American Dresser


Give me life on the road.

(2018) Drama (Cinedigm) Tom Berenger, Keith David, Carmine Canglialosi, Gina Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Dern, Kathrine Narducci, Andrew Bryniarski, Becky O’Donohue, Elle McLemore, Rob Moran, Jennifer Damiano, Wyatt Lozano, Scott Shilstone, Ryan R. Johnson, Josh Owens, Jim Ford, Michael Perri, Sophia Franzella. Directed by Carmine Canglialosi

 

There are few things more American than hopping on your motorcycle and going off in a cloud of dust to travel the highways and byways of our great nation. It’s been an idea that has captivated American cineastes at least as far back as Easy Rider and it is a motif that has shown up in movies over and over again ever since.

John Moore (Berenger) is dealing with the grief of his wife’s (Gershon) death from cancer and not at all dealing with it well. He has fallen into the bottle, much to the disgust of his two adult daughters who are further mortified when he shows up late to his wife’s funeral. Basically in an alcoholic stupor all day, he decides to assuage his grief by going through his wife’s things – doesn’t everybody? – which is when he finds a letter she had written to him but never sent. The contents aren’t revealed other than obliquely and even then not until late in the film but John is inspired to dust off his old bike and head off on a road trip to Oregon from whatever Eastern hamlet he lives in.

Joining him is Charlie (David), John’s comrade-in-arms in Vietnam. Charlie has been recovering from the effects of an auto accident and the surgeries haven’t gone well. Facing the loss of a leg, he wants one last adventure with his buddy before going under the knife. And, to paraphrase the great Paul Simon, they rode off to look for America.

America in this case being a land of sexy waitresses in honkytonks, barroom brawls with inbred rednecks, hooking up with a group of L.A.-based lady bikers, having the black member of the party accused of a murder he didn’t commit and beaten up by small town cops and for John, finding romance with the cousin of Charlie’s fiancée. They also pick up a stray in hunky Willie (writer-director Canglialosi) who helps them out in the previously mentioned barroom brawl and whom women seem drawn to like catnip. He’s also hiding a secret, on the run from the cops. There is a point to the journey for John but I won’t mention it here.

This is a movie I really wanted to like. Road films are some of my favorites and the strong cast promised at least decent acting but alas, that’s not what happened in either case, me liking the film and decent acting by the strong cast. Although Berenger is game, David is as always reliable and Miller is as pretty as ever, other than a cameo by Dern the acting is largely disappointing. The overall tone is kind of muted, like all the energy has been wrung out of the film before it unspools. Considering the level of talent in the film that’s pretty shameful.

The hero of the movie is not John Moore or the man that plays him so much but cinematographer Jesse Brunt who comes up with some iconic shots of the back roads of the Midwest and West, the somewhat forced shot of the bikers roaring past Mount Rushmore notwithstanding. While the movie seems meant for an older adult audience, there seems to be little here to drive them into theaters other than a blast from the past cast; the relationship between John and Charlie for example seems pretty sketchy with little filling in the blanks other than a few story references and the obvious band of brothers in Vietnam reality but other than some insulting boys banter, the bond between the two remains maddeningly unexplored. For my money Canglialosi the writer should have eliminated the part of Willie entirely; that would have at least forced him to develop the relationship between the two vets more thoroughly. Frankly, Willie adds almost nothing to the movie other than to be the brawn for the two older men.

To be fair, there is some fun in watching some of these veteran actors go about their business and the scenery along the road is wonderful but that’s really all the movie has going for it which is mighty sad. You get the sense that the writer didn’t really have anything to say other than that older people can still ride and anyone who has been to a gathering of bikers can tell you that anyway. Did the film make me want to get on a bike and ride off? To a degree yes, but definitely not with these people.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice shots of the American road.
REASONS TO STAY: A little maudlin, a lot cliché, the tone of the film is tepid at best.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Berenger’s birth name was Moore, the same as his character’s last name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Hogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Queen of the World

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

The Lucky Ones


The Lucky Ones

Michael Pena, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins be all that they can be.

(Roadside Attractions) Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena, John Heard, Molly Hagan, Mark L. Young, Howard Platt, Arden Myrin, Coburn Goss. Directed by Neil Burger

Many soldiers are called to serve their country in situations where they may be called into harm’s way. Some of them do not return, making the ultimate sacrifice. We think of the ones that return as being the lucky ones.

Three soldiers are on their way home to the United States from a German military hospital, all three having been injured in Iraq (two in combat situations, one in a situation he’d rather not talk about). Colee (McAdams) is on leave after a leg injury has left her with a limp; she hopes to return the guitar of a comrade to his family in Las Vegas. Cheaver (Robbins) is career army who is finally calling it quits; he suffered a back injury but is eager to reunite with his wife and son in St. Louis. TK (Pena) was the victim of a groin injury during a roadside bombing; also on leave, he wants to stop in Las Vegas to see if his equipment is still working before seeing his girlfriend in California.

All three land in New York City but a blackout has grounded every single flight at least until the next day and chances are that the wait in the airport will be even longer as the airlines scramble to get everyone where they need to be. Cheaver determines to rent a car and drive to St. Louis; Colee and TK overhear his plan and offer to go in with him; they figure they can grab a flight in St. Louis and get to Las Vegas from there.

Of course things immediately start to go wrong, from keys being locked in the car to accidents to breakdowns. They run into every conceivable eccentric from here to St. Louis and beyond. They also find that the return home is nothing like what they expected it to be.

The movie came out amid a raft of Iraq War-themed films that all, without exception, tanked at the box office regardless of how good the movies were, who was in them and what the theme was. The American movie-going public sent a very clear message to Hollywood: no films about the war please. That’s a bit of a shame, as some really decent movies, such as In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss got left by the wayside.

This modestly-budgeted film also suffered a similar fate, despite the filmmakers and cast’s declaration that this movie most definitely wasn’t about the war, and quite frankly I can see their point. However, in the same way, this isn’t a road movie either and while the war theme hangs heavily over the film (the opening sequence is the only scene set in the war), this ultimately becomes more of a three-way buddy flick.

In fact, it is the bond between the three soldiers that makes the heart of this movie beat strongly, and fortunately for us, Robbins, Pena and McAdams are all fine actors. McAdams in particular does a wonderful job as a perky, terminally optimistic Southern gal whose sweet smile hides a great deal of inner pain. McAdams is a very big reason why the movie’s charm got under my skin.

Pena is a fine actor (see World Trade Center and Crash) who hasn’t really gotten the attention he deserves and consequently doesn’t get the roles he deserves to play either. In that sense, he’s a lot like Adam Beach – someone who gives terrific performances every time out and yet hasn’t gotten the role that will really establish his career. Pena does a great job as usual but I think he’ll have to keep on looking for that elusive career-establishing part.

Robbins is the father figure and emotional center of the movie. He wisely underplays the role, making Cheaver a quiet leader rather than a rah-rah sort. When he breaks down emotionally, it comes without warning and gives the moment greater impact.

While I opine that this isn’t truly a road movie, it certainly is set up to be one, with all the stock characters (the oversexed housewife, redneck truckers, country club blowhard etc.) show up one by one, and the stock situations I mentioned earlier happen right on cue. The filmmakers try to throw a curveball with a tornado, but the effects are a bit weak and you wind up wondering “Why the hell did they do that?” after it’s gone.

Needless to say, this is a flawed movie whose heart is in the right place. The relationship between the three soldiers, as well as their background stories, compels us from the very beginning to get involved in the movie. That’s what casting the right actors for the right parts will do for you. Hopefully, film audiences will get over their distaste for movies set in the Iraqi war milieu soon enough that people will catch this movie on DVD; it’s not Oscar material by a long stretch, but it is deserving of an audience, one that it didn’t get during its theatrical run.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by the three leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations are terribly cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual content but it is the subject matter that makes this more for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie is the third occasion that Tim Robbins has played a member of the military; the other two films were Top Gun and Jacob’s Ladder.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hurt Locker