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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LBJ (2017)

November 2, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 50 years after his death, President John Kennedy casts an ever-present shadow over Lyndon Baines Johnson’s career as a stellar politician and a President with significant accomplishments. Part of the reason is presentation – JFK was a story book leader straight from the fashion magazines, while LBJ was a vulgar-at-times comic book adversary who looked and talked funny. Each has been portrayed on film numerous times and from various perspectives.

Woody Harrelson and his facial prosthetics play LBJ, and Mr. Harrelson seems to be enjoying the swagger and emotional range of the titular man. What this film does that’s a bit different from others is embrace the comedic elements – enhanced by both the performance and the script from Joey Hartstone. It seems odd (a somewhat awkward) to have so many laughs in a movie where the infamous 1963 Presidential motorcade, and subsequent assassination, form the backdrop.

Director Rob Reiner presents LBJ in all his crude and gruff glory, but also shows the ultimate politician – a man who was constantly negotiating. Intimidation was always part of the LBJ motif, and the film effectively displays the tactics used by John and Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David) to take the wind out of LBJ’s sails after the election.

There are reenactments throughout the film that place us back in the middle of iconic images seared into our memories … the motorcade after the shots, the scene at Parkland, and the swearing in aboard Air Force One with Jackie still wearing her blood-stained Chanel suit. This was an incredible time in our history, as the nation was emotionally shattered. It’s for this reason that much of the film seems disjointed or misguided. Too much (or maybe not enough) attention is on LBJ’s strained relationship with Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), one of the most racist men we’ve seen on screen. Their discussion of race relations while being served dinner by the black woman is beyond uncomfortable – yet still somehow too stagey.

Most of the film is spent on LBJ’s time as Senator and Vice President, with only the final act being about his famous networking upon ascending to the Presidency … after which the entire focus is on the Civil Rights Act. The flow of the film seems a bit off, though most will enjoy watching Harrelson’s performance – especially when paired with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lady Bird. Together, the two almost rescue the script.

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GOOD TIME (2017)

August 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Drifters and later George Benson sang “the neon lights are bright on Broadway”. Well, we aren’t on Broadway, and though they aren’t bright, the neon lights are ever present and crucial to the tone of the latest from brothers and co-directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

Robert Pattinson stars as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, and turns in a performance unlike anything we have previously seen from him. Connie is protective of his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), and he’s also a grungy unhinged bank robber. He doesn’t look like a man with a plan, but fortunately, Connie is a smooth talker who thinks ‘quick on his feet’. We say fortunately, because he is barraged with an endless stream of danger, catastrophes and near traumatic events as the story progresses.

A botched bank robbery separates the brothers and sends Nick to jail and Connie on the lam. Co-writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie seemingly take immense pleasure in launching Connie off-the-rails has he desperately attempts to avoid capture while simultaneously figuring out how to spring brother Nick. With a frenetic pace that escalates Griffin Dunne’s misery in AFTER HOURS, Connie’s escapades have him crossing paths with his girlfriend played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (wish she had more screen time), a psychiatrist played by Peter Verby, a new anxious-to-help acquaintance in Taliah Webster, an accidental partner-in-crime played by Buddy Duress, an amusement park security guard played by Barkhad Abdi (“Look at me!”), and a brutish thug played by hip-hop artist Necro.

The pounding, pulsating techno/synth music perfectly complements the unusual tone (almost noirish, and bordering on comedic), feverish pace, and fascinating visuals throughout this hyper-kinetic frenzied trip. Some viewers will be turned off quickly, and those that stick with it will be rewarded with an entertaining crime thriller featuring Pattinson’s best performance to date.

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ANOMALISA (animated, 2015)

January 1, 2016

anomalisa Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing Charlie Kaufman’s work described as “strange”, “weird” or “bizarre” makes me cringe a little because most of his films hit my sweet spot of curiosity, insight and expression. I easily relate to his creative vision and commentary in films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. His characters are always searching for something and trying to discern the meaning of life … or at least of their own life. This latest has Kaufman adapting his own stage production, and collaborating with co-director Duke Johnson for what is likely (for the vast majority of us) our most startling existential stop-action animated puppet cinematic experience.

The unusual opening of the film is a black screen with only background noise and voices, and the first chuckle occurred within about a minute thanks to one of my favorite cultural references of the year: “Kojak, not Kolchak”. Slowly the screen evolves to show clouds in the sky, and soon an airplane appears and our first peek at Michael occurs … he’s a passenger on a flight. The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place inside the Fregoli Hotel – aptly named because Michael seems to suffer from a twist on Fregoli Delusion (a person believes those around him are all the same person in disguise).

We soon notice that Michael appears beaten down, even exasperated with life. He is an author in town to give a presentation on his specialty … Customer Service. The story continues along familiar lines of a business traveler in the midst of a mid-life crisis, until things change for him when he stumbles on a couple of his fans who are in town for his presentation. One of them is Lisa, whom Michael is attracted to thanks to her innocent energy and wonderful voice. What makes her voice so wonderful? Well, it turns out that Michael is voiced by British actor David Thewlis, Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and EVERY other character in the film (male or female) is voiced by Tom Noonan. Lisa and her voice are the anomaly that makes up the film’s title … Michael is smitten with her because her voice is not like all the others – providing a spark of hope.

Mr. Kaufman seems intent on making us realize how easily we can slip into a rut and simply go through the motions in life … every day and every person being pretty much like the rest. Michael has learned to wear his Customer Service mask – one who pretends to care about the issues of others. It’s a terrific metaphor for someone refusing to face the responsibility for their own happiness. His awakening occurs at the hands (and in bed) with Lisa. Yes, you should be prepared for the uncommon and slightly unsettling site of Puppet Private Parts. The clumsy passion of the first encounter between Michael and Lisa does wonders for each of them … restoring her self-esteem and awakening him from his daily slumber of hopelessness.

