The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

First Man (2018)


One small step for a man…

(2018) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg, Gavin Warren, Luke Winters, Connor Colton Blodgett, Lucy Brooke Stafford. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

One of America’s most triumphant moments – right there alongside VJ Day – was the landing on the moon. It was a triumph of ingenuity, courage and will. Most know the name of the first man to walk on the moon – Neil Armstrong. Most don’t know much more than that about him.

Armstrong (Gosling) was in many ways the perfect test pilot; smart, cool under pressure, tightly focused on the mission. He wasn’t the sort for hi-jinx. He suffered the death of his two-year-old daughter to cancer and appears to have shut down emotionally at that point; unable to grieve with his wife Janet (Foy), he throws himself into work and the business of getting Americans on the moon.

Chazelle is a highly visual director and he really knows how to insert the audience into a place and time, and he does so here, exceeding his own excellence in that department. The scenes in aircraft that threaten to rattle themselves apart, or on spacecraft where the force of gravity is crushing to the point of near-death, has that you-are-there feel. However, the use of handheld cameras becomes an issue after the third or fourth instance of vertigo-inducing cinematography.

One of the reasons Armstrong hasn’t had a biopic done on him, despite his status as a national hero, is that he was an intensely private man who rarely granted interviews or discussed his feelings or observations with anyone. In life he was a quiet man, stoic to the point of stoniness and Gosling plays him here as a man unwilling to deal with his own emotions which makes it extremely difficult for audiences to identify with the character, but that was the way Armstrong was.

His wife Janet was a different matter and she was an extraordinarily strong woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. She rarely puts up with NASA’s bullshit and certainly takes her husband to task for leaving her holding the bag while he is off turning his attention to other heavenly bodies. For my money, Foy’s performance here was the best of the year and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (she didn’t).

The film is augmented with an amazing score utilizing period-correct instruments like the theremin (an electric instrument that Armstrong apparently was extremely fond of) and period recording techniques, making the movie feel even more like a product of the Sixties. The lunar landing sequence is also magnificent in its visuals, even more so than the test flights and spaceflight sequences.

I think it would have been a difficult proposition to make a movie about Neil Armstrong to begin with. While there’s no doubt he was courageous, a hero to his very core, he was the kind of hero who was uncomfortable with adulation and preferred to keep to himself  We will probably never know much about the inner Neil Armstrong and certainly if you are looking for it here, you won’t find it. I suspect that this film is as close as we ever will come.

REASONS TO SEE: Foy delivers a powerhouse performance that deserved a Best Actress nomination (but didn’t get one). Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Chazelle has directed in which he didn’t write the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From the Earth to the Moon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Children Act

Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Melissa McCarthy awaits that call from the Academy.

(2018) Biographical Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Badhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Anna Deavere Smith, Marc Evan Jackson, Roberta Wallach, Tina Benko, Sandy Rosenberg, Kevin Carolan, Mary McCann. Directed by Marielle Heller

 

It’s a tough old world out there and anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. Sometimes we find success only to have it snatched away from us and before long, desperation begins to set in as the bills begin to pile up.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) was a successful writer – her biography of columnist, raconteur and perpetual game show contestant in the 1950s Dorothy Kilgallen landed her on the New York Times bestseller list. Those days are long gone; a disastrous biography of cosmetics maven Estee Lauder was in the cut-out bins almost as soon as it was released. Her caustic personality hasn’t endeared her to publishers or her agent (Curtin) and nobody but nobody wants to hire her – in addition to her prickly personality her style of biographies have gone out of favor with the public while caustic tell-alls are all the rage. Her agent tells her bluntly she needs to find another way to earn a living.

This is New York City in the 1990s, one of the most expensive places in the world to live and Lee is 51 years old with no job experience other than writing. Her alcoholism has become so pronounced that when she does find a job as a copy editor, she actually brings her glass, ice and booze into the office, a big no-no. So with her rent months overdue and her beloved cat ill and needing medicine that she can’t afford and in any case she has an unpaid balance that needs to be paid before the vet will even look at the cat, she hits rock bottom.

She sells a letter from Katherine Hepburn that nets her an unexpectedly high amount of cash from a local bookseller but when she discovers a Fanny Brice letter, the bookseller who buys it (a lovely Dolly Wells) gently tells her that the contents of the letter are a little bland, so she can’t give her as much as she’d like to. Undeterred, Israel decides to rewrite the letter for which she gets a handsome fee. Now realizing that this could be a lucrative source of income for her, she begins forging letters out of whole cloth from gone but not quite forgotten stars like Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Parker who Lee is particularly adept at imitating.

Lee begins to celebrate by drinking more, endearing her to the closest thing she has to a friend – gay, drug-addicted fading man about town Jack Hock (Grant) who shares a catty wit with Lee who mainly tolerates him but when she starts letting him get close, she soon realizes that there was a reason that she has isolated herself from people. Besides, the FBI has discovered her little game and soon she appears on a list of people forging memorabilia from stars and nobody will buy from her. She has to rely on Jack to sell her letters – and Jack isn’t exactly the most reliable guy on the planet.

Many critics are raving about McCarthy’s performance and with some justification. Some are even predicting an Oscar nomination for her and I’ll admit, there is also some justification for that. I’m not sure this is an Oscar-worthy performance but it’s pretty damn close. Grant is also getting some ink pushing him for a Best Supporting nomination – again, not without justification.

Some will have a tough time with this because McCarthy is almost too good at portraying Israel’s notorious misanthropic side. Near the end of the movie cracks begin to appear in her armor and even as her deeds are coming crashing down around her, one gets the sense that McCarthy might have preferred a less humble Lee at the end of the film.

But for the most part the script is funny and smartly written by Nicole Holofcener – one of my favorite writer/directors out there – and Jeff Whitty. We also get a nice epilogue which explains what happened to both Jack and Lee (both have since sadly passed away) and lets us know that Lee’s wit was just as caustic as ever even after she did her time. This is a strong indie which may have some Oscar buzz around it going into Awards season; keep an eye out for it if you are motivated by such things.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. McCarthy does a not-quite-Oscar-worthy turn here.
REASONS TO STAY: Israel is so unlikable that it is difficult to root for her.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of profanity (some of it sexual) as well as some brief depictions of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Long Shadow

Far From the Tree


Love knows no boundaries.

(2017) Thriller (Sundance Selects) Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Tyler Reece, Trevor Reece, Derek Reece, Rebecca Reece, Jack, Joe, Leah, Lonni. Directed by Rachel Dretzin

 

When we set out to have kids, it’s only human to have a picture of them in our heads; how they’ll grow up to be athletes, difference makers or famous. We see them as we see the us we wanted to be growing up ourselves; now our kids will get it right. Unfortunately for us, kids rarely turn out exactly the way we picture they will. They have their own ideas of who they want to be not to mention they don’t always turn out physically the way we wanted. Some our born with dwarfism, or with Down’s syndrome.

Andrew Solomon grew up being interested in tragic opera and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Realizing that he was gay, at first he went into denial, even using sexual surrogacy to try and jump start his heterosexuality. When this didn’t work, he came out to his parents who reacted with disappointment and a notable lack of support  As time went by he began to wonder about kids who turned out very different than their parents or their parents expectations. He wrote a book about it and it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

This documentary is based on the book or to be more accurate, inspired by. Solomon himself turns up in interviews to discuss how the book came to be and to put some of the onscreen stories in perspective. The stories themselves are varied and are about different sets of challenges – Solomon’s is the only one about straight parents raising gay children.

Jason Kingsley was born with Down’s syndrome at a time when the condition was little understood and something of a stigma – which it still is, but to a lesser extent. His parents, including his mother Emily who was a writer for Sesame Street refused to warehouse Jason as his doctor suggested. In fact, Emily arranged to have Jason appear on the show which forever changed the way that kids with Down’s syndrome are viewed. Jason continues to be an activist and although his obsession with the Disney film Frozen may cause some eye-rolling (couldn’t he have picked a better film?) he is articulate enough to quote Shakespeare and is a whole lot smarter than he appears.

So too is Jack, whose severe autism makes him unable to communicate conventionally. His parents however refused to give up on him and eventually found a way to allow Jack to communicate using a facilitator and a computer device.

Lonni, like most people, wants to be loved and to love someone. Born with dwarfism has made that a lot more challenging for her. Unspeakably lonely, her mother encourages to attended a convention for the Little People of America and her horizons are instantly opened up. Her mothers and sisters are amazed and pleased that Lonni has perked up discovering that she is far from alone – that there are lots of people just like her in the same boat she is rowing.

Fellow little people Joe and Leah are in a different situation. The two are blissfully, deliriously in love. They go through the challenges of planning a wedding – and then Leah gets pregnant. Joe, who is wheelchair-bound, is about to be a daddy and although the pregnancy has its own degrees of difficulty, both look forward to the experience.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Trevor Reece, a seemingly normal teenage kid who one day woke up and decided to slit the throat of an eight-year-old boy. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, his family struggles to pick up the pieces. Having moved from the urban New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in to a suburban Texas home, they communicate with Trevor regularly. His brothers Tyler and Derek have a hard time reconciling their big brother’s actions with the kid they grew up with.

The stories are all compelling ones and do push all the right emotional buttons. The problem is that we end up spending less than 20 minutes apiece on each story; what we end up with is a summary rather than an in-depth look at how these families coped. That’s a real drawback, particularly in that it makes the film less useful for parents who might be dealing with similar situations. Also Solomon’s segments, rather than giving the context we’re looking for, tend to be a bit more self-referential than I think the film needed.

Still, the movie’s heart is in the right place. The stories are inspiring and even if we don’t get the depth and context we’re looking for we still get a viewpoint not often shown in documentaries other than in passing. Jason’s story, the first one shown, is in many ways the most grounded and when Jason talks at the conclusion of his segment about his future is to my mind one of the best moments I’ve seen in a documentary this year. Those who are fans of the book will likely enjoy the movie but come away a bit disappointed. The overall message of both the book and the movie shouldn’t be discounted though – that those we see as different may have more challenges than we do but are not so different than us than they might appear.

REASONS TO GO: The stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking. The focus is more on the parents than on the kids which is a viewpoint we don’t often see. Jason’s final monologue is goosebumps-inducing.
REASONS TO STAY: The interludes with Solomon seem a bit self-aggrandizing. Having too many subjects keeps any of the stories from resonating as much as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for family viewing and should even be encouraged for the same particularly for parents who want to teach their children tolerance, empathy and loving without conditions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Of the stories told here only Jason Kingsley’s appears in the book; all the rest are new.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Sid and Aya (not a love story)

War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

The Late Bloomer


Touchdown!

Touchdown!

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Momentum) Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, J.K. Simmons, Maria Bello, Kumail Nanjiani, Blake Cooper, Paul Wesley, Jane Lynch, Lenora Crichlow, Joey Greer, Matt Jones, Beck Bennett, Jason Antoon, Sam Robards, Ileana Douglas, Laraine Newman, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bobby Flay, Page Tierney, Vanessa Ragland, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kevin Pollak

 

Puberty is an uncomfortable time for all of us. Most of us remember it with a mixture of wistfulness and downright embarrassment. Most of us wish we could have a do-over for that time in our life. Imagine going through it though when you’re thirty.

For Peter Newman (Simmons), that’s exactly what he’s facing. A successful sex therapist who advocates abstinence in his proto-bestselling book From Sex to Success, he’s had few romantic relationships and *gasp* no sex. Let’s just try and put aside for a moment that a virginal sex therapist is about as useful as a basketball coach who’s never even seen a single game of basketball played before.

Speaking of basketball, while playing a pick-up game a particularly vicious shot to the family jewels sends Peter to the E.R. where he discovers something alarming; there’s a tumor on his pituitary gland. Mind you, it’s benign but its presence kept Peter from entering puberty. Once removed, Peter is going to get the whole enchilada.

Yes that includes acne, inappropriate erections, a massive urge to masturbate and a squeaky, cracking voice at the worst possible moments. Worse yet, his crush – his neighbor Michelle (Snow) who has the world’s most inattentive boyfriend (Wesley) and a dream of becoming a celebrity chef – suddenly becomes the subject of his sexual desires, jeopardizing his friendship with her.

For his friends Rich (Nanjiani) and Luke (Bennett) this becomes the source of great amusement. For his parents (Bello, Simmons) this becomes a long-awaited relief. For his boss (Lynch) it becomes horribly inconvenient just when Peter’s renown is bringing his clinic a ton of new patients and new revenue. For Peter it is sheer torture as everything in his life changes in the wink of an eye.

Believe it or not, this is based on actual events. The subject in question is former E! Network reporter Ken Baker whose book Man Made: A Memoir of My Body is what the movie is based on. Incomprehensibly, the committee of six (!) writers who are responsible for this thing chose to change professions and turn an interesting take on sexuality and puberty into a cross between a raunchy sex comedy and a clichéd rom-com.

Pollak, the same guy with successful stand-up/impressionist and acting careers (if you haven’t seen his impressions of James T. Kirk and Columbo, you’re missing something) was motivated to make a movie out of this story but something tells me that the script wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Still, the veteran Pollak could call on friends to do him a solid which explains the really top-notch cast. Simmons and Bello shine as Peter’s hippie parents and Lynch as always is dry as a bone in her delivery but charismatic as hell onscreen.

There is certainly room for a great movie here; Baker’s story actually has a good deal of humor in it and some real insight into sexual stereotypes, growing up, and the role of sex in modern society. We really get none of that here; mostly the humor is crude and juvenile which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the jokes were a bit funnier – or to be fair, if more of them were as there are I have to admit some genuine laughs here. There just aren’t enough of them to overcome a script that is riddled with cliches and an ending that recalls the worst aspects of sitcom writing.

REASONS TO GO: A really fascinating subject for a movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Juvenile humor and bland writing-by-committee torpedo what could have been a terrific film.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of sexual content (much of it of the juvenile variety), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wesley and Snow previously starred in the short-lived television show American Dreams.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forty Year Old Virgin
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk