GREEN BOOK (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a travel guide highlighting safe places for African Americans to stay, eat and visit from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. Yes, it was a real publication and yes, there was a real need for it during the Jim Crow era. The book makes for a nice movie title, but this sterling dramedy from director Peter Farrelly focuses more on the budding friendship of two men from vastly different worlds separated by a few city blocks.

Mr. Farrelly is one-half of the infamous Farrelly Brothers who have directed such raunchy comedy hits as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) and DUMB AND DUMBER (1994). This is quite the change of pace for him, as it is for co-stars Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner last year for MOONLIGHT) and heavy drama stalwart Viggo Mortensen. We see a crisp blend of the era’s harsh racism and the inherent comedy of a buddy road trip featuring a working class NYC Italian-American and an upper crust, well-educated, world class African-American pianist.

The film kicks off in 1962 at the Copacabana, a mob-controlled club where Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a beefed up Mortensen) gives us an up-close look at his bouncer skills. He’s quite good at his job. When the club closes for renovation, he takes a job as a chauffeur/bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who is beginning an 8 week tour as the featured player in a jazz trio through the Midwest and Deep South. Tony Lip is a walking Italian cliché, while Dr Shirley is a regal black man … in fact, he might view himself as royalty – living alone in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. This is a good time to note that Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script, is a producer on the film, and even makes an appearance as a State Trooper.

Inspired by the true story of this trip and the lifelong friendship that ensued, we get to know both men as they get to know each other. Tony Lip is a streetwise man who is comfortable with his lot in life, while Dr. Shirley plays his role in society while quietly stewing internally. He flashes his toothy grin to disarm the adoring white audiences, but then sucks down his Cutty Sark in the evening, as he is good enough to perform for them, but not good enough to dine with them (or even use their restroom). There are times the racism gets violent and that’s where Tony Lip comes in.

Don helps Tony write romantic and intimate letters to his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini), while Tony teaches Don about KFC and Little Richard … proclaiming “I’m blacker than you!” in one of the film’s funniest moments. It’s an awkward buddy film that in real life developed into a decades-long friendship – one that only ended when both died in 2013. It could be described as a twisted DRIVING MISS DAISY with a dose of THE HELP. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, even delivering a mushy ending not dissimilar to that of PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Of course we don’t mind, because after spending a couple of hours with these two, we are fine with a feel-good ending. The film is showcase for two terrific actors, and for those that don’t know, the real Tony Lip appeared in a few projects such as “The Sopranos” and DONNIE BRASCO.  Expect to see these two actors get some love at Oscar time, and this is one of the few that can be recommended to just about every movie lover.

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DADDY’S HOME 2 (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s rare for a sequel to be a better film than the original, and we are entering unicorn territory when dealing with comedy sequels improving on the first film. So hearing that most of the original cast is back for material from the same creative team – director Sean Anders and his co-writers Brian Burns and John Morris – well, expectations would normally be pretty low. However, all of that changes when we learn of two cast/character additions: Mel Gibson and John Lithgow.

After the fierce daddy competition between Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) in the original two years ago, this film picks up with what looks to be a very healthy co-dad environment for all involved. In comedy-based cinema, the best way to disrupt a happy family synergy is to introduce the Christmas season and the sure-to-follow family turmoil. Enter Mel Gibson as Dusty’s estranged dad, and John Lithgow as Brad’s so-close-it’s-too-close dad … and let the holiday escapades begin.

At its core, this is an observational comedy about the contrast between old school and contemporary fatherhood – machismo vs emotionally open. Mel Gibson is key to the story working on multiple levels, and his performance is a reminder of his immense screen talent (in spite his personal life issues). His character’s idea of being a father has been around for many generations. Toughen up the kids and make sure they are strong and independent. Keep those emotions close to the vest. On the other side is John Lithgow and his over-hugging and blubbering true feelings approach.

The familiar supporting cast holds up their end admirably. Linda Cardellini and Alessandra Ambrosio are back as Brad’s and Dusty’s wives, respectively. Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, and Didi Costine are back as the kids – each with their own quirks and growing pains. Even John Cena returns as Adrianna’s biological father, and to deliver one of the film’s best punchlines, as well as a bit that might forever ruin Christmas caroling for you.

The trailer, as with most comedies these days, gives away too many of the funny moments, so don’t expect any additional spoilers here. There is some comedy brilliance mixed in with the cheesy, over-the-top slapstick (a snowblower scene that could have easily worked in CHRISTMAS VACATION almost 30 years ago). The brilliant moments are often the quieter ones, and they focus on parenting, family, and the challenges of childhood. There is a surprising and unusual cameo near the end, and the movie is well executed to satisfy its built-in audience, while also capitalizing on those who enjoy (and/or need) a good, clean comedy at Christmas time.

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THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

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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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