pursue more serious roles. Ms. Close, who recently set the record for futility by becoming the first actor with 8 Oscar nominations and no wins, dons yet another terrible wig (ala HILLBILLY ELEGY, 2020) and works very hard to create a full-fledged mother from an underwritten character. The film briefly dabbles with the mother-daughter history of abandonment, but never digs deep enough for real meaning.

Stephen Root is given little to do as Deb’s second husband, and Sam Hemmings has one good scene as Molly’s dad who is confronted by Deb. Clichés abound in the story, yet the underlying message of a parent who refuses to give up on their kid, even when every time the result is disappointment, is grounded in reality. It’s certainly no TRAINSPOTTING (1996) as far as depressing drug addiction stories, but the two leads make it watchable.

In theaters April 30, 2021

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HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020)

November 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “We don’t use that word.” That is law school student JD’s reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He’s understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar nominated for THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance’s own memoir.

The first thing noticed about this film is that it stars Amy Adams (6) and Glenn Close (7), who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That’s a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams has been seen recently in the TV mini-series “Sharp Objects” and as Lynn Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in THE WIFE (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in SWALLOW earlier this year), Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), and Gabriel Basso (THE KINGS OF SUMMER, 2013).

As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky … and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown, after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only “hope”. The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it’s Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It’s an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top … a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.

For such a stereotypical “simple” family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD’s sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. And JD’s law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.

It’s at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing that mother Bev has overdosed on heroin. It’s yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD’s family pie. When his “old” life collides with his “new” life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces decisions that are legal and/or morality based, and given his circumstances, it’s never as straightforward as it should be.

Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it’s not the Oscar bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard’s decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD’s dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it’s here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.

Premieres on Netflix November 24, 2020

watch the trailer


OSCARS 2019 recap

February 25, 2019

OSCARS 2019 recap

 The Academy missed their goal of a 3 hour presentation, but only by 17 minutes! Ratings were up (over last year) and diversity was on full display, so it seems most can agree that things went pretty smoothly without a host. Despite some recent bungled decision-making, followed by a social media outcry which resulted in decision reversals, the Academy deserves credit for a fine presentation that featured more diversity than ever before. The days of #OscarSoWhite seem to be over.

I trust you didn’t come here to read yet another rant about why a certain award proves how out of touch the Academy is. Nope, I like movies and prefer to view the Oscars as a celebration rather than a political statement. By the time the final envelope was opened, all 8 Best Picture nominees had won at least one Oscar. Additionally, two other excellent films, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and FIRST MAN, also won awards (Best Supporting Actress and Visual Effects, respectively). Spreading the major award love over 10 different films speaks not just to the diversity, but also the deep lineup of quality filmmaking during 2018.

As always, the ceremony provided some fun talking/debating/arguing points. Queen opened the show with Adam Lambert proving how remarkable Freddie Mercury’s voice was, while Brian May showed us he still plays a mean guitar. Best Actor winner Rami Malek fell off the stage after giving his speech. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt. Melissa McCarthy (and a puppet) and Brian Tyree Henry fully and elaborately committed to their duties as co-presenters of Best Costume. Despite not being present, the omnipotent Oprah made an appearance – via the montage of 2018 films (from her bomb A WRINKLE IN TIME), and we saw a live quasi-reunion of WAYNE’S WORLD with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (sans wigs and head-bobbing). Spike Lee finally won an Oscar (Adapted Screenplay for BLACKKKLANSMAN), and then proceeded to bogart the microphone from his equally deserving co-writers, before throwing a tantrum when GREEN BOOK was announced as Best Picture.

 Of course, the most Tweeted about moment came when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga took the stage to sing their (now Oscar winning song) “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN. It was a very intimate duet that, had there been one more verse, might have resulted in clothes being shed on stage. The aforementioned diversity resulted in the most presented Oscars for both African-Americans and Women, and with presenter Michael Keaton being the only white male to take the stage solo. Barbra Streisand (presenting BLACKKKLANSMAN rather than A STAR IS BORN) somehow escaped backlash after comparing herself to Spike Lee … see they are both from Brooklyn and like hats; although we aren’t sure if Babs greeted her superfan, nominee Richard E Grant. And poor Christian Bale – no way that room was ever going to vote for Dick Cheney, regardless of how remarkable his transformation and performance.

Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) won the Best Actress Oscar over Glenn Close (THE WIFE). This was Ms. Close’s 7th Oscar nomination without a win, keeping her one ahead of fellow nominee Amy Adams (VICE). However, neither of them gained ground on songwriter Diane Warren whose nomination for “I’ll Fight” (RBG) was her 10th without a win. It should also be noted that Ms. Colman’s acceptance speech was the funniest, most charming and most heartfelt of the evening. In contrast to Ms. Close, Ms. Adams and Ms. Warren, Regina King was thrilled to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her first ever nomination (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK).  In a show of ultimate class, Congressman John Lewis presented Best Picture nominee GREEN BOOK, and we could be certain a man with his perspective and role in history, would not partake in any tantrum throwing.

 Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK) won Best Supporting Actor for the second consecutive year, and Alfonso Cuaron won 3 Oscars (Best Director, Cinematographer, Best Foreign Language Film) for his autobiographical masterpiece ROMA. Also winning 3 Oscars on the night were BLACK PANTHER (Costumes, Production Design, Score) and GREEN BOOK; however, it was BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with 4 wins that walked away with the most statuettes. Even those who are upset by GREEN BOOK’s Best Picture win must agree that it was a much smoother end to the evening than last year’s debacle and mix-up.

***Note: although there were a few political barbs tossed in throughout the evening, President Trump’s name was never mentioned on the broadcast. This allowed the focus to remain mostly on the nominees and the films … and the plug for the under-construction Academy museum (opening someday). .

 


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.

watch the trailer:


ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

watch the trailer:

 


5 to 7 (2015)

April 5, 2015

5 to 7 Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhere along the line, the magic of movie romance has been lost. Love stories these days tend to take either the direction of snark or sap (or whips). Ever so popular in the 1940’s and 50’s, well-written sentimentality for the big screen would best be described these days as passé’. And that’s what makes writer/director Victor Levin’s little film such a pleasure to experience.

We begin with a narrator proclaiming that some of the best writing is found on the tribute plaques attached to the benches within Central Park. Those plaques are used a few times throughout the film to drive home a particular situation or status within the story. The narrator is Brian (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), a 24 year old struggling writer whose parents want him to give up his writing dream and head to law school.

One day, while walking through the city, Brian catches a glimpse of striking woman smoking a cigarette. He crosses the street and the two exchange some clever banter. Just like that … the story begins and their lives are forever changed.

The woman is Arielle (Berenice Marlohe, Skyfall), and she is French, older than Brian, and married … 3 things that are equally problematic according to his dad (Frank Langella), though his mom (Glenn Close) is just thrilled someone likes her boy. As the flirting escalates, Arielle proceeds to explain to Brian that she is open to seeing him daily between the hours of 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Familiar with French language, but unfamiliar with customs, Brian is brought up to speed on “cinq a sept” affairs – a tradition in France, where a married person’s whereabouts are not questioned during the period after work and before home.

As you might guess, the affair does wonders for Brian as he is finally experiencing the world … passion … connection. Arielle opens his eyes and mind to many things, and Brian is especially taken aback as the lines blur between family and outsiders. This leads him to meet Jane (Olivia Thirlby), who is not just a rising young editor, but also the mistress to Arielle’s husband Valery (Lambert Wilson). Yes, it’s a tangled web that’s woven.

Mr. Levin’s script is remarkable in its effectiveness at providing the awkward situations with a dose of humor; and his targets include Jews, the French, and Americans and their customs. It’s impossible not to think of the classic film The Graduate, or even Linklater’s “Before” franchise, but this one is different … it does not shy away from sentimentality, romance or emotion. The film wears its heart on its sleeve – or more aptly, the screen. We feel (good and bad) right along with the characters.

The camera only uses close-ups when it must, and instead allows the scene and the characters to breathe. There is a simple looking, but wonderful shot of Brian and Arielle walking through Central Park directly towards the camera. They are in discovery mode towards each other, and it’s fascinating to listen and watch.

Anyone who fancies themselves a writer will tip their cap to no less than eight lines that are near perfection. Being “too happy to write” is certainly a relatable emotion, but few films feature better last lines than this one … if only we could each be that one reader to which the line refers. If you are open to some heartfelt sentimental romance, then give this one a watch. If not, you’ll certainly find no shortage of reviews from caustic critics so quick to rip a film lacking in snark and sarcasm.

watch the trailer:

 


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

August 3, 2014

guardians Greetings again from the darkness.  Are you ready for a new brand of Marvel movie heroes?  You surely know Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, but it’s high time you are introduced to Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Groot and Drax – known collectively as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead of dark, brooding and super-serious, this group is not just funny … they are actually FUN!

