Greetings again from the darkness. With their first 22 feature films, Pixar excelled at balancing the eye candy and action kids favor with the second level intellect needed to simultaneously keep adults entertained. As proof, one need only think of such classics as TOY STORY, CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES. Surprisingly, film number 23 is the first Pixar film aimed directly at adults. It’s a marvelous companion piece to the brilliant INSIDE OUT (2015), but be forewarned, there is simply nothing, or at least very little, for kids to latch onto.
The film is co-directed by 2 time Oscar winner Pete Docter (INSIDE OUT 2015, UP 2009) and Kemp Powers (the screenplay and stage production of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, 2020), and they were joined on the screenplay by Mike Jones. And yes, it’s a brilliant script to go along with the always stunning Pixar visuals and effects. Brace yourself for a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life and finding one’s purpose. As we’ve come to expect on Pixar projects, the voice cast is deep and filled with well-known folks such as Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and June Squibb. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.
Mr. Foxx plays Joe, a junior high band teacher still chasing his dream of performing jazz and experiencing the feeling that only music can provide … “the zone”. Instead, the school offers him a full-time teaching job, and his mother demands he seize the stability (and insurance) and give up his silly dream of jazz. As seen in the preview, shortly after an audition lands him his dream jazz gig, a freak accident occurs and Joe finds himself in “The Great Beyond”, where a conveyor belt takes those souls whose time has come to that giant bug zapper in the sky. Joe’s not willing to accept his plight and finagles his way into being a mentor for Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in “The Great Before” where unborn souls search for their “spark”. It’s all very existential.
After a look back at his life, Joe takes 22 to “The Hall of Everything”, which is the one segment in the film which felt underplayed … much could have been done with 22 looking for a reason to live. Instead, it’s a few great punchlines, including a Knicks gag that will surely play well among basketball fans. We learn of the fine line separating “lost souls” from those “in the zone”, and mostly we take in the banter between Joe and 22, as purpose and passion become the subjects of chatter.
As with most Pixar movies, multiple viewings are required to catch all the sight-gags, one-liners, and Easter eggs, however, the first viewing is like unwrapping a giant Christmas present. The opening Disney theme is hilariously played by a junior high school band, and the score is courtesy of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010). Director Docter claims Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger makes a vocal appearance, but I didn’t catch it. The film leaves us with the message that the meaning of life is simply living life … and keep on jazzing.
Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger – maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.
Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator’s hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide
Mr. Lee’s film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, “The General”, finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It’s here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it’s soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the “bounty-hunter” game. Chapter 2, “The Cooke’s” has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it’s worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke’s land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, “The Sheriff”, brings us to the terrifically named town of “Knife’s Edge” where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It’s an old mining town and the citizens live in fear – especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a ‘high noon’ duel in the dusty street.
Chapter 4, “Breecher”, acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was “born to violence.” His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he’s become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can’t help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message … ‘Be still, young man.”
Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.
If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.
The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.
Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.
The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.
Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.
Greetings again from the darkness. Having done no research to determine how closely Nick Flynn’s autobiography/memoirs entitled “Another Bull**** Night in Suck City” follows his real life, it is safe for me to say that there is some pleasure to be had from a movie that lacks the traditional Hollywood ending of redemption for rotten souls. We do know that in real life, as in the movie, Nick met his long-lost father while working at a homeless shelter. This happened after Nick’s mother committed suicide. Not exactly the most cheerful start, eh?
This story will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has experienced abandonment by a parent (or two). Hopefully, your personal story doesn’t also include the alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the guilt of believing you were responsible for the loving parent’s suicide. Nick’s story does. He makes no apologies for the behavior of himself or either of his parents. He just lays it out for us to see.
Nick is played well with an almost detached passive aggressiveness by Paul Dano. He seems constantly numbed by the situation life places him in. Astonishment kicks in when he comes face to face with his father Jonathan, a self-proclaimed brilliant writer, but also con artist and racist. Jonathan, played by Robert DeNiro, is first seen as a taxi driver. Yes, Robert DeNiro as a taxi driver, almost 40 years after his iconic turn in Taxi Driver! It’s a startling image for a movie lover, but one that doesn’t last long. Jonathan loses that job as he has lost everything else.
Nick’s internal battle is obvious. He doesn’t want to be his father, but constantly sees glimpses that they are more similar than he would prefer. Nick manages to mess up a good thing with his co-worker played by the terrific Olivia Thirlby. She experiences the frustration of trying to save someone who doesn’t really want to be saved.
Strong support work comes from Wes Studi, Dale Dickey, William Stadler, Lili Taylor (Nick Flynn‘s real life wife) and Julianne Moore. Ms. Moore plays Nick’s mother, but really has little to do. Though she provided a strong foundation for Nick, this is really the story of Nick and Jonathan. It’s DeNiro’s best dramatic work in years and is a reminder that he is capable of more than the “Focker” movies (Paul Weitz actually directed Being FlynnAND Little Fockers, as well as About a Boyand American Pie. This one can’t be termed enjoyable, but it is an interesting look at “real” life without a Hollywood twist.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have forgotten (or never knew) that Robert DeNiro is an accomplished dramatic actor
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: bleak, dysfunctional family dramas are not your preference for springtime fare