Then Came You


Caught in the web of their own making – and a callous fate.

(2018) Dramedy (Shout! Factory) Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams, Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, David Koechner, Tyler Hoechlin, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Margot Bingham, Colin Moss, Briana Venskus, Ron Simons, Angel Valle Jr., L. Steven Taylor, Francesca Noel, Ann Osmond, Ken Tsukada, Crystal Tweed, Terri Gittens, Ashlyn Alessi. Directed by Peter Hutchings

 

All good things must come to an end, including (and especially) life itself. However, knowing that you’re dying doesn’t mean that you have to stop living.

Calvin (Butterfield) is a college drop-out who is working as a baggage handler at a regional airport along with his Dad (Koechner) and big brother Frank (Hoechlin) whose wife (Walger) is about to have a baby. Although he vehemently denies it, Calvin is a bit of a hypochondriac, taking his own vitals hourly (his watch alarm reminding him to do so) and obsessively writing down his symptoms in a journal. Most of those by the way are pretty much in between his ears.

His frustrated doctor, wanting this healthy young man to get some perspective, sends him to a cancer support group where he meets Skye (Williams), a manic pixie dream girl from a long line of them, who reacts to being told her tumor is not responding to treatment by shrugging at her shattered parents “You win some, you lose some.” She’s the kind of girl who gives a goldfish as a gift to a friend, swimming happily in an IV bag.

She recognizes the depressed and introverted Calvin as a project she can take on and manages to convince him (overwhelming what few defenses he has) to help her achieve all the entries on her “To Die List,” which is essentially a bucket list with a cooler name. In doing so, she begins to coax Calvin out of his thick shell as he begins to learn how to really live, something he gave up on years earlier after a tragedy left his family shattered and his mom essentially catatonic. He even manages to work up the courage to ask out the girl he’s been crushing hard on, a lonely stewardess named Izzy (Dobrev) who, as Skye helpfully points out, is way out of his league. So is Skye for that matter but don’t tell her I told you that.

Izzy gets the mistaken impression that Calvin is the one with terminal cancer and neither Skye nor Calvin are disposed to setting her straight which from the moment she confides to Calvin that she broke up with her last boyfriend because he was untruthful to her tells you all you need to know about where this relationship is going. As for Skye, she’s going somewhere herself but will she able to get all the things on her list done before she sets sail for the shores of the undiscovered country?

Dying teens have been a staple of music and movies since people figured out that teens could die and it was a tragic thing when they did. There have been plenty of dying teen movies – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for example – and while they usually don’t make for extraordinary box office, they are generally inexpensive to make and can pull a tidy profit when done right. They almost have to since they are not generally fodder for sequels if you catch my drift.

Butterfield is a handsome devil with big soulful eyes in a puppy dog sense. He has been around the block a few times but has never really demonstrated the screen presence to be a big star. Still, his performance here feels a bit more authentic than that of Williams, the Game of Thrones star whose bonhomie seems a bit forced in places. Still, she manages to be more unforgettable than her bland co-star and ends up carrying the movie for the most part even though this is ostensibly Calvin’s story.

Dobrev who has done the manic pixie dream girl role herself a time or two is the most authentic of the three leads even though she isn’t given a ton to work with. It’s hard to figure out what she sees in Calvin other than sympathy for his mistakenly perceived plight although by the movie’s end we see that there might be more to it than meets the eye initially. Koechner and Jeong, two comedy pros, have some surprising moments of pathos during the course of the film and show off their versatility in doing so.

The soundtrack is decent enough and the filmmakers show off their taste in music during several montages which are almost de rigueur for a film like this. The issue is the filmmakers are almost trying too hard to set the mood both light and dark and resort to familiar clichés in order to get their points across. This is going to seem depressingly familiar to those who have seen a few of these kinds of movies up to now.

Still, their heart is in the right place and to the credit of the filmmakers the movie gets better as it goes along. In the first twenty minutes, I was thoroughly prepared to despise this movie but it is rescued particularly in the last third by strong performances by Dobrev, Koechner and Jeong (and to a lesser degree, Butterfield) and a memorable take on things by Williams whose Skye may be an amalgam of other MPDGs but Williams has the presence to pull it off pretty well. This isn’t going to replace your favorite tearjerker but it does make a decent substitute to listening to a Morrissey record or whatever angst-ridden pop star has the attention of young people this week.

REASONS TO GO: The quality picks up towards the end.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers try a bit too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and plenty of adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in upstate New York in the Capital District; the airport scenes were mainly filmed at Albany International Airport.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cold War

The Company You Keep


Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho, Matthew Kimbrough, Andrew Airlie, Lochlyn Munro, Hiro Kanagawa, Lane Edwards, Kenneth Miller, Susan Hogan. Directed by Robert Redford.  

The 60s live with us in a number of ways – some beneficial, some not. Those who felt the need to rise up and protest the unjustness of the Vietnam war, the social inequities between poor and rich, black and white, women and men – most moved on to lives of numbing normality. Others however were forced by circumstances to disappear into the bowels of a country that despised them.

A Vermont housewife (Sarandon), typical in every way, says goodbye to her husband and grown children, gets in her car and drives South. Once in New York state, she stops to put gas in her car and is surrounded by federal agents. It turns out that she was once Sharon Solarz, a member of the radical group the Weather Underground and that she took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a bank guard.

In the coming days it turned out that FBI Agent Cornelius (Howard) had lucked out – a wire tap on Billy Cusimano (Root), a pot farmer, had caught Solarz making plans to turn herself in, but the Agency – unable to locate her for almost 40 years, instead grabbed her so that they would seem to have caught her through their investigative prowess.

Realizing that Solarz needed a lawyer in the worst way, Cusimano reached out to his friend Jim Grant (Redford), an aging public interest lawyer who was getting over the death of his much younger wife the previous year, and trying to raise her daughter Isabel (Evancho) as best he can. Grant has way too much on his plate and politely refers Cusimano (and Solarz) elsewhere.

Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), a reporter for the local newspaper, is a little stung that he missed the story of the high-profile arrest that happened in his own backyard. Well, actually it’s his editor Ray Fuller (Tucci) who’s stung but the stinging is trickling down somewhat. He wants Ben to follow it up and Ben, one of those old-style reporters with an instinct for a story, starts following the Solarz arrest, utilizing a contact (Kendrick) in the FBI  This leads him to Jim, who politely brushes him off. That’s when things go sideways.

Jim takes his daughter out of school and takes a trip down to New York City. You see, it turns out that Jim used to go by the name of Nick Sloan and was one of the three outstanding fugitives from the bank robbery. He rightly presumes that his identity won’t hold up long to scrutiny and his real name will be discovered. Once that happens, he knows it’s a matter of time before overzealous FBI agents swoop in and traumatize his child.

He leaves Isabel with his real brother, Daniel (Cooper) and heads on out – but not to run. It doesn’t take long for Ben to figure out that Jim/Nick’s behavior doesn’t jive with someone trying to get away. He seems to be seeking out people involved with the case – like the investigating officer Henry Osborne (Gleeson) whose daughter Rebecca (Marling) Ben finds unusually fascinating. He’s also visiting former “fellow travelers” Donal Fitzgerald (Nolte) and Jed Lewis (Jenkins).

You see, there’s a fourth fugitive out there – Mimi Lurie (Christie) who seems to want to remain hidden. And Ben begins to suspect that Jim/Nick is seeking her out, not to warn her of events that she’s already fully aware of – but to clear his name.

Redford has always positioned himself out of the mainstream politically while remaining firmly within it, without being part of it. He excels at playing outsiders and has throughout his career. I’ve always admired his moral center, which shows clearly in his films which are generally about individuals who fall victim to pressures that range from societal (Ordinary People) to governmental (The Conspirator).

He’s a little long in the tooth for a role like this one, particularly where he is the stepfather of a tween-age girl and nothing against Evancho but while I understand the intent of the writers to show the effects of Nick Sloan’s decisions on those who love and count on him, they might have been better served to have an adult child affected instead. We never get a sense of how the absence of his daughter affects Jim/Nick, which also renders the role superfluous. If you’re gonna bring a kid into the equation, it would be nice to see the parent actually missing them.

This is in all likelihood the best cast you’re going to see, top to bottom, this year. These are some of the finest actors in Hollywood, both established (Sarandon, Christie) and up-and-coming (LaBeouf, Marling), not to mention outstanding character actors (Jenkins, Gleeson). There isn’t a false note in any performances here and they all realize they have the kind of taut story that will keep audiences on the edge of their collective seats.

The movie does take awhile to get to its destination, which plants it firmly in the “not for young people” category who prefer movies that require less of an attention span. In any case, the real target audience for this movie is pretty much aging, people who are hitting their 60s and 70s and have the patience to sit through a certain amount of exposition and remember the turbulent 60s vividly.

Redford, who has been relatively inactive as a director for decades, has now done two movies in three years. I hope that signals further activity in the director’s chair for him – I find his work to be high quality in every instance that he’s gone behind the camera and this isn’t an exception. Like Redford himself, the movie is going outside the mainstream with a limited release via Sony Classics rather than a mass release on Columbia. Oddly enough, that appeals to me somehow – although I am concerned that it won’t reach as many viewers as it might which would be a crying shame. I hope those that read this will get the message that they should mark seeing this movie down on their to-do list.

REASONS TO GO: Taut story told well. Really great cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places. Definitely a movie for people who are getting on a bit in years.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least nine of the actors in the cast have been nominated for or won Academy Awards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100; the reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running on Empty

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Gut

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super