BOULEVARD (2015)

July 9, 2015

boulevard Greetings again from the darkness. The tragic death of Robin Williams last year left a void in the world of comedy, and his absence is also felt on the big screen where his dramatic skills were often underappreciated. His final non-comedic role comes courtesy of a film that is probably not worthy of his talents, but leaves us with a reminder of what a skilled actor he was.

The premise feels at once a bit dated and also timely. Williams plays Nolan, a 60 year old man who works at his comfortable bank job (of 26 years), goes home each day to his comfortable suburban home, to a comfortable marriage to his wife (Kathy Baker) with whom he no longer shares a bed or much of anything else. He also periodically stops off to put a straw in the ginger ale for his near comatose father with whom he has never had much of a relationship. His entire life is a façade of comfort and life lived well enough.

Are you happy?” That seemingly odd and innocent question from his boss sets Nolan off on a path of awakening. It turns out that since he was 12 years old, Nolan has suppressed his true identity as a gay man. A spontaneous u-turn on the titular Boulevard sends Nolan on a collision path with Leo (Roberto Aguire), a young male prostitute with whom he quickly bonds … through only talking and self-identification.

It’s this awakening that brings a level of modern-timeliness as Nolan’s story is not so different from that of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner who has dominated the recent media with the late-in-life shift in persona. They are sixty-plus year old men who have evidently each lived a lie for much of their lives. It’s difficult for many of us to relate to, but clearly it’s a real thing, and director Dito Montiel and writer Douglas Soesbe capitalize.

The best and most uncomfortable scenes occur with Ms. Baker and Mr. Williams avoiding the issue through years of practice, and also the scenes with Mr. Williams and Bob Odenkirk who plays his long-time friend and confidant. These are three strong actors who work well with each other.

There is really nothing wrong with the film … it’s slow pace designed to match that of Nolan’s life … but the Nolan and Leo segment just never clicked, leaving me struggling with a third of the story. It’s about a man who is totally not comfortable in his own skin, and lives a somber and unfulfilled life right up until the point where he takes a leap. It’s not that he takes a leap, but rather the specific leap he takes that just didn’t click for me. Still, it’s a performance from Williams that is worth watching – in fact, must be watched if you are a Robin Williams fan.

watch the trailer:

 


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

December 22, 2013

banks1 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely it’s a coincidence that Disney Studios has released this movie just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins film. Regardless of the promotional angle, the story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) going all out to woo stuffy Brit writer PL Travers (Emma Thompson)actually turns out to be a well made and pretty interesting story of two stubborn people butting creative heads. Even better is a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative and collaborative process of bringing the Travers book(s) to the big screen.

Director John Lee Hancock is the perfect fit with his track record of glossy, feel-good, inspired by true life stories with The Blind Side and The Rookie. We never lose sight that this is a Disney production of a Disney story. The only Disney blemish shown is a quick shot of him stubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Mr. Disney was an expert at hiding his smoking habit from the public … well at least until he died from lung cancer in 1966, a mere two years after the premiere of Mary Poppins. Mostly Walt is depicted as working diligently to provide the trust and security that Travers sought in protecting her most precious flying nanny.

banks2 The real star here is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers. Her desperate need for money is mentioned once, but the story is more concerned with her innate need to protect the legacy of her story … no animation, no mean Mr Banks, no Dick Van Dyke, and no silly songs. Watching her interact with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) and the Disney screenwriter played by Bradley Whitford is the most fun this movie has to offer. Her “no, no, no” mindset is quite frustrating for the quite successful Disney creative team. The armchair psychology is really where the movie falters a bit. Watching Walt struggle to mesmerize Travers with his Disney magic feels a bit forced, and when combined with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, leave the audience way ahead in figuring out the key to her heart and mind.

Once the daddy issues come to light, we get Hanks’ best scene in the film. As he finally connects with Travers by laying bare his childhood (and fatherly) challenges, he eloquently explains the importance of imagination and storytelling for both children and adults. A desire to re-write or re-imagine our childhood seems to be at the core of many adults. It seems many dwell on the negative aspects of childhood, and even here, Travers’ dad (Colin Farrell) may be the nicest alcoholic who ever inspired their kid to be a writer.

PL Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) wrote 8 Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988, but was so unhappy with the film version that she never agreed to a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when she agreed to a stage version (no Americans allowed!). She passed away in 1996 at the age of 96, and the actual recordings played over the closing credits show just how well Ms. Thompson captured the strong will of the author.

