Brian Banks


There is absolutely nothing like a mother’s love.

(2018) Sports Biography (Bleecker StreetAldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Libaud, Dorian Missick, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosia Roquemore, Gina Vento, Mytie Smith, Rick Vyper, Edward Parker, Charles Alexandre, Dean Denton, Mary Faulkner, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Kevin Yamada, Harrison Stone, Monique Grant, Elizabeth Donaldson. Directed by Tom Shadyac

 

There is little doubt that the American legal system is seriously broken. Justice seems to be the sole province of the wealthy and the white. Standards of proof seem to fluctuate depending on the color of one’s skin and the gender of the accuser.

Brian Banks (Hodge) is a 16-year-old kid with an incredible future before him. A star linebacker at Long Beach Poly high school, one of the premier high school football programs in the entire country, he has already been accepted to the University of Southern California and seems guaranteed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.

That rosy future is interrupted by an accusation of kidnapping and rape by a fellow Poly student (Roquemore). Banks is arrested and indicted, then his ineffective lawyer convinces him to accept a plea agreement that turns out to be a raw deal for Banks, sending him to prison for five years which would be followed by probation for an additional five years – plus being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Sounds pretty much like justice except for one thing; the rape never happened.

Banks struggles to prove his innocence, reaching out to Justin Barber (Kinnear), founder of the California Innocence Project who gently informs Banks that because he entered a no contest plea, the only way to get his conviction reversed is literally for his victim to recant her testimony.

Amazingly, Banks perseveres even though he is as much a prisoner on the outside as he was in prison. Nobody will hire a convicted sex offender and Banks isn’t allowed within a certain distance of public parks and schools. Every time it seems like Banks finds a ray of hope, some tough-on-crime politician rams through legislation that slams the door shut.

This is meant to be an uplifting, inspirational film about the power of perseverance and believing in one’s self and one’s dreams. Hodge delivers a star-making performance that carries the picture, holding his own nicely against stellar actors like Kinnear and Freeman (who plays a prison teacher whose platitudes help Banks find inner peace). While the true story is compelling enough, it is Hodge that most people will remember best after seeing this film.

Definitely the movie makes some commentary on the gulf in the justice system that exists between black and white. Had Banks been a white athlete, it’s likely that the accuser would not have been believed and even if the case went to trial, the perpetrator would have gotten a slap on the wrist if he did any time at all. Boys will be boys, but African-American boys will be criminals – at least that’s how our legal system apparently sees things.

In the #MeToo era there is a bit of tone deafness about this project. False rape accusations are relatively rare and more often than not, accusers are treated with disbelief and scorn, often being blamed for their own assault. Even though this is a true story, it’s not a typical one and the movie really doesn’t address that.

Still, Banks is an inspirational person and watching Hodge absolutely nail his performance is a treat. That the plot gets a bit maudlin especially in the last half of the film doesn’t help matters. The real Brian Banks couldn’t have asked for a better performance to capture his life; he certainly could have asked for a better movie to frame it.

REASONS TO SEE: Hodge delivers the performance of his career.
REASONS TO AVOID: The script gets a bit soapy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a certain amount of profanity, as well as some adult thematic content and accompanying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least eight of Banks’ teammates on the Long Beach Poly team eventually played professional football either for the NFL or overseas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Seaside

The Tomorrow Man (2019)


Tomorrow’s so bright they’ve gotta wear shades.

(2019) Romance (Bleecker StreetJohn Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Katie Aselton, Derek Cecil, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena, Isabelle Boni, Tyler Aser, Andrew Gonsalves, Anthony Lafornara, Naveen Havannavar, Jake Harrington, Jeff Moon, Shawn M. Essler, David Chen, Joe Napier, John Sindoni, Gloria J. Dancause, Liz Cameron, Danielle Smith. Directed by Noble Jones

As we get older, we tend to resist change. While the world keeps on turning, it is unsettling to those of us nearing our mortality at a faster clip than, say, Millennials. We want things to stay the way they are, the way we can at least make sense of life, the universe and everything. Sadly, things rarely stay the same for very long, relatively speaking.

Ed Hemsler (Lithgow) is a grumpy old man who thinks Fox News is way too soft. He is certain that our government is going to muck things up and then the end of civilization will occur. He’s been preparing for it, a so-called Doomsday Prepper, stockpiling non-perishables in a hidden bunker in the back of his house that contains a water filtration system and a generation which disposes of exhaust in an ingenious way.

Ed pretty much keeps to himself, hanging out in computer chat rooms with the like-minded, occasionally venturing out to his neighborhood grocery store to pick up supplies, most of which end up in the bunker. Other than those in his chat group, the only human he has any connection with is his son (Cecil) whom he berates for not being properly prepared for the coming End.

One day he spies in his grocery store a mousy woman buying the same sorts of things he does. He recognizes her as a “fellow traveler” as he puts it, not noting the irony; perhaps “kindred spirit” would have been less of a reach. She’s Ronnie (Danner) and after stalking her a bit, discovers she works in a local gift shop. He finally takes initiative by parking his truck next to hers so that she can’t get into her own car. He comes sailing to the rescue as she tries to negotiate the entry into her car, breezily apologizing. Despite the creepy beginning the two hit it off and when Ed asks her out to dinner, she accepts. She’s very private though; she won’t let him set foot in her house but she falls asleep on the couch at his place as they spend the night watching war documentaries, a particular passion of hers.

A romance eventually blooms as he slowly lets her in to his paranoid life and she accepts him for who he is. He even invites her along to Thanksgiving at his son’s house where his long-suffering daughter-in-law (Aselton) tries to make Ronnie feel welcome and Ed’s granddaughter (Thatcher) complains vociferously about her dad. This is a very middle American movie in a whole lot of ways.

Like most movie relationships, Ed and Ronnie have their ups and downs. When Ronnie reveals her own secret, it comes as a shock to both Ed and the rest of us; that part is well done. Sadly, the pacing lags a bit as Jones seems content to belabor point A before getting on to point B which he similarly belabors before moving on to point C. There is also an ending that comes out of nowhere and that you will either love or hate. I must admit I fell into the latter category.

The saving grace here are Danner and Lithgow. Their chemistry is very solid and their relationship after the kind of serial killer start is pretty believable. I don’t understand why Hollywood seems hell-bent on making all their elderly characters to be eccentric and/or demented. Why can’t they just be, y’know, people?

Lithgow has been one of my favorite actors for decades; with a plethora of memorable roles on his resume. He turns in a fine performance here. Ed is crochety, sure, but deep down he is wounded and a little tenderness is just what his heart needs. Danner does Diane Keaton better than anybody since…well, Diane Keaton. She hunches over like a pathologically shy person does, hoping she won’t be noticed. It seems odd that she works in a job in which she is face-to-face with people and she gets along with her fellow clerk Tina (Harlow) who is absolutely tickled that Ronnie has got herself a fella.

The film, which played the Florida Film Festival this past April, has a ton of sweetness but the ending reeks of cynicism and you get the feeling that the writers don’t hang out with people in their 70s much. There’s a message that you can’t focus so much on tomorrow that you forget all about what’s happening right in front of you today, but that you also need to have an eye to the future as well. It’s a balance and most of us learn it early on, at least to an acceptable degree. I would have rather that in making this romance the filmmakers had the courage to make the geriatric leads be believable and relatable instead of objects to be mocked but I suppose that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice (other than fat-shaming) left to Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: Individually, Lithgow and Danner are always entertaining and they have decent chemistry here. Has a very middle American sensibility.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a cop-out. Drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly salty but brief profanity as well as some sexual suggestiveness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although ostensibly set in Mid-America, the film was shot in Rochester, NY and the store windows have area codes for Syracuse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast from the Past
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonders of the Sea

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

Arctic


The deadly desolation of the Arctic circle beckons a plane crash survivor.

(2018) Adventure (Bleecker Street) Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir. Directed by Joe Penna

 

There is something magnificent and terrifying about the polar wastes. It is awesome in its desolation and yet beautiful, the endless vista of snow, ice and rock outcrops. Little survives here but polar bears and fish.

Also, the occasional plane crash survivor. Overgård is the sole survivor of a light plane crash above the Arctic Circle. His plane is done for; one wing twisted and the nose blackened after an engine fire. He goes about the business of survival methodically, tending to the grave of the co-pilot who didn’t make it, scraping snow down to the base rock to spell out “SOS” and fishing through ice holes. From time to time he comes across polar bear tracks which cause him to scan the horizon nervously. He also tries to get his radio to work without any success so he essentially waits for someone to come and rescue him.

Eventually someone does but that ends up in catastrophe, the helicopter losing power and buffeted by polar winds and crashing to the snow. As in his situation, one of the pilots doesn’t make it. The other (Smáradóttir) is seriously injured, falling in and out of consciousness. Overgård tends to his new charge, trying to get her to eat the raw fish he is able to catch. He scavenges what supplies he can from the downed helicopter and comes to a decision; the girl won’t survive if he can’t get her to safety. He decides that he will leave the shelter of the plane where he might have been able to hold out for weeks and constructing a makeshift sled, determines to transfer her to a seasonal camp on the detailed map that he found in the copter.

That’s a far more dangerous thing to do than it sounds; the way is through a mountain range where the weather is even worse than on the plain. The footing can be treacherous and there are crevasses hidden from view that he can fall into. He is more exposed to the weather as well as to roving polar bears who are as likely to make a meal of him and his defenseless charge. Can he get her to safety or will they be just two more frozen bodies awaiting discovery in the Arctic?

First time feature director and YouTube veteran Penna crafts a pretty strong debut. The movie was filmed in Iceland and the natural surroundings are put to good use. While the desolation is well-represented, the peril of the Arctic really doesn’t come to the fore until the second half of the movie while Overgård is on the move. There are long stretches of time in between where there is little in the way of action but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t carry its own fascination.

What this movie really has going for it is Mikkelsen. He has long been an actor who has always garnered my attention and he rarely delivers anything less than a solid performance. He does much better than that here, showing alternately quiet resolve and overwhelming despair. His character’s name is a bit of a giveaway; Overgård guards over his patient. There are also other unexpected Easter eggs in the film; I’ll leave it to you to find them.

This is not as compelling a film as it might have been. While I think it is a good idea that Penna doesn’t reveal too much about the characters or the circumstances focusing entirely on the survival aspect, there are times it feels like we’re watching parts of movies we’ve already seen. Some of the mechanics of survival become a little bit overdone; while I understand that the fishing lines are necessary, we don’t need to see him checking them as much as we do. A little cinematic shorthand might have been nice.

In some ways it might have been better had this movie come out later in the year. Mikkelsen’s performance might have had an outside shot at Oscar consideration then; in February he has virtually no chance barring an aggressive marketing campaign by Bleecker Street. However, seeing as many of us are in Oscar mode with the ceremony coming up the weekend this is being released in Orlando, it might get some folks who love great performances to check this out. However, some readers in Northern climes may not be too eager to see a movie given the recent Polar Vortex that reminds them of the weather outside their door.

REASONS TO SEE: Mikkelsen doesn’t need dialogue to deliver a scintillating performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where the film feels like it’s caught up in itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The picture on Overgård’s ID badge is the same one that was used for Mikkelsen to show a younger Hannibal Lecter in the TV show Hannibal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
We Are the Heat

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

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