The plot is admittedly a bit simple. Everyone is basically chasing a ball (the orb) around the universe.  Instead of good guys vs bad buys, it’s actually kinda bad guys vs really bad guys. See, the heroes of our story are, for the most part, criminals themselves. The main difference is, they aren’t on a quest for intergalactic super power or mega destruction like Ronan (Lee Pace).  Ronan makes for a pretty menacing villain, complete with a voice that shakes the theatre!

The band of misfits thrown together by circumstance actually provides much entertainment.  Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) is the self-nicknamed Star-Lord, better known as Peter Quill. The film begins in 1988 when his mother lay dying and he is abducted by aliens. Quill’s criminal activity has him crossing paths with Gamora, a green assassin played by Zoe Saldana; Rocket, a brilliant wise-cracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; Rocket’s bodyguard Groot, an unusually mobile tree with a limited vocabulary voiced by Vin Diesel; and the hulking, knife-wielding, bent on revenge Drax the Destroyer played by WWE star Dave “The Animal” Bautista.  It’s a rag-tag group of heroes unlike anything we have seen before.

Other colorful supporting work comes courtesy of a blue-faced Michael Rooker, who controls his lethal arrow through a series of whistles; Djimon Hounsou as a sparkly-eyed warrior; John C Riley as a galaxy cop; Karen Giillan as a smooth-headed daughter of Ronan; and Glenn Close as a community leader.  We also get the traditional Stan Lee cameo, plus Benecio Del Toro as The Collector (teased in Thor: The Dark World).  The music actually plays a strong supporting role with such classics as “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps”.

Despite the lack of familiarity with these characters for most viewers, writer/director James Gunn (Slither) does a terrific job of having us quickly connect and even groot … err, I mean root … for these guys. Quill’s possession of a Sony Walkman to play his mother’s mix tape of songs from the 1970’s and 80’s give the film a very different flavor, having the familiar songs pop up at just the right time.

Pratt does an admirable job in the lead, although compared to the GQ of Tony Stark/Iron Man, his Quill is more Mad Magazine (funny and easy to like)  The best comparison I have for Quill is Han Solo, and for the movie it harkens back to 1978’s Superman … both very high compliments. It’s also the first time I have been completely caught off guard and laughed out loud at a Jackson Pollack reference!

**NOTE: If I had seen this movie as an 11-year-old boy, I would probably think it’s the coolest movie ever made.  Of course, they didn’t make movies like this when I was 11, so I have to enjoy them now.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a comic book fan but kinda tired of the all too familiar string of Avengers OR you just want to sing along to some classic songs of yesteryear (please don’t sit by me)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a talking raccoon and tree are likely to give you nightmares, no matter how funny their lines are.

watch the trailer:

 


ALBERT NOBBS

January 30, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are accustomed to movies with men posing as women for comedic effect … Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie come to mind. Watching an extremely serious, even bleak, film with a woman (Glenn Close) posing as a man is quite rare, and I will say, downright uncomfortable. When Albert Nobbs is described by his co-workers as a strange little man, they have no idea!

The film is based on a novella by George Moore, and has been a pet project of Glenn Close since she starred in the off-Broadway play in the 1980’s. Her dream has been realized in this film directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film has an extremely talented cast including Brendan Gleeson as a doctor, Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Page, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and Brenda Fricker as hotel staff, Pauline Collins as the hotel proprietor, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a frequent hotel guest.  The song over the closing credits (co-written by Ms. Close) is sung by Sinead O’Connor.

Beyond that fabulous cast, the only thing that really makes the film worth watching is the curious performance of Ms. Close as Albert Nobbs and the much more colorful and lively turn by Janet McTeer as Mr. Page … the only one (we know of) who can understand what Albert is going through. Both are nominated for Oscars. During the film, we get the personal story from each of these characters on why they made their choice, but Albert’s story is a bit muddled. He/she seems to have just fallen into the life and been unable to stop for the past 30 years. Now, Albert has a dream that can only be achieved through the wages earned as the non-descript, efficient waiter in an 1890’s Dublin hotel.

 There are many painful scenes to watch, but none moreso than Albert courting Helen so that he can have a partner for his new business. He has no idea how a real relationship works or why people are attracted to each other. Albert just sees Helen as a means to an end, and is following the blueprint set by Mr. Page.  Some will enjoy this much more than I, as the thought of pretending to be someone you aren’t for 3 decades is just more than I can even comprehend. When Gleeson’s doctor spouts that he has no reason why people choose to lead such miserable lives, I concur whole-heartedly.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how little joy would be had spending one’s life pretending to be someone else OR you don’t want to miss two Oscar-caliber performances (Close, McTeer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: misery in 1890’s Dublin holds no more interest for you than misery in any other era or locale

watch the trailer: