LEAN ON PETE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his gut-wrenching 45 YEARS (2015) is “a boy and a horse” movie that is every bit as emotionally draining, and secures his spot as one of the best filmmakers at bringing characters we thoroughly believe to the screen. It’s based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and could be described as coming-of-age, slice-of-life, or even a road movie. While it’s each of these, it is also much more … though I fear it is one of this year’s indie gems that will likely slide between the cracks with far too few taking the time to experience it.

Charlie Plummer was most recently seen in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD as Getty’s kidnapped grandson. Here he stars as Charley, a 15 year old boy living a half-step from poverty with his caring, but unprepared single dad (Travis Fimmel). Charley goes for morning runs around town, and his polite mannerisms include effusive praising and expressing gratitude to his dad’s mistress (Amy Seimitz) for cooking a full breakfast – a rare treat for this growing teenager. Charley stumbles into part time work with has-been horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a man whose career, health and demeanor have all seen better days. Horse trainer in this context is far removed from the glamour of the Kentucky Derby. Del works his horses hard for meager winnings on the county fair circuit, and when their time is up, the horses are shipped to Mexico for ‘processing’.

Charley and Del form a bond based on Del’s cheapness and Charley’s work ethic and love of the horses. When tragedy strikes, the movie shifts to a road trip vibe, with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) joining on as a jockey. The three are a quasi-family but mostly they are each just trying to get along in a life that isn’t always kind. When Charley ignores Bonnie’s advice to not get too attached to the horses, he and the titular Pete are soon trudging across the backcountry.

Charley’s life on the streets provides many life lessons, but not much joy. He crosses paths with an initially friendly addict named Silver (Steve Zahn), and along the trip, his childhood memories provide some hope – especially as related to Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott). These all feel like real folks that we could meet at any time. Some are helpful, yet the biggest life lesson of all comes roaring through these mostly quiet scenes – people care most about themselves.

This most certainly isn’t a Disney-style horse movie like DREAMER, and in fact, it’s much less a horse story than it is Charley’s story. The core message seems to be that no matter how gentle one’s soul, human nature adapts in times of desperation. It’s pure cinematic pleasure to have both Mr. Buscemi and Ms. Sevigny in the same film, but the shining light here is Charlie Plummer. With little dialogue, he conveys so much about what he is thinking and feeling. His desire is to have some stability – someone or something that he can depend on. It’s the security many of us take for granted. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (A WAR, 2015) beautifully captures the endless Pacific Northwest landscapes, while also managing the intimate and thoughtful moments. Mr. Haigh’s two most recent films add him to my must-see list … I just wish there were more who would find pleasure in his displays of lack of joy.

watch the trailer:

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

December 3, 2015

the good dinosaur Greetings again from the darkness. Two Pixar films in one year? Earlier this year, the brilliant Inside Out reminded us just what sets Pixar apart from other animation studios … the film was intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, funny and emotional enough to bring tears to the eyes of many parents. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow – even for Pixar!

Of course, 2015 was not intended to be a double-header for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur ran into serious production and story issues at the same time the studio was going through layoffs and reorganization. So the six year project turned into eight, as a new creative team was brought in (led by director Peter Sohn), and the story and characters were re-worked and re-imagined. The finished product is likely the most staggeringly beautiful animation to ever hit the big screen, while at the same time being some of the darkest and bleakest material ever presented by Pixar.

The premise is pretty interesting: What would Earth be like if THE asteroid had missed, and the dinosaurs survived? That’s about as sciency as the story gets, other than it does portray nature as a colossal adversary (what’s with the hallucinogenic berries?). We first meet Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus as they work their corn fields (huh?) and wait for their baby eggs to hatch. The runt of the litter is Arlo, who just can’t keep up with his more active siblings and who feels inadequate in comparison to his majestic father.

Arlo and nature are responsible for the tragedy that sends Arlo off on a journey that features the full spectrum: the importance of family, the sadness of loss, the strength of friendship, and the self-discovery that leads to independence. While there are quite a few laughs along the way, the fear and isolation that Arlo experiences takes up most of the movie, and could leave all but the strongest kids feeling anything but upbeat and happy.

There is a life lesson about making one’s mark, and an oddball friendship between Arlo and young boy (named Spot??) who is wise to nature. But this one lacks the charm of most Pixar outings, while at the same time reaching technical levels that are breathtaking to behold. It’s difficult to imagine many kids wanting to watch this one again and again, but for all you Pixar nerds, you can rest easy … John Ratzenberger does make a vocal appearance.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

November 11, 2013

dallas1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not unusual for an actor or actress to alter their physical appearance for a movie role. Sometimes those changes become the story: Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist and Charlize Theron in Monster are a few that come to mind. Regardless of the transformation or make-up, what really matters is the performance and the character. Just ask Eddie Murphy (Norbit) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Shallow Hal). In Dallas Buyers Club, we actually get two incredible transformations that lead to two stunning performances.

dallas2 Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto each lost approximately 40 pounds for their respective roles as Ron Woodroof, the redneck, three-way loving, alcoholic, drug-addicted electrician/rodeo cowboy; and Rayon, the sensitive, street-savvy, would-be transsexual so desperate for a kind word. Their physical appearance will startle you more than once, but is quite effective in getting across the struggles of those infected with HIV virus in the 1980’s. The number of victims impacted exploded and the medical profession was ill-equipped to properly treat the patients.

This is based on a true story and a real life guy (Woodroof) who became a most unlikely beacon of hope for AIDS patients. Woodroof fought the medical industry, Pharmaceutical companies and the government (FDA, DEA, IRS). It’s impossible to miss the message and accusations that most of these had a single goal of increasing profits, rather than dallas3curing the disease. And that’s where the story lags a bit. Michael O’Neill and Dennis O’Hare are the faces of greed and bureaucracy, while Jennifer Garner, Leto, and Griffin Dunne represent the side with a heart (though Ms. Garner is clearly out of her class here). Woodroof seems to be a guy who just doesn’t want to die, sees a business opportunity, and even learns a little bit about humanity along the way.

There have been numerous other projects that deal with AIDS, including: Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. This may be the first with a protagonist who is distinctly unlikeable, despite his passion and strong survival instincts. McConaughey doesn’t shy away from the homophobic personality and cruel manner of speech that Woodroof possesses. We never doubt his frustration at those controlling the big picture, but we never really see him connect with those his brash tactics help.

dallas4 McConaughey is on a dream run as an actor right now, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see him garner an Oscar nomination. But it would be a mistake to chalk that up to his losing so much weight – he really delivers a character that we won’t soon forget. And let’s not overlook Mr. Leto, who has been away from acting for 4 years touring with his band. He is a remarkable talent and a true screen presence. Compare this role to his Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. It’s not just the range of weight, but moreso the range in acting that so impresses.

Also worth noting here is the outstanding cinematography of Yves Belanger. This movie is shot in a way that brings out the intimacy of the moment, while not losing the big picture. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) and co-writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack work together for a solid foundation, but it’s McConaughey and Leto that we will most remember … and of course, the pics of the great Marc Bolan on the wall.

**NOTE: for you baseball fans, that is in fact slugger Adam Dunn as a bartender.  He was also an investor in the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see two of the best and most startling acting performances of the year OR you want a glimpse at the confusion and panic that the AIDS epidemic brought to the mid 1980’s.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an elegant treatment of AIDS … this one will make your skin crawl.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvMPU0WaPcc