The Peanut Butter Falcon


Getting away from it all.

(2019) Dramedy (Roadside AttractionsShia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Raquel Aurora, Michael Berthold, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Rob Thomas, Mark Helms, Dylan Odom, Nick Morbitt, Noah Hein, Annie Jamison, Susan McPhail, Karen B. Greer. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

 

Some movies have their hearts in the right place. You can tell that there’s a sincere desire to shine a light on the marginalized, or tell a story close to the heart of those telling it. But lofty as those ambitions might be, they are not always realized on celluloid.

Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who has been warehoused in a nursing home simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Abandoned by his parents, he is left to rot amongst old folks waiting to die. Zak makes it from day to day because of a dream – to attend the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Church) and become a professional wrestler himself.

Although treated kindly by nurse’s aide Eleanor (Johnson), Zak knows that he has to get out of there or risk watching life pass him by with his dreams unfulfilled. With the help of his roommate, crusty old Carl (Dern, who has made a career of portraying cranky old men) and some strategically applied soap, Carl wriggles out of the barred window wearing only his tighty whities and escapes to find his dream.

Tyler (LaBeouf) wants little more than to be left alone and be able to support himself by crabbing on the boat left to him by his older brother (Bernthal) who passed away recently. However, Tyler is one of those guys who is his own worst enemies – drinking too much, drowning in anger issues and playing by his own rules when it suits him, even if his rules supersede the rules of society and decency. On the run with some angry Outer Banks crabbers out for his blood, he and Zak meet and despite Tyler’s initial reluctance, decide to travel together at least as far as Aden, NC (site of the wrestling school) while Tyler high-tails it to Jupiter, Florida afterwards. With Eleanor desperately chasing after Zak, Tyler and Zak find themselves sailing on a raft through the by-waters and estuaries of the Outer Banks in a desperate bid for the freedom that has eluded the both of them all their lives.

This is sort of like Huckleberry Finn by way of the Discovery Channel. The connection between Zak and Tyler is central to the film and to their credit, the two actors manage to carry it off most of the time. The movie never condescends towards Zak’s condition; it is treated matter-of-factly, as the color of his eyes and hairs would be. In a sense, the movie portrays people with Down’s syndrome about as realistically as any movie has ever portrayed them. Again, heart in the right place.

But this is the hard part. I feel like a complete heel for saying this because I think Gottsagen is doing his best, but he doesn’t deliver a compelling performance here. Sad to say, quite the opposite; whenever Zak speaks the film comes to a grinding halt. Lines are bellowed without conviction and you never get a sense of the depth of his obsession with becoming a wrestler. It comes across as an idea that wandered across his radar one day and is just sitting a spell before moving on when supplanted by another. I know it makes it sound like I’m saying that hanging out with people with Down’s Syndrome is annoying and that’s not at all what I’m meaning to convey, but hanging out with this guy with Down’s Syndrome is annoying. I do give the filmmakers kudos for casting someone with Down’s Syndrome to play someone with Down’s and I applaud the effort to bring a marginalized group to the screen in a sympathetic non-comic relief role, but Gottsagen didn’t quite deliver as I might have hoped.

That’s a shame because the cast is marvelous and they all do great work, even Johnson who is often maligned for her work in the 50 Shades of Grey films. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and Johnson delivers on the sweet here, although her romance with Tyler comes off as unlikely at best. Still, the movie seems to have a theme of unlikely plot developments.

The cinematography by veteran Nigel Bluck makes nice use of the Georgia wetlands which substitute here for the Outer Banks – apparently the tax incentives are better in Georgia than they are in North Carolina. In any event, the film does its level best to be charming and often succeeds – but often shoots itself in the foot, seemingly taking on a philosophy of The Ends Justify the Means which is a bit disquieting. For those looking for a diversion from the summer blockbusters but can’t wait for the Fall’s Oscar contenders to arrive, this will do in a pinch.

REASONS TO SEE: Never too sweet, never too edgy. LaBeouf reminds us why he was considered one of Hollywood’s up-and-comers not too long ago.
REASONS TO AVOID: Whenever Gottsagen opens his mouth, the movie comes to a grinding halt. Seems to promote an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Zak, Tyler and Eleanor jump off the oil rig by swinging on a rope, the actors did the swinging; no stunt doubles were used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Brian Banks

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Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry get a glimpse of the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee, Raevan Lee Hanan, Alistair Petrie. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

 

Some movies are easily described, tackle relatively simplistic storylines and are therefore reviewed rather easily. Some have epic ambitions, attempt to tackle much more complex stories and modes of storytelling and give critics fits trying to describe them.

Cloud Atlas is such a film. Based on a much-admired novel by David Mitchell, the movie was taken on by the Wachowskis (auteurs of the Matrix trilogy) who first got their attentions captured by it when Natalie Portman gave a copy to them on the set of V for Vendetta. They decided to turn it into a movie shortly thereafter and brought in close friend Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run) to help them with the writing and directing.

And it is a magnificent canvas. Six stories run concurrently across six different eras with actors playing multiple roles (and often multiple genders). In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Sturgess) returning home from the Pacific Islands to his home in New England after negotiating a slaving contract helps a stowaway slave (Gyasi). In 1936, a young man who dreams of composing (Whishaw) becomes an assistant to a fading composer with the delightful name of Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and writes a series of love letters to his lover (D’Arcy) at Cambridge while composing a piece of music that will go largely unheard but will have a major effect on other people as time goes by.

In 1973 Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative reporter in the mold of her father (Gyasi again) is put onto the trail of a defective nuclear power plant by a physicist – the same man who the young composer was writing in 1936 – and goes after Lloyd Hooks (Grant), who runs the plant with what might not be altruistic motives. She will be helped by a physicist (Hanks) and a security chief (David) while stalked by a deadly killer named Bill Smoke (Weaving).

Meanwhile, in 2012 a dishonest publisher (Broadbent) finds himself with a hit book on his hands after it’s criminal author (Hanks again) throws a smarmy critic (Petrie) off a roof but is forced to seek help when the author demands more of a cut. He reluctantly turns to his brother (Grant) who fools him into committing himself in a retirement home that is something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with its own version of Nurse Ratched (in this case, Weaving) and with a few fellow elderly inmates concocts a plan of escape.

In 2144 in the city of Neo Seoul, an artificial human being named Sonmi-241 (Bae) finds her life as a restaurant waitress turned upside down when a revolutionary (Sturgess) shows her an entirely new world as he teaches her philosophy and history and she soon realizes that the corrupt world she lives in needs someone to speak up for the downtrodden – and that someone might as well be her, despite grave risks by a nearly all-seeing establishment.

Far in the future after civilization has fallen, a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks) living on a Pacific island in a village of peaceful farmers and shepherds is visited by Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced society called the Prescients. She wants to be guided to a distant place but nobody will take her because in order to get there they must go through the territory of a vicious tribe of cannibals called the Kona who are led by a particularly ruthless, nasty chief (Grant). Zachry agrees to do this in exchange for Meronym saving his daughter Catkin (Hanan) from death by a nasty infection.

These six stories are told concurrently with the film jumping from era to era, sometimes after only a matter of seconds. Initially it is going to sound a lot more confusing than it is; once you get settled into it, it’s actually not that hard following the stories. And while there is a bit of the stunt casting element (all of the main actors appear in one form or another in nearly every one of the six stories, some in more than one role) you get used to seeing the same faces in different roles thanks to some pretty nifty make-up jobs.

The overall theme here is that someone is being repressed and must face a decision as to whether to accept the repression and imprisonment or to act to end it, whether for themselves or for others. People have the capacity to leap beyond their own needs and give selflessly for the sake of others; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do. People also have the capacity to force others into lives of servitude and reap the benefits of these actions; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do as well.

The descriptions of the stories are actually fairly general and don’t really capture the whole magnitude of each vignette. Each story has an epic quality to it and while some are more personal than others (the Tykwer-directed stories in particular) there is certainly a sense that each story has ripple effects that magnify through time. While the stories don’t necessarily intersect directly, they often parallel one another with identical themes told in different ways. The stories aren’t necessarily meant to follow one another so much as complement one another.

It’s an ambitious work and without a stellar cast to carry it off it probably wouldn’t have worked as much. Not all of the roles work every time for the actors and often they are asked to move well out of their comfort zones but I suspect that they loved being pushed into places they hadn’t been or at least rarely go. Berry is intriguing in her 1973 and far future incarnations; Hanks does well in the far future and in 1849. Broadbent is fun in 2012 and more of a rotter in 1936; Whishaw does some fine work as the doomed composer in 1936 and Sturgess as the dying lawyer in 1849 and the somewhat guarded revolutionary in 2144.

Weaving also fares well as the 1973 hit man and as kind of a devil in the far future. Bae, whose work I wasn’t that familiar with to begin with, is magnificent in the 2144 sequence. She reminds me very much of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Not just from a physical standpoint but simply in the manner in which she acts.

Definitely this isn’t going to be for everyone. General audiences tend to want their science fiction to be action-oriented rather than thought-provoking (even Blade Runner wasn’t the hit Alien was); sure there’s a pretty sizable cult audience for thinking sci-fi but they don’t seem to be enough to really push movies such as this one into profitability which is a shame because work this ambitious and innovative should be rewarded.

I’m sure a lot of people were put off by the scope of the film, and by the reviews that placed it as cerebral. Not everyone goes to the movies to be intellectually stimulated and that’s okay. I like a visceral knuckle-dragging action movie as much as the next guy. I just like to have the part of me above the neck stimulated as much as my testosterone and this movie does both amply. Simply put, one of the movies that I will continue to debate and discuss with other film buffs for a very long time to come and clearly one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and compelling. Awesome visual and make-up effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people are simply not going to know what to make of this. Cerebral sci-fi historically not a big box office winner.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some graphic nudity, a bit of bad language and some drug use (some of it involuntary).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three time period stories apiece, sharing no crew other than the actors themselves. The Wachowskis filmed the 1849, 2044 and far future sequences, Tykwer the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty mixed but leaning towards the good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Machine (2002)

DRAG LOVERS: Most of the main cast plays members of both genders at various times in the film.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: What’s Your Number

Burma VJ


Burma VJ

A courageous videographer documents events from the Saffron Revolution.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) “Joshua,” Aung San Suu Kyi. Directed by Anders Ostergaard

We take freedom for granted in a big way. While we can take the news we watch with a grain of salt, at least the government doesn’t completely censor any criticism of it with an iron fist. Our reporters don’t get thrown in jail and tortured for reporting the news.

That sounds far-fetched and yet it does happen in Burma, regularly. The country also known as Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta as repressive and cruel as any in the world today. Internet use is severely restricted and information flows at a sluggish pace. The news in and out of the country is limited; few in the West are truly aware of what takes place in Burma. In fact, many people in Burma itself are unaware of what’s going on in their own country.

However, there are a group of Burmese citizens, armed with small video cameras that are determined to make sure that the news of what’s happening in their country is documented and sent out for the world to see, including their own country. They are called the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The organization is headquartered in Oslo; the images and videos are smuggled out to them, and the news is then beamed by satellite into Burma and throughout the world. Those who carry the cameras risk terrible reprisals to themselves and their families if they are caught.

Few of them, such as “Joshua,” a young 27-year-old man who acts as our proxy in the DVB, have known anything but oppression and fear other than for a few weeks when there have been occasional uprisings. The junta, in place since 1962, has dealt with every challenge to its authority with absolute and merciless violence and arrests.

In August of 2007, the leaders of Burma added an arbitrary fuel tax that doubled the prices of gasoline and other fuels . This became intolerable to the average Burmese citizen and protests began to break out in the capital of Rangoon. At first, the government dealt with these the way they always did – by arresting those who would raise their voices against them. However, the people had reached a breaking point and thousands upon thousands took up the call.

Crucially, they were supported by the Buddhist monks of their country, perhaps the only other group within Burma that could take on the cruel military dictatorship. The powers that be in Burma allowed the Buddhists to protest, even allowing them to meet with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a leader of the 1988 revolution who had been under house arrest since then and a woman revered by the Burmese people.

However, as it became apparent that the protests were growing in scope, the government began to do the unthinkable – a crackdown against the religious leaders of their nation. Hundreds of monks were arrested and many disappeared. Soldiers fired into crowds of protesters and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of peaceful protesters. The world would never have known if it weren’t for the images smuggled out by the DVB.

Director Ostergaard put together the footage, much of it never seen before, into a very compelling story that illustrates the incredible bravery not only of the protesters but of the videographers themselves. One gets a sense of the pervasive fear that dominates Burmese society, and the yearning for something better than what they all have.

This is a dictatorship that has stood for almost half a century and it doesn’t appear that it will be going away anytime soon. Watching this documentary makes you appreciate your own freedom and pray for the day when the people of Burma can enjoy their own. Perhaps we will see that day in our own lifetime; I sincerely hope so. Perhaps documentaries like this one will be the first step in that direction.

WHY RENT THIS: A depiction of bravery on a massive scale from a part of the world that is rarely depicted.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like powerful documentaries that teach you something about injustice in other parts of the world, you should go ahead and watch the next installment in the Twilight series.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film is unrated, some of the themes are rather adult and there are some scenes in which there is violence; teens who are interested in the region will find this suitable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several videographers depicted in the film have since been arrested and jailed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Crossing Midnight, a short document about Dr. Cynthia Maung who fled to Thailand in 1988 and founded the Mao Tae clinic along with several other medical personnel.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Crazy Love