The Vanishing (Keepers)


Taking on all comers.

(2018) Mystery (SabanGerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Gary Lewis, Emma King, Ken Drury, Soren Malling, Ólafur Dari Ólafsson, Gary Kane, Roderick Gilkison, John Taylor. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm

 

On or about December 15, 1900, three lighthouse keepers on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Flannan Islands about twenty miles West of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Scotland vanished without a trace. Their fates are unknown even to this day and are the subject of lively conversation locally.

Senior officer Thomas Marshall (Mullan), grizzled veteran James Ducat (Butler) and fresh-faced newcomer Donald MacArthur (Swindells) – known in the log book as “The Occasional” because he isn’t a full-fledged member of the crew yet – are set for a six-week shift watching the Flannan Islands Lighthouse. It is tedious, boring and lonely work but the three men get on pretty well, ribbing the newbie and heading off the cold with copious amounts of Scotch.

Then a rowboat shows up with an apparently dead body and a locked chest. Donald is sent down to investigate, and the dead body turns out to be not-quite-dead-yet. Donald ends up in a fight for his life and triumphs, but is sorely affected by what has transpired. You just know that whatever is in the chest that someone was willing to kill for is certainly going to have other people looking for it, and of course they eventually show up. That leads to further mayhem, guilt, paranoia and inevitable tragedy.

Nyholm does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Certainly there have been paranormal explanations as to what happened to the keepers, but Nyholm and writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone keep their feet planted firmly on terra firma, but Nyholm is not above making us think there is something otherworldly going on. It is only in the last half of the film that we’re pretty much told “Nope, nothing crazy going on here.”

The performances here are superb, particularly from Butler, who doesn’t get many opportunities to flex his acting muscles in the action movies he primarily makes these days, and Mullan, one of the finest character actors in the UK. The turn of the 20th century is replicated well here, although the lighthouse is equipped with a radio that I’m fairly certain wasn’t in general use for another decade at least.

Despite the title which intimates a spooky horror film, this is a pretty taut thriller with explosions of very personal, in-your-face violence. Well-acted with a nicely tense atmosphere of paranoia and maybe something else, this is an ideal viewing on a cold, windy night – or for that matter, a still summer day.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric with great period production design. Solid performances all around, particularly from Butler and Mullan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Devolves into a generic thriller towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lighthouse of Eilean Mor is still operational albeit slightly modernized, four other lighthouses were used in the production of the film due to the remoteness of Eilean Mor.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lighthouse
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Dog’s Way Home

Green Book


Driving Mister Daisy.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorksViggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Geraldine Singer, Iqbal Theba, David Kallaway, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Anthony Mangano, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar. Directed by Peter Farrelly

 

Few Oscar Best Picture winners have gotten the backlash this film has. Directed by Peter Farrelly, stepping away from the comedies he’s known for (co-directed with his brother Bobby), this is an account of a business and personal relationship between concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), so named because of his penchant for chatter.

Set in 1962, the street-wise bouncer Tony applies for a job driving the fastidious Shirley through a Southern concert tour in the winter of 1962. At first possessed of the casual racism common in the era (he throws out a glass that black workers drank out of in his home), Tony soon sees for himself firsthand the ugly realities of racism. He also grows to admire the cultured kindness of Shirley who helps him with his diction and with writing letters home to his wife Dolores (Cardellini).

For Don’s part, he is brought out of his self-imposed shell to appreciate the uncouth but honest life lived by Tony. It’s all so very Driving Miss Daisy but the relationship between Don and Tony, as interpreted by two of the better actors working in this part of the 21st century, makes the movie magic required to elevate this above the sometimes generic parable on racial relations that the movie can sink into from time to time.

There are a few cringe-inducing scenes (including one where Tony introduces Don to the joys of fried chicken, and another where Tony exclaims “I’m blacker than you are!” when Don confesses he’s not familiar with the music of Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Otis Redding) but there are also plenty of scenes with genuine warmth.

The film focuses mostly on Tony which is unsurprising since it was co-written by Tony’s son Nick; the Shirley family has also complained that the relationship between the two was purely employer-employee, a claim that was proven false when an audio interview with Shirley surfaced in which he specifically said it was not.

One of my favorite scenes is where Shirley faces a crisis of the soul. A gay man when that fact alone would be enough to end his career, uncomfortable with his fellow African-Americans and unaccepted by the white society that acknowledges his talent as a pianist, he cries out “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m not a man; what am I?” If you want to see Ali at his best, that’s the scene to watch.

I realize that woke readers for whom this movie doesn’t pass the purity test will likely take exception with this review; certainly, those folks are entitled to their opinion. I do agree that there are some tone-deaf moments that don’t reflect well on the film overall, and quite frankly I tend to agree with those who thought that the film was a little too flawed to be named Best Picture. Still, there’s enough here to make for worthwhile viewing and that should be acknowledged as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
REASONS TO AVOID: Less than fully factual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including racial slurs, adult thematic content, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortensen gained weight for the picture mainly on a diet of Italian food – pizzas, pastas and the like. He did so much on-screen eating that he never utilized the on-set catering.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Welcome to Marwen


A bunch of living dolls.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorks/Universal) Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, Janelle Monáe, Elza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Falk Hentschel, Matt O’Leary, Nikolai Witschl, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Samantha Hum, Siobhan Williams, Eric Keenlyside, Clay St. Thomas, Kate Gajdosik, Veena Sood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Welcome to Marwen is a dramatic version of the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol (which if you haven’t seen, stop right now and see it) which is the story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was viciously beaten outside of a bar in 2005 by a bunch of guys who objected to the fact that he likes to wear women’s shoes. The men got off lightly; all of them had been released by the time the documentary came out.

Here, Hogancamp (Carrell) has no memory of his life before the attack (as was the case for the real Hogancamp) and used a fictional Belgian village populated by action figures, mostly modeled after women that Hogancamp knows – from his physical therapist (Monáe) to the clerk at the hobby shop where he buys his supplies (Weaver) – and Hogancamp himself (an idealized heroic version of himself he calls Captain Hogie) set during World War II. Mark’s lawyer is trying to get the reclusive artist to appear at the sentencing hearing of his attackers but Mark is very reluctant; anything that reminds him of that night sends him into severe panic attacks.

Helping matters is the appearance of a new neighbor, Nicol (Mann) who is compassionate and kind, and whom Mark develops an instant crush on. She could be his way out to normalcy or a reminder of past traumas that will send him spiraling hopelessly back into near-catatonia.

Critics tended to hate the film (see below) which I can understand; it’s not an easy story to get across and quite frankly, Zemeckis was not an awe-inspiring choice to make it. His sentimentality tends to rub critics the wrong way, but I found it affecting here, and there are some scenes when Carrell, who is absolutely wonderful at times, just breaks your heart. The romance between Marc and Nicol is absolutely realistic as well.

The movie ends on a bit of a predictable note and might turn people off – the dolls can look a little bit creepy. Some find men playing with primarily female dolls to be un-woke, but in the context of a man badly traumatized trying to deal the best way he can, I think it’s forgivable. Not the greatest movie Zemeckis has done, but it is entertaining and heartwarming enough to be enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrell does a good job. Nice special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is predictable. A bit creepy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody. There are also disturbing images, some brief sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real life doll village Marwen is based on is called Marwencol, which is a combination of Mark, Wendy and Colleen. The Nicol character is based on Colleen, but her name was dropped from the town’s name.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic:  40/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marwencol
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Wretched

The Old Man & The Gun


A couple of screen veterans doing their thing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Lisa DeRoberts, Carter Bratton, Mike Dennis, Tomas “Dutch” Dekaj, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Patrick Newall, Daniel Britt, Leah Roberts, Elizabeth Moss.  Directed by David Lowery

 

The benefits to having a real, honest-to-goodness movie star in your film is that no matter what, there will be something positive about your film because in the case of stars like Redford and Spacek, they have enough screen presence and expertise on how to best utilize it to make any film they’re in just that much better.

 

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a man getting on in years, but like others his age still shows up at work. Of course, Tucker’s job is robbing banks and he gets a big kick out of getting away with it. Tucker is not the kind of bank robber who terrorizes folks in the bank and thinks nothing of shooting unarmed people; he’s a gentleman who gives an implicit threat, remarks on gee whiz what a shame it would be if he were forced to resort to violence and he really doesn’t want to shoot you because, for goodness sakes, he really likes you. What bank teller or bank manager would not be charmed?

Decidedly charmed is Jewel (Spacek), a widowed horse rancher whose pickup truck breaks down at the side of the road just as Forrest is trying to get away from the cops after a bank job. Spotting the opportunity for misdirection, he pulls over and assists her while the cops go whizzing by. However, the decoy turns into a romance and Forrest feels comfortable enough with her to tell her what he really does for a living over pie and coffee, although she doesn’t believe him at first.

Decided not charmed is Detective John Hunt (Affleck) who is in the bank while it’s being robbed with his two daughters. Burned out on his job to the point where he’s considering leaving the force, the robbery under his very nose gives him motivation to go after Tucker full throttle. Talk about lighting a fire under one’s butt.

The movie rests on the charm of its actors and Redford, Spacek and Affleck have plenty of charm to go around. They also have plenty of talent at their craft – all of them have Oscar nominations (and wins, in some cases) – to sustain the fairly light-tempered movie. Although the running time is only 93 minutes, it seems a bit longer because the story moves along so slowly and is filled with quite a bit of unnecessary material. Still, it is enjoyable to watch old pros (extending down into the supporting cast) do what they do best, even if what they’re doing essentially is a bit of fluff, despite the opportunity for social commentary – Lowery chooses to simply tell his story simply. I can’t really fault him for that.

REASONS TO SEE: Redford, Affleck and Spacek all deliver excellent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; could be argued that it’s too low-key as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) which Redford also starred in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Senior Escort Service

BlacKKKlansman


A different kind of hoodie.

(2018) True Life Drama (Focus) John David Washington Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Alec Baldwin, Frederick Weller, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Nicholas Turturro, Harry Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson, Ato Blankson-Wood, Robert John Burke, Arthur Nascarella, Ken Garito, Damaris Lewis. Directed by Spike Lee

 

Spike Lee is the kind of director who tends to be ahead of his time; he has the uncanny ability to read the writing on the wall, particularly when it comes to race relations in America. His treatise on American racism in 2018 is cleverly couched in a based-on-actual-events dramedy set in the early 70s (although the actual events occurred in 1978).

Spike Lee is also the kind of director who doesn’t really care much about subtlety. Consequently, his films tend to make their points with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Here, Ron Stallworth (Washington), the first black cop in the history of Colorado Springs, has been chafing at a desk job. He longs to get out into the field and make a difference. He is assigned to go undercover at a black student rally at nearby Colorado College. There, he falls for the fiery, passionate president of the chapter, Patrice (Harrier).

His assignment goes well so he joins the Intelligence Division of the CSPD. He decides to call the Ku Klux Klan and see if he can get a membership card – which to his bemusement, he does. But after repeated phone conversations with KKK head David Duke (Grace), he is given the opportunity to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. Knowing that his physical presence is impossible, he gets a surrogate; Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman (Driver).

Lee doesn’t miss an opportunity to draw parallels between the 1970s and now, as in having the KKK members shouting in unison “America First!” or a racist cop opining that a racist President will get into office by masking his racism in policies about immigration and taxation. And if you still don’t get the connection, Lee appended a coda showing the tragic events of Charlottesville that took place almost a year to the day of the film’s release but after the film was completed.

This is one of Lee’s best films ever. While I’m not so sure that making white extremists out to be ignorant buffoons is a wise choice – that’s how we ended up with our current President – there is plenty of humor to balance out the seriousness of the message. Lee also does an excellent job of capturing the era, from the outstanding score and soundtrack to the wonderfully awful fashions and massive Afros.

Lee also benefits from outstanding performances from Washington and Driver, as well as to a lesser extent Topher Grace as the clueless David Duke. The message is certainly one that bears repeating – that in nearly half a century we still haven’t made much headway. I don’t know that the people who need to get that message will necessarily be flocking to see BlacKKKlansman but even if the movie ends up preaching to the converted it is still well worth the effort to check it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the era to near-perfection, thanks largely to a terrific score. Great performances by Washington and Driver.
REASONS TO AVOID: Heavy handed and lacks finesse.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including racial epithets, a fair amount of violence (including sexual violence) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncut Gems

Tag


Jeremy Renner knows he’s better than you.

(2018) Comedy (New LineEd Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Isla fisher, Lil Rel Howley, Hannibal Burress, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Nora Dunn, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Steve Berg, Indiana Sifuentes, Trayce Malachi, Jock McKissic, Thomas Middleditch, Al Mitchell, Sebastian Maniscalco, Vince Pisani, Kurt Yue, Kate Kneeland.  Directed by Jeff Tomsic

 

There’s a line in the movie that really rings true; “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” Keeping that child-like part of ourselves alive means we’re ever changing, ever growing. Play can be a part of that; it teaches us about ourselves, if nothing else.

Hoagie (Helms), Jerry (Renner), Bob (Hamm), Chili (Johnson) and Sable (Burress) have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. They’ve grown up a little bit since then; they’ve relocated all over the country from their native Spokane and have gone on to their own lives and their own families. But for one month every year – May, as it turns out – they are fair game to a no-holds-barred take-no-prisoners form of the children’s game.

It has helped keep their bonds strong even though they lead separate lives but for four of them, there’s a unifying factor – Jerry has never ever been tagged “it,” not even once, in thirty years. This will be the year, even though financier Bob has a reporter (Wallis) trailing him, even though Hoagie’s wife (Fisher) is about to lose her mind with competitive fire and even though Chili will be back in the territory where his ex-wife (Jones) dwells. For this will be the last year; Jerry is taking himself a bride (Bibb) and this will be his last year playing the game.

The filmmakers could have gone a few different routes with this and they elected to try and go down two different paths at once; the raunchy one and the heartwarming one. As fellow critic Roger Moore observed, they may have missed an opportunity by going the PG-13 route and thus attracting a larger audience pool but as it was, they didn’t do so badly.

The raunchy stuff isn’t as raunchy as other comedies that go there but it is enough to warn home viewers from letting their tweens and youngsters get hold of it. The element that gives the viewer some good warm fuzzies is well-earned without being too treacly, although there is a bit of a twist that was a little over-the-top.

As far as the comedy bits (mostly having to do with the lengths the players will go to tag Jerry and the lengths he’ll go to keep from getting tagged) while they were generally well-executed, some bent the boundaries of suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. That aside, this was a little bit better than I expected it to be although not quite as good as Game Night.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally heart-warming comedy about the bonds of friendship.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the comedy is a bit far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief nudity, some crude sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is loosely based on an ongoing game of tag played by four friends in Spokane, Washington.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover Part II
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel

Killing Jesus (Matar a Jesús)


The gun lobby corrupts yet another innocent youth.

(2017) Crime (Latido/64A Films) Natasha Jaramillo, Giovanny Rodriguez, Camilo Escobar, Carmenza Cossio, Juan Pablo Trujillo, José David Medina, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Jhorvin Ospina. Directed by Laura Mora Ortega

Revenge is one of those things that tend to take on their own lives apart from those who are out to achieve it. They shape lives, become obsessions and often cost more to the one taking revenge than on the one they are getting revenge from.

Paula (Jaramillo) is a college student majoring in photography. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends, attending meetings of activist groups that are mainly all talk, and smoking way too much dope. Her father Jose Maria (Escobar) is where she gets her social activism from although he is wary; Medellin in Columbia is a rough place to live with violence around every corner. Still, he loves his daughter fiercely and from time to time gives her a lift home from school. That proves to be fatal as when opening the gate to his driveway while Paula is bending down in the front seat to make sure her camera bag has everything in it, a young man on a motorcycle guns down her father. Paula gets a glimpse of the killer’s face although he doesn’t see her.

The police prove to be unsurprisingly ineffective and corrupt, causing a great deal of frustration for Paula and her brother Santiago (Trujillo). Paula grows withdrawn, sullen while Santiago grows fearful for his sister who continues to go out with friends, although she is basically ignored. One evening, she catches the face of her father’s murderer in a nightclub and strikes up a conversation with him. His name is Jesus (Rodriguez) and even though he is drunk, he is clearly attracted to her.

Paula decides to take justice in her own hands, partnering with her dope dealer Gato (Cardenas) to buy herself a gun in order to do unto Jesus what he had done unto her father. However, that proves to be no easy task; stranger yet, she is beginning to see Jesus as a human being who in many ways is as much a victim of the violence and corruption in Medellin as her father was. In a somewhat surreal scene, he even teaches her how to shoot. Will she be able to complete her plan of revenge or will killing Jesus be too much for her?

This had the potential for being a very powerful movie on the nature of violence and how it pervades Colombian culture but Mora chose not to go that route. It also had the potential for being another crappy revenge thriller, but she chose not to go that route either. Rather, she chose to focus in on the relationship between Paula and Jesus and how it changed her…and how she changed Jesus. The thing that Paula expected the least is what happens – she starts to actually sympathize with Jesus but that pain of loss is still deep down and waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Most of the cast is non-professional which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t. Jaramillo is not adept at handling emotional scenes; when she cries for her father it doesn’t feel authentic at all. She’s pretty enough and she says her lines with conviction but she has a hard time getting across the emotional side of her character. Rodriguez on the other hand is a sizzling presence who captures your attention whenever he’s onscreen. Yes he’s a thug with a fatalistic view towards life; he’s fully aware that his life expectancy isn’t very long and yet he has the arrogance of machismo guiding his actions. He also is loving towards his family and towards the girl whom he is developing deep feelings for and might he persuaded to let in where nobody is allowed. The performance has an undercurrent of vulnerability that makes the charismatic thug on the surface all the more memorable and while his brooding thug is no Brando, there is enough there to believe he could become a big star.

There are a few instances of shaky cam abuse and from time to time Paula does things that defy rationality – the dumb teen syndrome which allows certain types of horror films to exist. This does feel like a very personal film to Mora (see Trivia below) and sometimes it can be a bit raw. Having not been to Medellin I can’t say if it accurately captures the reality of street life there but it feels authentic to a non-expert like myself.

The movie has a lot going for it – particularly the social and psychological aspects – although it doesn’t always fulfill its own promise. Still, Mora is a young director and she’ll only get better and this is good enough to recommend provisionally and certainly good enough to warrant keeping an eye out for future projects from the director as well as Rodriguez. If you want to catch them right now, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: The progression of Paula’s perceptual change is fascinating to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Jaramillo isn’t always convincing from an emotional standpoint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug use (mainly marijuana smoking), plenty of violence (some of which is graphic) and more than a little profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura Mora Ortega based some of the events in the film on her own life; her father, also a teacher, was gunned down by a hitman in front of her. She later met the man who murdered her father although not in the way depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lucky

The Big Sick


Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in happier times.

(2017) Romantic Dramedy (Amazon/Lionsgate) Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, David Allen Grier, Ed Herbstman, Linda Emond, Shenaz Treasurywala, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kuhoo Verma, Mitra Jourhari, Celeste Arias. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

The path to love is a rocky one. There is so much to overcome to make a relationship work. Sometimes there are situational things, other times cultural things and any other numbers of things that can conspire to keep two individual people from making that permanent connection.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic struggling to make it. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. He was born in Pakistan and came to Chicago as a boy. His parents, both conservative traditionalists, wish to arrange a marriage for their son and his mother (Shroff) in particular manages to arrange for young single Pakistani women to “drop by” whenever Kumail visits their suburban home. But it is a white woman, Emily Gardner (Kazan) that Kumail falls in love with.

Things go well for awhile until she realizes that he has avoided introducing her to his parents and in fact hasn’t even told them about her. He tries to explain to her that their relationship doesn’t have a future; if he did marry her, his parents would likely cut all ties to him. The two break up but shortly thereafter Emily gets very sick to such a degree that doctors put her into a medially induced coma in order to fight the infection that is ravaging her body.

Kumail calls her parents and they fly in to sit vigil on their comatose daughter; feisty Beth (Hunter) and low-key Terry (Romano). They are both aware that their daughter and Kumail have broken up and are frankly surprised when Kumail offers to stay with them, Beth downright hostile. Nonetheless Kumail comes every day to wait with them as the days stretch on and Emily comes no closer to being cured.  Kumail begins to bond with the parents as his own attitudes towards love and marriage begin to shift.

This is based on the actual courtship between Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon  who co-wrote the script with her husband. While some events are fictional (the real Emily and Kumail never broke up prior to her illness), the main points actually happened and thus there’s an air of authenticity to the relationship between the onscreen Kumail and Emily that is refreshing.

The movie strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humor without leaning overly much in either direction, so as the kids today put it, you get all the feels. The performances from Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are all top notch; Kazan spends half of the movie in a coma (well, her character does anyway) but she lights up the screen in the time that she’s awake.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are the cultural differences. When Nanjiani talks about arranged marriage, he quips “Or as we call it in Pakistan, marriage” and it’s truly hard for an American to wrap one’s head around the concept. The family dynamic in Kumail’s onscreen family is fascinating and I wish they’d spent a little more time with them, but as it was I think the movie was just beginning to edge into the “a bit too long” category.

This is everything you’d want a romantic comedy to be and more. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and one well worth seeking out to stream or even buy. This is a couple you can root for, a movie that avoids clichés or at worst turns them on their heads. It is a movie that reminds us that even the most ingrained of cultural ideas can be overcome for the sake of love and that’s a very powerful message in a time when it feels like we’re divided so much by cultural differences.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a perfect mix between comedy and pathos. The performances by Romano, Nanjiani and Hunter are outstanding. The film captures the hyper-competitive camaraderie between stand-up comics nicely. This is a perfect conversation starter for cultural issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses a little bit of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nanjiani’s real life wife Emily Gordon (whom Emily Gardner is based on) can be seen in the final comedy club scene sitting near CJ and Mary.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: (500) Days of Summer
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Gold (2016)


They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan

 

A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fool’s Gold
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Live By Night

Imperium


A bunch of knuckleheads...I mean, skinheads.

A bunch of knuckleheads…I mean, skinheads.

(2016) Drama (Grindstone/Lionsgate) Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nelson Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Burn Gorman, Adam Meier, Roger Yawson, Linc Hand, Vanessa Ore, Jasson Finney, David Aranovich, Paul Chapman, David Meadows, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Asif Khan, Cora Metzfield. Directed by Daniel Ragussis

 

The underbelly of a nation – any nation – is often ugly. The white supremacist movement is part of our own underbelly, like it or not. It is a movement based on fear; fear of anything different, but also of inspiring fear in others. I can’t think of any ethnic American who would be happy to be cornered by a pack of white supremacists. This is a sub-strata of Americans in which violence is always lurking close to the surface.

When some chemicals that could be used in the making of a dirty bomb go missing, the initial thought at the FBI is that it is the usual suspects – Islamic extremists – who are behind it. However, gum-chewing agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) has an idea it might be something more homegrown – white supremacists – who might be behind the theft. She doesn’t really have the support of her superiors but she is just convincing enough to have an undercover operation authorized. To pull it off, she doesn’t get the usual veteran field agent but instead an analyst named Nate Foster (Radcliffe) who has no undercover experience whatsoever.

Going undercover with a backstory of being a Black Ops Marine who is tired of seeing his country overrun by the same sorts he was fighting in the Middle East, Foster infiltrates the various strata of white supremacist culture starting with the violent and impulsive skinheads (whom he cleverly stops from assaulting an interracial couple) to the more organized militia types who have camps set up in rural locations and have some big plans. But it is the big fish that Foster is after. He starts with radio host and author Dallas Wolf (Letts) who is on a book tour to promote his hate-filled opus Genocide: The Death of White America. In turn this leads to Gerry Conway (Trammell), a soft-spoken family man who hosts barbecues, is a vegetarian, adores classical music and almost reasonably espouses a race war that would lead to the whites taking back America. His is the most chilling villain of all; the true believer. But do the white supremacists have the chemical? And if so, what do they intend to do with it?

The film takes a little while to get going but once it does, it is a pretty strong crime drama. While the premise reeks of TV cop drama, the fact that it is based on true events lends authenticity generally absent on the small screen.

The elephant in the room needs to be tackled first of all. Radcliffe is not the most imposing physical specimen in the world and he’s cast as a kind of mousy FBI analyst, which works but when he gets a backstory of being a badass ex-Marine it kinda doesn’t. Some have snarked about Radcliffe’s Harry Potter past and how it could be construed that enterprising true life white supremacist groups could cut and paste a video in which kids could be indoctrinated into thinking that Radcliffe himself believes this garbage which is absolute malarkey. Just because, say, Pierce Brosnan has played some characters with repugnant personal beliefs does it mean that anyone believes that James Bond is repugnant even if you edit all of the footage together.

Still, as the film went on, I found myself drawn into Radcliffe’s performance and after seeing him this year as a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man and in the last few years in a variety of roles I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is he a versatile actor but also a fearless one. Nate gets out of situations not so much by physical means but more by his wits; which makes the character much more believable. While the story has essentially been done before, the way it is presented here is pretty much unique.

There are a lot of racial epithets strewn about here and that might make some viewers uncomfortable although after awhile you do become kind of numb to it. The thing about hate speech is that if you hear it long enough you begin to realize how pointless it really is and you just kind of tune it out. I wonder what that says about us as a society?

The FBI is portrayed as a bureaucratic mess here with low level management attempting to carve out their own little niche and taking out any who aren’t with their own program, even if it means ignoring an entire line of investigation. I suppose that there is some truth to that in some cases but it is hard to believe that a law enforcement agency that has really kept domestic terrorism to a bare minimum is quite that dysfunctional. Of course, that’s more my observation and is not based on anything empirical; I’m not familiar with the inner workings of the FBI and the writers had access to at least one person who was.

In any case, this is a disturbing, powerful movie that reminds us that some of the most dangerous terrorists in the country aren’t wearing burkas or quote the Quran. Those who are primed to think that all of our troubles come from without (and I’m looking at you Trump supporter) may be well-advised to look again. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone, but it is a disquieting look at a strata of our society that is out there – and has plans.

REASONS TO GO: The last half of the movie is powerful and suspenseful. The soundtrack is terrific. Radcliffe delivers an unexpected performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes awhile to get going. The bureaucracy of the FBI portrayed here may be frustrating for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of swearing going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film is inspired by the real-life story of FBI agent Michael German who contributed to the writing of the script.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betrayed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pete’s Dragon (2016)