THE FRONT RUNNER (2018)

November 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Reitman has proven himself to be an outstanding filmmaker who delivers entertaining stories with insightful commentary often accompanied by biting humor. His excellent films include: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, and one of this year’s most underappreciated films, TULLY. His latest is based on the book “All the Truth is Out” by Matt Bai (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Reitman and “House of Cards” Producer Jay Carson), and it tells the story of Colorado Senator Gary Hart and his derailed 1988 campaign for President.

The film begins in 1984 when an idealistic Hart loses the Democrat party nomination to Walter Mondale, who of course, went on to lose the national election to Ronald Reagan. It then picks up as the 1988 campaign is underway and Hart is the party frontrunner, and some say the candidate most likely to win the Presidency. Hugh Jackson plays Hart and is unfortunately burdened with an ill-fitting and distracting wig meant to emulate the lush locks sported by the youthful looking Senator. Vera Famiga plays his wife Lee, and Kaitlyn Dever plays their daughter Andrea. Casting two such fine actresses matters because of what happened during the campaign.

Senator Hart was the favored candidate of the young and the idealistic forces, though the details of his platform were never communicated clearly. Mostly, he was presented as the energetic candidate of hope versus the stodgy Republican Party that had delivered Ronald Reagan for 8 years and was now looking to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everything changed for Hart when rumors of marital infidelity, and possibly even an open marriage, began to circulate. When the media asked him, he was defiant … at times snapping in anger that his personal life was no one’s business.

We are taken inside the campaign via many familiar faces, including campaign manager Bill Dixon played by JK Simmons, and a terrific turn by Molly Ephraim as staffer Irene Kelly. We are invited on board the aptly named party yacht “Monkey Business” when Hart first meets Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), setting off what could considered be the birth of political gossip-columns. The Herald and Washington Post are key players here, as are editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) and iconic journalist Bob Woodward. Apparently this is supposed to show us how politics and the media coverage of politics changed with Gary Hart.

Where the movie lets us down is in not providing any explanation to why Hart was the front runner, whether the U.S. or even the democratic party missed out on a great (or even competent) President, and how in the world Hart was so clueless as to why citizens might have an interest in his personal life activities that included sleeping with a woman (or women) that weren’t his wife. By the way, the reason for the last one is character … and we’ve since learned it’s not as important as what we might have once thought. These are all key issues as to why this is even a story, and whether or not it’s interesting enough to re-tell.

Instead of details, we are bombarded with overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing designed to generate some buzz and energy. The reality is that Gary Hart was really not that interesting, and in fact, by denying the importance of character, he thumbed his nose at his supporters. This blip on American history is simply not enough to justify a 2 hour a movie, and Mr. Jackman never seems able to capture the essence of Hart (whatever that essence might have been). There is obvious relevance to how today’s press treats personal stories, but a bland candidate makes for a bland movie.

watch the trailer:

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TULLY (2018)

May 3, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him “quirky” … an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it’s exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo’s husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo’s brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the ‘cupcake’ super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody’s dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we’ve come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn’t possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it’s her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby – a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it’s quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn’t come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual … all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don’t call it quirky.

watch the trailer:


YOUNG ADULT

December 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman reunite for the first time since breakout hit Juno. In that fine film, we were treated to many optimistic and sarcastic life lessons from a very likable, and easy to cheer for, pregnant teenage girl. This time around we get the caustic, childlike self-centeredness of a mid-30’s alcoholic sadly trying to recapture the magic of her high school years as the prom queen dating the coolest guy.

Ms. Cody and Mr. Reitman deserve much credit for steering clear of the Hollywood traditions of redemption, remorse, and turning over a new leaf. In fact, we probably dislike Mavis (Charlize Theron) even more as the movie ends than we did in the film’s first 5 minutes, if that’s even possible. It takes courage as a filmmaker to have a lead character who is disliked through the entire movie, not just by the people in her life, but also by the audience. It also takes a special actress to pull this off. If you saw Theron in her Oscar winning role in Monster, believe me when I say that she is equally unsympathetic here … though she does commit fewer actual crimes.

 This film is erroneously marketed as a smart comedy. While there are some funny elements, it’s difficult to find much humor in someone who is so unstable and narcissistic. Wisely, the script provides us with Matt (Patton Oswalt) as the voice of reason. He sees through the Mavis mask and speaks directly in his attempts to divert her from her plan. That plan is to break up the marriage of her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Oh yeah, he just happens to be happily married (Elizabeth Reaser) with a newborn baby.

 The best scenes of the film are between Mavis and Matt. She is oblivious to her negative effect on others, while he shoots her straight while avoiding his own harsh reality. See, Matt was the victim of a vicious hate crime, which left his leg (and other things) mangled. His own view of life is why he can see right through Mavis and her issues. While I so admire the basis of the script, I just believe there is a missing element. The element of hope and optimism. Heck, even when Mavis admits she “might be an alcoholic”, her parents shrug it off and change topics. Sometimes crying out for help just isn’t enough.

The film is worth seeing for the performances of Theron and Oswalt, as well as for the unique script. Just don’t get tricked into believing it’s some laugh-riot with a fairy tale ending. Mavis is a ghost writer for teen novels, and she writes the latest as she lives this nightmare of a trip back home. My only real question … is she mature enough to write for teens?

note: Director Jason Reitman has had a very impressive start to his career.  I highly recommend his first three movies: Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two Oscar caliber performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt OR you want to see a Hollywood rarity – a leading lady with no redemptive qualities

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a little “sunshine” in the story rather than constant clouds with an occasional lightning bolt

watch the trailer: