THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)

April 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That’s really the message from Robin Bissell’s directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”. Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson’s book was previously adapted for a stage production.

Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Oscar winner Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne “CP” Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as “Roughhouse Annie” can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.

A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire … while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a “Charrette” – a blend of a committee and a civic debate – to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.

The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It’s just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it’s Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he’s known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it’s Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

As you would expect, it’s a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis’ wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it’s right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BLACKkKLANSMAN believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it’s worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the “feel-good” and “can’t we all just get along” approach, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.

watch the trailer:

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VICE (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration … and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.

In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman), the asymmetrical smirk – Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.

Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970’s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.

The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man’, and most fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin’ George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here … his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.

Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.

September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority … at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost”, and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.

Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.

Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works.  “America” from WEST SIDE STORY is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.

watch the trailer:


BLAZE (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “I don’t want to be a star, I wants to be a legend.” The first quote comes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and the second is drawled by Blaze Foley as he snuggles with his muse and lover in the back of a pickup truck. We can imagine the first quote inspired many stories over the years by those who knew Blaze, and it might also have served as a driving force for writer/director Ethan Hawke as he crafted this graceful tribute to an underappreciated songwriter and his too short life.

Mr. Hawke is a 2-time Oscar nominee as an actor, and his best known previous turn as director was for CHELSEA WALLS (2001). He (a distant relative of Tennessee Williams) has also been twice Oscar nominated as a writer (BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT), and his movies are often music related or influenced. His latest is a biopic of a mostly unrecognized country-folk artist, and Hawke collaborated with Sybil Rosen to adapt her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”. It’s Ms. Rosen who shared the bed of that pickup referenced in the first paragraph above.

Ben Dickey plays Blaze and Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Not only does Dickey capture the spirit and sound of Foley’s music, but the scenes with Blaze and Sybil as a couple are some of the most touching and realistic relationship sequences we’ve seen on screen. We understand their connection … and their disconnection. It’s proof that two people can be both ‘made for each other’ and ‘wrong for each other’. Director Hawke utilizes different time periods, as well as a framing device in the form of a radio interview. None of this works in traditional biopic manner as the interview features the great troubadour and musical poet Townes Van Zandt (played exceptionally well by Charlie Sexton) recollecting the times (both good and bad) he spent with his friend Blaze. He’s joined by another Foley friend and collaborator, Zee (Josh Hamilton) as the two color in the blanks to ensure the legendary status desired by Blaze. The DJ is voiced by Ethan Hawke, who is only seen from behind.

In addition to the radio interview and the relationship with Sybil, we also have multiple scenes of Blaze’s final live show being recorded at the old Austin Outhouse. The nearly two hours of music and philosophizing were turned into a record release that remains (nearly 30 years later) a mesmerizing listen. These 3 very distinct pieces fit together to bring Blaze into focus as both a songwriter and troubled man – one who found himself in too many fights and, ultimately, on the wrong end of a gunshot in 1989.

Philosophy and homespun wisdom and catchphrases flow from Blaze during his songs and even when he’s just hanging with his buddies or Sybil. The real Sybil Rosen plays her own mother in a scene where Blaze meets the parents, and there is a touching moment in the film where Blaze plays for his estranged dad (a wonderful, albeit brief performance from Kris Kristofferson), the founder of The Singing Fuller Family where Blaze got his musical start. It’s these kind of touches that elevate the film into a must see whether you are familiar with Blaze Foley or not.

BLAZE FOLEY: DUCT TAPE MESSIAH is a 2011 documentary that would nicely compliment Mr. Hawke’s film, although this version contains much more humor – including cameos by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell as Zephyr Records executives. With Louis Black (founder of SXSW and a former film class TA of yours truly) as an Executive Producer, and songs by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, this little gem is likely to awaken viewers to a bygone era of music that tends to be remembered only for Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and Merle.

watch the trailer:


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

July 13, 2013

way way1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those indies that has all the pieces in place to be not just a terrific “little” movie, but also a surprise box office hit.  It played well at festivals, critics love it, it has a very talented cast, it mixes humor with human emotion, and the co-directors and co-writers won an Oscar (with Alexander Payne) for writing the script to The Descendants.  It even offers the often effective coming-of-age story line in regards to Duncan (played by Liam James) as a miserable 14 year old stuck at a beach house with him mom, her obnoxious boyfriend and his snobby daughter.

The movie has a touch of “The Wonder Years” (without the narrator), but it’s a bit more caustic thanks to Steve Carell, who plays Trent, the condescending and bullying boyfriend who has no redeeming qualities that we can see (other than an inherited beach house and a nice tan).  It’s very unusual to see Carell in the “bad guy” role, but once you accept it, his lines and way way3lies cut through each scene.  Duncan’s mom is played by Toni Collette, and her character Pam is a divorced, insecure single mom trying to balance her own happiness with that of her teen-angst-filled son. Pam and Duncan are the outsiders in this beach community as we quickly learn when next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) barges across property lines (and personal space) with drink in hand and gossip flying.

Feeling further humiliated by his encounters with Betty’s cute daughter, Duncan finally gains a ray of hope thanks to Owen, the man-child manager of the Water Wizz park.  Sam Rockwell plays Owen, and quickly becomes a mentor to him by offering him a job and what I call … Water Wizzdom.  Of course, Duncan keeps the job a secret from the others in his life, and since they are mostly oblivious to his long absences, it proves again how self-centered the adults are in this little would-be family.

way way2 The well worn movie signs are all here … we recognize the characters and their struggles, in fact, we all know someone like each of the people that co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash present to us. We understand quickly that this is yet another coming-of-age tale with mostly clueless adults, and kids trying to cope on their own. Despite that, this one still mostly works. The writing and acting are such high quality that even though we are living in movie cliché-land, we still find ourselves caring about Duncan and Pam, laughing at Owen, and tossing tomatoes at Trent (Carell).

Special recognition to Sam Rockwell. Even though Duncan is the key character, it’s Rockwell’s Owen who recognizes that a little faith and encouragement goes a long way. Behind the facade of rapid-fire banter and laugh-inducing one-liners, Owen is coming to grips with a life of reality and shattered dreams. While never stooping to the typical Hollywood “win one for the Gipper” speech, Owen manages to instill a bit of confidence in Duncan … to the point where he refuses to let his mother pretend everything is OK with Trent.

way way4 AnnaSophia Robb plays the cute girl-next-door who recognizes potential in Duncan, but the filmmakers never allow this to turn into some ridiculous fairy tale. Instead we get characters who are each flawed, but real and recognizable. While all the typical pieces are present, there is enough crackle to the dialogue and quality acting to help this one rise above the usual muck. It’s a nice “little” alternative to the giant summer blockbusters. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown again that they have a gift for dialogue and now a talent for guiding actors.  In this, their directorial debut, they prove that they also have skills as filmmakers. We should expect the next one to be even better!

**NOTE: you may think this looks like another Little Miss Sunshine, but it really flips the percentages in comedy vs drama

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: quirkiness and caustic dialogue mixed with some humorous and familiar coming-of-age moments are what you are looking for this summer movie season OR you want to see Steve Carell play something other than a nice guy

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are seeking light-hearted summer fluff … this one is filled with uncomfortable family drama

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qoaVUdbWMs


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA