Greetings again from the darkness. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist JR Moehringer published his memoir in 2005. Fortunately for him, it led to his being in high demand to pen the memoirs of others. Unfortunately for us, it also led to George Clooney directing a mostly listless movie version. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006), the film does offer a surprisingly interesting performance from Ben Affleck, while also failing to capitalize on other elements that could have provided a boost.
Opening with Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” blasting over the speakers, this is the story of JR – from his childhood through young adulthood. Young JR (the acting debut of Daniel Ranieri) is being raised by his resourceful single mom (Lily Rabe, ALL GOOD THINGS, 2010). Financial hardships force them from the city, back to the Long Island home of JR’s grumpy grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Although his mother is a bit down at having to move back home, young JR embraces the slew of family members who use the house as a congregating spot. He’s also taken under the wing of Uncle Charlie (2 time Oscar winner BenAffleck), who runs the neighborhood bar called The Dickens.
Uncle Charlie becomes JR’s adult male role model, and he passes along his love of reading to the boy. It’s this that inspires JR to dream of becoming a writer – a dream that doesn’t necessarily conflict with his mother’s dream for him to attend Yale. Other life lessons include cancer, bowling, and living with regular disappointment courtesy of JR’s absentee dad, a radio DJ referred to by the family as ‘The Voice’ (MaxMartini, the “Fifty Shades” movies). In addition to Uncle Charlie’s ever-present cigarette, adult beverage, and book of the day, are the regulars at the bar played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and MatthewDelamater. Regrettably, these guys rarely offer anything outside of well-placed one-liners. JR is surrounded by folks who say they will always be there for him. And they mean they will always be there. They aren’t going anywhere. Dreams and ambition don’t exist, except for JR’s mother – for her son, not for herself.
The first half of the movie is significantly more interesting and entertaining than the second. Once TyeSheridan (MUD, 2012) takes over the role of JR, we immediately miss the bright eyes and eager spirit of young Daniel Ranieri. The realities of getting older set in as JR heads to Yale (class of ’86). As JR fumbles through a romantic relationship with classmate Sidney (Brianna Middleton), he’s little more than a typically clueless young man blind to realities of his situation. JR’s post-college stint at the New York Times delivers very little that interests us … heck, we aren’t even sure JR is interested in the job.
I rarely find Ben Affleck’s performance to be the best thing about a movie, but he is excellent here, following yet another terrific performance in THE WAY BACK (2020). Growing up, we all have role models. Affleck’s Uncle Charlie is one of those well-meaning adults who seemed larger than life when we were young. His endless advice can be categorized as some good, some not so good – a combination which renders most of it meaningless. But instilling a love of reading and learning is one of the most important traits one can pass along to a youngster. The movie’s issues aren’t with that message, but rather with the bland storytelling. The recurring gags of ‘what does JR stand for?’ and ‘where’s my 30 bucks?’ are just the most obvious misguided attempts at cuteness.
Greetings again from the darkness. There are many reasons that might force a kid to grow up too fast. But when it’s in conjunction with having to care for a parent, we can consider it ill-fated. Director Inon Shampanier co-wrote the script with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, and they adeptly handle a story that, in lesser hands, could be over-wrought and not believable. Instead, they benefit from two excellent performances and deliver an emotional and poignant tale of mother and daughter and mental illness.
Lili Taylor stars as Dawn, mother to straight-A high school senior Melanie, played by Stefania LaVie Owen (“Messiah”). We first meet them while on a rainy day campus tour. Dawn is direct in expressing her wish that Melanie remain close to home for college, while ambitious Melanie wants to attend her late father’s alma mater, USC, on a full academic scholarship. It’s clear mother and daughter have a close relationship, but something is a bit off about Dawn, and we get our answer soon enough.
As the new neighbors are moving in, the truck backs into a tree that Dawn’s husband planted years earlier. Dawn flips out, setting off a chain of events where she is convinced the new neighbor is spying on her, tormenting her, and endangering her. Of course, there is no proof of any of this, and the further Dawn slips, the more difficult it is for Melanie to carry the burden of school, a social life, and a paranoid-delusional mother.
Michael Cyril Creighton plays the school counselor that Melanie ropes into meeting with her mother. The scene is played to an awkward comedic effect, but also exemplifies how mental illness creates a stressful environment for everyone involved. Dawn’s agitated attorney boss is played by David Rasche, and Melanie also sets up a profile for mom on an internet dating site, with less-than-hoped-for results. During all of this, Melanie begins a relationship with a rich, alcoholic classmate named Daniel (Ian Nelson), who understandably isn’t equipped to deal with the situation either. Peyton List plays Melanie’s bestie Lacy, and Max Casella has a couple of scenes as the Private Investigator Dawn hires to surveil the neighbor. All in all, it’s a cluster of real life twisted up by mental illness.
Lili Taylor is excellent, and makes sure she keeps Dawn’s actions in the believable-yet-sufferable mode. But the film really belongs to Stefanie LaVie Owen. This is a staggeringly good performance from the young actress, and she quietly conveys a strength in the face of shock and frustration, and the unfair burden she must carry. The film is a reminder that we don’t get to pick our family, and the responsibilities can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not a horror film, but rather one filled with personal horrors – and the film’s title will make sense by the end.
Greetings again from the darkness. ”A woman who hates women”. That is how talk show host Katherine Newbury is described. Oh, and her show’s ratings have been declining for 10 years, she doesn’t even know most of her writers by sight (or name), and we are led to believe that her age has something to do with the new network executive wanting to replace her. Five minutes in, my opinion was that Katherine Newbury doesn’t like people (not just women), is basically a narcissistic jerk, and her age has nothing to do with her being replaced … it’s the fact that her show is lame, she’s not appealing to viewers, and advertising revenues drop with poor ratings. It’s called business – not sexism or gender discrimination. Never once did this seem like someone getting a raw deal. However, it’s only a movie, so I tried to play along.
Very talented actors fill the screen. Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the stuck-in-her-ways, Emmy winning talk show host hanging on based on reputation and longevity in the business. Her character reminds me of David Letterman towards the end of his long run … scandal and all. Mindy Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a factory, err, chemical plant worker, who dreams of being a comedy writer, but puts no effort into actually learning the craft. Instead, luck puts her in the right place at the time the show needs a token hire. Enter Molly, a woman of color in a writers’ room full of white men. The interesting dynamic here is that most of the men in the room probably got their seat thanks to connections, while Molly got hers based on gender. Talent and skill seem to play no part for any of them.
The story is basically Molly trying to find her true self by helping Katherine modernize her evil ways and save her job. There are quite a few little sub-stories – can’t really call them subplots – that mostly distract from the overall direction, but serve the purpose of allowing punchlines or supposedly insightful social commentary. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s wise, Parkinson’s stricken husband, and the writers’ boys club includes Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Max Casella (“Ray Donovan”), Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA), and Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”). Ike Barinholtz plays the hot young comedian being groomed as Katherine’s replacement, and it’s Amy Ryan (“The Office”) who really registers as the network President. More of Ms. Ryan’s character and more attention to the network perspective would have improved the film.
Director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”) is working from the script by Ms. Kaling, whose real life experiences as a token hire in the industry could have been better presented. A lame stab at a romance distracts from the reactions of the threatened writers materializing in a lack of respect towards Molly, and most of the comedy felt forced and obvious, rather than real and painful (the sources of the best comedy). It’s a shame that most any episode of “30 Rock” or “The Office” provides more insightful commentary and comedy than this film. It’s such a missed opportunity.
Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.
The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.
To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).
Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.
The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.
Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.
Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.
Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us know what to expect when we hear “it’s a Jason Statham movie”. However, when you add to that “written by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman”, it generates a bit more excitement and higher expectations than normal. This becomes slightly complicated when the Jason Statham part stretches his acting, but it’s the script that is essentially a letdown.
The film is a remake of the 1986 film HEAT with Burt Reynolds, and both movie versions are based on Goldman’s novel of that title. This time it’s Jason Statham as Las Vegas security expert Nick Wild, who possesses a particular set of skills … to go along with a drinking and gambling problem. Known for such films as CON AIR(1997), THE MECHANIC(also with Statham, 2011), and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (also with Statham, 2012), director Simon West is no stranger to action sequences and cool guys with baggage. There are a couple of outstanding fight scenes that capitalize on Nick Wild’s preference for non-traditional weapons, including a huge finale at The Silver Spoon Diner where he utilizes, well, silver spoons.
Statham gets an opportunity to do something besides fight and drive, as he is cast as the emotionally handicapped warrior with a big heart. He protects his friends and does favors for those who are weaker. In fact, the banter between he and Michael Angarano (as Cyrus) is some of the best work of Statham’s career. The noir-speak dialogue allows Statham to have some fun with vocabulary words, but the script never really lets him connect with anyone other than Cyrus. Instead we get too many scenes of guzzling vodka and an extended blackjack scene that is so predictable, it’s actually kind of annoying to watch.
The biggest downside to the film is the steady stream of recognizable and pretty well-known actors who pop up for only a brief scene or two. The list includes Sophia Vergara sporting a sweater that flaunts her assets, Max Casella as her conniving boyfriend, Jason Alexander as an office-sharing attorney, Hope Davis as a blackjack dealer, Dominik Garcia-Lorido (Andy Garcia’s daughter) as Nick’s call girl friend in need, Milo Ventimiglia as bad guy Danny DeMarco, Anne Heche as the supportive diner waitress, and a wonderful, but all too brief, Stanley Tucci as a hotel/casino owner modeled on a few real life owners and mobsters.
Although the film skips the traditional Statham car chases and love-making, we do get many flashy shots of him driving a classic Pontiac GT. The old school Vegas setting is a welcome diversion from the glitzy new Vegas we more often see in movies. Keeping with the retro feel is Dean Martin crooning “Blue Christmas” in the opening moments, and other classic songs carefully coordinated throughout the story. Statham’s struggles with alcohol and gambling, and his stated intent to leave Vegas forever provide the film with an incredibly disjointed and lightweight story from the pen of someone as decorated as William Goldman. It’s nice to see Statham sport a bit of emotional depth, but the film likely doesn’t offer enough fight scenes for his true fans. The dark and humorous moments provide enough entertainment to encourage those fans to give it a shot, but please be careful with those spoons.