**NOTE: Tom Hanks has an impressive family tree.  He is a distant cousin of Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln.

**NOTE: On his deathbed, the last words Walt Disney wrote were “Kurt Russell”.  The reason for this was never discovered, although Mr. Russell was under a 10 year contract with Disney at the time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the creative collaboration process between two very talented sides with extremely different motivations

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a kids’ or family movie about the classic Mary Poppins movie.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

 


TAKE SHELTER

October 25, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a beautiful piece of filmmaking that up-and-coming writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) delivers. Not only will the story grab you and hold tightly, but Michael Shannon‘s performance will stun your senses. All of that from a film with very few special effects and a story based in a quiet, rural Ohio town? Yes.

Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) plays Curtis, a quiet, hard-working husband and father. His friend and co-worker Dewart is played by Shea Whigham (also Boardwalk Empire). Early on, Dewart tells Curtis (with a touch of envy) that he has a good life, and that’s about the best thing you can say about a man. It’s about this time that all heck breaks loose for Curtis. He has vivid apocalyptic dreams and visions that a world-changing storm is coming.

 Being the strong man and protective head of the family that he is, Curtis tries to keep this quiet. However, his behavior grows more strange as he builds out a storm shelter in the backyard, gets rid of the family dog, and messes things up at work. These things wouldn’t stand out for most people, but Curtis is the “normal” guy – the one who is consistent and predictable. At least he once was.

 Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) are supportive and try to give him space, but the family demands are such that a husband and wife confrontation is not long in the making. Turns out Curtis has a family history that drives him to dig a little deeper and even seek help.

After much emotional wrangling, there is a scene at a community dinner where Curtis and Dewart have it out. Shannon’s rant is one of the more powerful scenes you will ever see on film, and may have just clinched him an Oscar nomination.

 This is a thought-provoking and emotional film that doesn’t beat you over the head. Things unfold at a natural pace, in fact, it may be too slow for some viewers. The score is haunting and never once over-bearing as we battled through these stages with Curtis.

The ending may prove controversial, but I just smiled a very satisfied smile in appreciation of one beautiful film. There could be comparisons to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, or even the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (sans humor), but to me, this one stands on its own as a story of love, support and strength.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an Oscar worthy film with an Oscar worthy performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have your own apocalyptic visions and don’t need to borrow anyone else’s!

watch the trailer:


MACHINE GUN PREACHER

October 7, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on true stories and real people tend to receive the benefit of the doubt from me, even when they exaggerate those truths and characters. At the beginning of the movie, Sam Childers is an ex-con, druggie, gun-loving drug dealer, thug, lousy dad, worse husband, and overall man of failed character. When he finds God, he loses the drugs but the only other thing that really changes is his postal address.  All of that is based on the real life Childers.

 Sam Childers sees himself as a modern day crusader working to make a better life for the war orphans in Sudan. It’s impossible to argue that he hasn’t had an impact on lives. The real question is, at what cost and by what methods? Over the closing credits, we even get a clip of the real Sam asking us “does it matter how?”.

You will find no debate here for whether or not this man has made a difference or whether his methods should be judged. This space is merely for analyzing the movie which is telling a story. Gerard Butler does an admirable job making Sam a somewhat sympathetic character. Re-read my first paragraph if you think that’s easy! Michelle Monaghan plays Lynn, his incredibly supportive wife who actually helped Sam find God, rather than continue his criminal, drug-addled ways with friend Donnie (Michael Shannon).

 While I found the story of the Sudanese children to be heart-breaking, the choppy and fragmented manner in which it’s presented was quite annoying. The story began in 1998 but we never really knew what year it was or how much time had passed between Sam’s trips home. Many of the gun battle scenes came across very staged and set-up for a cool shot of Butler brandishing a weapon and bandanna.  The photo at left is Gerald Butler discussing a scene with Sam Childers.

The production value of the film is surprising considering it’s directed by Marc Foster, who has many fine films to his credit (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland).  While watching, I had the feeling that there must have been some omitted scenes, and others were edited to the point of being nearly incoherent. 

So while I found the story to be quite interesting, I found the delivery to be less than adequate. This despite fine performances from Butler, Monaghan, Shannon, Kathy Baker and Madeline Carroll. There are numerous magazine articles about Sam Childers and I believe you will find those more accurate and informative.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for an interesting story about a fascinating real life man, and you can overlook the shoddy presentation OR you just want to see Gerald Butler looking cool with a machine gun!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you would rather read an article about the real life Sam Childers than watch chopped up version of his story.

watch the trailer: