The Reunited States


Susan Bro wants to give the whole world a hug.

(2021) Documentary (Dark Star) David Leaverton, Susan Bro, Mark Gerzon, Erin Leaverton, Steven Olikara, Greg Orman, Jay Hooper, Jeramy Anderson, Orlando Paden, Bear Cadman, Professor Rob Lee, Carri Hicks. Directed by Ben Rekhi

 

One thing both the left and the right can agree on is that our country is deeply divided politically. Never since the Civil War have passions been so inflamed on both sides…or both sides so intractable that they have stopped listening to one another. Regardless of who wins elections, this is a dangerous situation for the future of our country as we sink further and further into an abyss that can only lead to bloodshed.

There are some people who want to change that, and this film – inspired by the non-fiction book by Mark Gerzon, who appears onscreen from time to time to give an overview of the situation – looks at a few of them. We meet Greg Orman, a third party gubernatorial candidate for Kansas in the 2018 elections who fights the uphill battle of convincing people that they aren’t wasting tgheir votes by voting for him; Steven Olikara puts together a coalition of Millennial politicians from both sides of the aisle. David Leaverton, a former Republican operative who had no problem demonizing the left and doing whatever it took to win races, becomes disenchanted with the results of his work and decides to pack up his family in an RV and go to all fifty states and talk to people of both political sides of the argument. Finally, and most poignantly, there’s Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who was killed protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2016, taking up her daughter’s mantle for racial equality and justice.

There are some heavy emotional moments here, including Erin Leaverton embracing an African-American woman whose skin color contributed to medical professionals disbelieving her situation which led to tragedy, and Susan Bro admitting to David Leaverton that she didn’t want to meet with him at first because she felt that people like him contributed to the rage that led to her daughter’s murder.

An issue I have is somewhat endemic to the movie in general; it has to walk a tight line to begin with as not to become a partisan diatribe itself, so often it leaves  details out about specific policies and beliefs. I understand the tendency, but it seems to me that if we can’t even talk about issues for fear of offending or enraging one side or the other, we’ve already lost the war.

Still, this is a movie that provides something that’s in short supply these days; hope that things can get better. It will take a shift in attitude and perhaps a degree of maturity that our nation has yet to demonstrate in the actions of its cirizens of late, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. “I don’t know if the reconciliation you’re talking about is even possible,” one interviewee admits on-camera. All I know is that it is completely impossible if we don’t make the attempt.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional throughout. A hopeful sign that there are some people working to bridge the gap between the left and the right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Frustratingly thin on concrete etails.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CNN commentator Van Jones and The View host  Meghan McCain are among the producers of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien

Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer

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