PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

January 12, 2017

patriots-day Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too soon? If not, is it too painful to revisit? Even if the time is right, is injecting a fictitious supercop into the horrific events an acceptable approach? Every viewer of the film will have their own answers to these questions, but clearly writer/director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) and Boston area native Mark Wahlberg believed now is the time and that this is the best way to re-create this catastrophe and its fallout.

Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a Boston detective kicked back to uniform duty as penance for a run-in with another cop. His character is evidently a composite of multiple cops and first responders, and though he is the center of the film, the character is the weak link. He’s some type of supercop who never sleeps and manages to be literally everywhere something is happening … either the Boston Marathon finish line, FBI control center, the hospital interviewing survivors, or cruising the streets with his spotlight tracking down the bad guys.

Beyond Wahlberg’s character, the film does a remarkable job at re-creating the tragic events, the emotional and physical fallout, and the urgent law enforcement manhunt. Since it’s been less than 4 years, most every piece of this is fresh in our minds. We follow along from when the street cameras are used to identify the suspects all the way through the final capture from the backyard boat.

Another thing the film does well is tell the stories of certain individuals who were impacted. We experience the emotions of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), the preparedness and cool of Watertown Police Chief Jeffrey Pugliese (JK Simmons), the highs and lows of MIT Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), the terror and courage of captive Dun Meng (Jimmy O Yang), and the focus and conflicts of Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon). There is also the story of survivors Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Christopher O’Shea (Patrick Downes), and a few others who we get to know a little bit.

The bombers/terrorists/brothers are played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, and no effort is made to sympathize or explain their actions. The closest we get is an argument in the apartment with the wife (played by Melissa Benoist) over the wrong type of milk. I will not use the real names here as I don’t believe in providing any publicity for such creators of evil.

The film successfully establishes the “normal” start to what seemed to be a “normal” day. Of course, April 13 2013 turned out to be anything but. We hear the Newtown tribute at the opening of the race, and we see David Ortiz with his color proclamation at Fenway Park. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is always spot on with the mood, and the last 10 minutes are by far the most emotional … we hear from the real life survivors, first responders and others so crucial to that time. I may believe that this story would best be told in documentary form, but there is no denying that it’s a reminder of the power of love, and the spirit of Boston and America.

NOTE: why does it seem Michelle Monaghan is underutilized in almost every movie she appears? She is such a fine actress, but she rarely seems to get the screen time she should

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DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

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WHIPLASH (2014)

October 26, 2014

whiplash Greetings again from the darkness. The pursuit of greatness is not always pretty. No matter if your dream is athletics, dancing, music or some other; you can be sure hard work and sacrifice will be part of your routine. You will likely have a mentor, teacher or coach whose job is to cultivate your skills while pushing you to new limits. This film questions whether the best approach is intimidation or society’s current preferred method of nurturing.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first year student at an elite Manhattan music conservatory. Andrew dreams of being a great jazz drummer in the vein of Buddy Rich. When offered a rare shot at the top jazz orchestra, Andrew quickly discovers the conductor is a breed unlike anything he has ever encountered. The best movie comparison I can offer for JK Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher is R Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket. This is no warm-hearted Mr Holland’s Opus. Fletcher bullies, intimidates, humiliates and uses every imaginable form of verbal abuse to push his musicians, and especially young Andrew, to reach for greater heights.

Andrew and Fletcher go head to head through the entire movie, with Fletcher’s mental torment turning this into a psychological thriller … albeit with tremendous music. We witness Andrew shut out all pieces of a personal life, and even take on some of Fletcher’s less desirable traits. Andrew’s diner break-up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is much shorter, but just as cold as the infamous opening scene in The Social Network. At a small dinner party, Andrew loses some of the sweetness he inherited from his dad (Paul Reiser), and unloads some Fletcherisms on some unsuspecting family friends.

Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has turned his Sundance award-winning short film into a fascinatingly brutal message movie that begs for discussion and debate. The open-ended approach is brilliant, though I found myself initially upset at the missing clean wrap that Hollywood so often provides. What price greatness? Is comeuppance a reward? Are mentors cruel to be kind? For the past few years, I have been proclaiming that Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is the next John Cusack. Perhaps that bar is too low. Teller just gets better with each film. His relentless energy draws us in, and we find ourselves in his corner … even though this time, he’s not the greatest guy himself. Still, as strong as Teller is, the film is owned by JK Simmons. Most think of him as the dad in Juno, or the ever-present insurance spokesman on TV, but he previously flashed his bad side as the white supremacist in “Oz“. Even that, doesn’t prepare us for Simmons’ powerhouse performance … just enough humanity to heighten his psychological torturing of musicians.

You should see this one for Simmons’ performance. Or see it for the up-and-coming Teller. Enjoy the terrific music, especially Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. See it for the talking points about teachers, society and personal greatness. See it for any or all these reasons – just don’t tell director Damien Chazelle “good job“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see JK Simmons in a likely contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar OR you have been waiting for someone to prove a drum solo can actually be worthy of your attention

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in exploring what is involved in attaining greatness, regardless of the talent or skill

watch the trailer: