THE TENDER BAR (2021)

December 21, 2021

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 Ben Affleck), 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’ (Max Martini, 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 Matthew Delamater. 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 Tye Sheridan (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.

Opening in theaters December 22, 2021

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MOJAVE (2016)

January 21, 2016

mojave Greetings again from the darkness. The isolation of the desert seems the perfect place for an artist to achieve the existential awakening necessary during a time of personal doubt and crisis. The journey to find one’s true self becomes much more complicated when the one-man desert getaway is interrupted by heavy boozing, self-destructive tendencies, and a serial-killer sociopath. Such is the case with writer/director William Monahan’s (Oscar winner for his screenplay of The Departed) latest film.

Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a very successful filmmaker, who seems to take no joy from his life of luxury … a mansion in the hills, cool cars, a wife and daughter, and endless adulation. Sporting the ultra-cool celebrity look of sunglasses and long hair, Thomas heads off into the desert to either clear his mind or end his life. We aren’t really sure which, and neither is he. Lots of Vodka and reckless Jeep driving leave Thomas in a showdown of wits and machismo across a campfire from a sinister yet articulate drifter.

The drifter is Jack, played by Oscar Isaac, and it’s no surprise when we learn he is a serial killer … the sociopath part we figured out quickly, right along with Thomas. Their under-the-stars confrontation leads to a tragic accident the next day, and pits these two in a B-movie game of cat and mouse with a tone that reminds a bit of Cape Fear (1991) and U-Turn (1997).

Heading back to L.A., Thomas comes up with an incredibly stupid plan to cover his tracks. Being famous “since I was 19 years old” and having financial success with movies hasn’t trained Thomas on facing off against a clever nemesis. Even his discussion with his manager (played by an unusually low-key Walton Goggins) comes across as literary-speak rather than real advice. “Worry about what seems to be” is the advice Thomas rolls with.

Monahan fills the screen with tough-guy dialogue for these two characters that are both simultaneously stupid and smart. Jack and Thomas go at each like a couple of intellects, but it’s the class warfare that stands out. The 99% versus the 1%. The message seems to be that it comes down to circumstance on whether one is an artist or a psychotic felon … and the line separating the two is pretty slim.

It’s also not a very well disguised ripping of the film industry … especially of producers. Mark Wahlberg chews some scenery as a d-bag movie producer who talks loud and fast while accomplishing little. It’s a pretty funny turn for Wahlberg, though unfortunately his character spends limited time on screen. Louise Bourgoin has a couple of scenes, and quickly proves more would have been welcome.

The film may not be much to look at, and doesn’t really make much sense, but some of the dialogue duels and “brother” banter, manage to keep us interested throughout. “Take a left. Take a right.” It doesn’t much matter with these two well-read adversaries from opposite sides of the tracks.

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THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

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