While the story itself is quite simple, the use of puppets prevents us from getting overly personal or judgmental with the characters, and forces us to deal with the emotional and mental aspects of what keeps so many from leading happy lives. Lisa’s acapella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ignites the fuse in Michael, and just like that, both he and Lisa are jolted from their own self-imposed limitations. No longer able to just go through the motions, Michael’s overreactions at breakfast and during his presentation are all part of his re-awakening … the most profound puppet awakening since Pinocchio. Perhaps Mr. Kaufman thought we might be more receptive to his message and observations if delivered by a non-threatening puppet, and perhaps he’s correct. The message is delivered loudly and clearly … though I will probably hear Tom Noonan’s voice in my nightmares. The look of the movie and the puppets is fantastic, and Carter Burwell provides yet another spot-on score.

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

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WELCOME TO ME (2015)

May 8, 2015

welcome to me Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of films that feature some type of mental illness or disorder. Folks that don’t “fit in” make for characters that create unusual situations and generate cinema’s biggest friend – conflict.  Cast a talented performer who thrives in “off-center” roles, and the potential exists for some actual insight.

Kristen Wiig is obviously attracted to unusual characters, as well as stories that wobble between comedy and drama. Here she plays Alice Klieg, a woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Alice memorizes Oprah shows, spends hours watching infomercials, and attends state-mandated therapy with her psychologist (Tim Robbins). She also has many inappropriate social tendencies and is a consistent player in the California Lottery – a ritual that pays off nicely when she wins $86 million.

Once she collects her winnings, Alice decides to drop her meds cold and move herself into the spotlight. She relocates from her dank apartment into a suite at a local Indian Reservation Casino, and then buys airtime from a local infomercial studio run by brothers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden) in order to star in her own show, “Welcome to Me”.  With the help of a swan sled as a prop, Alice moves forward with a two hour TV block that is centered on her own thoughts and re-enactments of the most traumatic moments of her life. It’s about her personal pain, but also painful for the show’s producer played by Joan Cusack.

It’s difficult to tell what screenwriter Eliot Laurence and director Shira Piven (brother to actor Jeremy, and wife to director Adam McKay) are trying to accomplish here. Poking fun at mental illness is a delicate undertaking, but perhaps they meant this as more commentary on a society that is so quick to latch onto the troubles of others … whether as news or comedy. It could also be a statement on the narcissism that runs rampant these days, as Facebook is filled with selfies and photos of meals.

It could be argued that Alice’s TV show could be more accurately titled “TMI”, but it’s unfortunate there just doesn’t seem to be more substance here. Sure, there are some highly awkward and uncomfortable moments – some quite funny, but the movie really plays more like an extended comedy sketch, and whatever works seems due to the stellar cast: Wiig, Marsden, Bentley, Cusack, Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, and the underutilized Linda Cardellini. Just like “Perfect Polly” in the opening infomercial, what’s real and what’s real enough are in the eyes of the beholder, and perhaps this one could have used one more prepared statement.

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THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)

August 16, 2013

spectacular1 Greetings again from the darkness. Coming-of-age teen dramas with a comedic flair that speak to that tumultuous period of life are rarely worthy of discussion. The exceptions hover film greatness: Rebel Without a Cause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, and Say Anything … Along comes young director James Ponsoldt and his adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel. While not perfect and falling just short of the level of those classics, it is nonetheless a welcome addition and quite interesting.

It’s tempting to call Sutter (played by up-and-comer Miles Teller) a happy-go-lucky kid. He’s the frat boy type – quick with a quip, smooth with the parents and girls, and the envy of the masses. However, that term would be misapplied to a kid who not only is never without his flask, but also gives them as gifts. He uses his wit and booze to dull spectacular2the pain of his aimless existence. We see his lackadaisical efforts at completing a college admission form, and it’s used as a plot device to track Sutter’s progression/maturation through the film.

Brie Larson is terrific as Sutter’s perfect match … right up until she decides that his philosophy of living in the now (even spectacularly) doesn’t leave hope for much of a future. After an extreme night of drinking and partying, Sutter gets awakened while laying in a neighbor’s front yard. Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) is bookworm Aimee Finicky, who recognizes the popular Sutter, even though he has no idea who she is. Slowly, the two connect on a level previously unknown to either … some good, some not so wise (just like real teenagers).

spectacular3 This couple of opposites learn much from each other, and soon enough, Sutter is confronting his long last father (Kyle Chandler). No real surprises what he discovers, but it’s a life lesson that must be learned. Sutter seeks more from his remaining family – a big sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who escaped the grind, and a workaholic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) doing her best to provide hope for Sutter.

The script is co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who also wrote (500) Days of Summer. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe proved they could present teen dilemmas in an entertaining way, and this one follows the same structure. This is a dialogue-heavy story as Sutter and Aimee struggle alone and together to figure out life’s next steps.

I will say that for the first few minutes of the movie, I found Sutter to be the kind of guy that I would typically have no interest in. Tip of the cap to the filmmakers and Miles Teller for turning that around. It should also be noted that Shailene Woodley is so naturally affecting, that her character never comes across as anything but sincere. Given the state of today’s mainstream coming of age stories, this one definitely deserves a look and could gather some attention come awards time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a smart, mostly believable (Shailene Woodley would never go unnoticed in a high school) story about coming to terms with yourself at age 18 (we’ve all been there!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: teen movies with raunchy comedy are the only teen movies you want to see (there seems to be an endless supply)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDTBLSkUmYk