Walking Out


A father-son piggyback ride – with a twist.

(2017) Drama (IFC) Matt Bomer, Josh Higgins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Ken White, Lily Gladstone, Erik P. Resel. Directed by Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith

 

The mountains are unforgiving. They are beautiful, yes, but formidable. One false step can leave you in a terrible situation. One mistake, one moment of lapsed concentration can make the difference between getting home safely and having your carcass gnawed on by animals.

Cal (Bomer) is an avid outdoorsman living in Montana. He is divorced with a child, 14-year-old David (Higgins) who lives most of the time with his mother in a more urban or at least suburban environment. Cal is about hiking, camping, hunting and respecting nature. David is about smartphones, chatting with his friends and videogames. Cal is 19th century, David is 21st century. Cal has some fairly concrete ideas of what it takes to be a man; David’s ideas are more fluid.

On his semi-annual visit to his Dad, David is less than enthusiastic but he’s a good sport and agrees to go hunting with his Pa. He proves to be a less than adept shot to his father’s frustration – and David’s own. Cal has quite a camping trip planned; he’s been tracking a moose in the high country and wants David to bag the animal as his first kill as a hunter. David would likely much rather play a hunting simulation game if he had a choice.

But David is the kind of kid who goes along to get along and depending on how charitable your view is, either sees how important it is to his Dad and gives in or simply wants to avoid a confrontation. Either way, the two head into the mountains where Cal hopes that this trip will bring the two closer together.

Things start to go wrong nearly immediately. They go after the moose only to discover that some rank amateur has already shot it and left it to rot which is a crime in Cal’s book. Looking for some other game to at least salvage the trip, things go wrong for the two men; horribly wrong in fact, leaving them stranded in the wilderness, one of them terribly wounded and no hope for rescue. They’ll have to walk out of the mountains on their own if they are to survive.

One of the words that best describes this movie is “simple.” In other words, the Smith brothers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; they set up their shots without a lot of complication, the plot is straightforward and we are almost forced to concentrate on character interaction. This works for me particularly when the characters are interesting and the performers bring those characters to life.

The movie rests heavily on the shoulders of Bomer and Wiggins and to their credit they both do a solid job but we are given a pretty straightforward dramatic conflict; Dad = he-man outdoors type who likes to shoot things; Son = pampered Millennial with a chip on his shoulder. As winning formulas go, this is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Still, I grant you that this kind of relationship as we see here between Cal and David feels very much authentic, the kind of extreme gulf that exists between city folk and country folk. In a way the rift between Cal and David mirrors that between urban and rural in America.

The Montana scenery as lensed by Todd McMullen is as spectacular as advertised; there’s majesty, beauty and stark emptiness here. There’s a lot of snow, particularly when the movie switches from the prairies to the mountains but it’s a pristine snow of the kind you don’t find where people are. Even in all the whiteness there’s a kind of beauty that makes the audience shiver in sympathy and also feel VERY happy to be in a warmer climate at that moment.

The one Name in the cast is Pullman who plays Cal’s father in flashbacks when Cal describes his first moose hunt to his son. Pullman has hardly any lines at all and his appearances, all in a home movie-like sheen, are not enough to really make a difference here. The pacing of the film is pretty deliberate and after awhile watching the excruciating pain that one of the cast members is in gets hard to watch; as the two men make their way down the mountain, I began to wish the film would end quickly. Maybe ADD is catching.

Other than a few scenes this is a very talky affair with little action so people who might ordinarily be into this kind of survival film will likely be a lot more than a little bit put off by the film. Those into exploring relationship dynamics might see the adventure movie side to this and give it a wide berth. There is some promise here, not just the lead actors but also behind the camera as well. The Brothers Smith have a good eye, an ability to take a basic plot and make it their own. I suspect that I won’t remember much about the movie in the days to come but I’m much more positive that I’ll be remembering the directors in years to come as they craft movies that take story ideas, bring them to their essence and make a great movie around it.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery is beautiful. The father/son dynamic is unusually realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Bill Pullman is wasted in his flashback-heavy role. At times the movie is hard to watch and at other times I couldn’t wait for it to end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images of a mauling, adult thematic elements and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale considered the role of Cal but ultimately decided to pass because he didn’t want to be separated from his family on a remote location shoot so soon after the birth of his son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Woodpeckers

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Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Nestor Carbonell, Joel van Liew, Bill Camp, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Carlos Hendricks, Ron Canada, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Shana A. Solomon, Brian Tyree Henry, Sarah Goldberg. Directed by Matt Ruskin

 

Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced set of scales. This is meant to convey the impartiality of justice. In modern America, experience has taught us that justice sometimes peeks behind the blindfolds and the scales are weighted against the poor and those of color.

Colin Warner (Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is no saint – one of the first things we see him do is steal a car – but he’s not the devil incarnate either. He’s just a guy trying to make it in a world that isn’t well-disposed towards people with his skin color or economic station. He hopes for a better life and along with his best friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha) is attending a school to become a certified auto mechanic. He also has an eye on Antoinette (Paul), a neighborhood girl who has unfortunately put him in the friend zone.

One night as he walks home with his mother’s television set which he picked up from the repair shop, he is arrested by a pair of New York’s finest. When he learns that the charge is murder, he is almost incredulous. The more he discovers about the crime, the more confident he is that he’ll soon be freed; for one thing, he didn’t do the crime. He didn’t know anyone involved. He had no motive and no record of violence. Surely the police will see that and let him go.

To his horror, they don’t. Even after they find the man who actually pulled the trigger (Forbes), they refuse to let him go. An eyewitness puts him on the scene; never mind that the 15-year-old boy (Brooks) has a criminal history of his own, or that his story is wildly inconsistent with other eyewitnesses. Even the presiding judge (Canada) admits the evidence is flimsy. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicts the shocked Colin and he is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Colin’s family and particularly KC are livid and on a mission to get Colin home where he belongs. The appeals process turns into a nightmare as the lawyer that is hired is so woefully unprepared that it is clear that he’s all about getting the cash up front and after that, he doesn’t really much care. KC’s determination leads him to take the process server’s exam so that he can circulate among lawyers and perhaps find a good one to take Colin’s case. Eventually it leads him to William Robedee (Camp) who together with his Irish wife Shirley (Goldberg) run a tiny practice. The lawyer agrees to take the case after looking at the transcripts and discovering what a shockingly inadequate defense Colin received. Still, the system is grinding Colin down and although Antoinette has thawed on the whole romance thing, it looks like Colin might just rot in prison.

This is based on true events which should be enough to make your blood boil. These things really happened and Colin Warner really spent a ridiculous amount of time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ruskin uses contemporary clips of various presidents talking tough on crime to illustrate the tone of the times and reminds us that crime is the political equivalent of a slam dunk – everybody wants to be perceived as tough on crime. The results of the rhetoric was largely cosmetic; the effects on the poor and those unable to afford good representation, devastating.

Stanfield has been turning heads over the past few years with performance after performance, always delivering something special. This might be his best work yet, showing us a man who is pretty laid back and soft-spoken most of the time but frustrated by the injustice of his situation, driven to despair (he wakes up each morning murmuring to himself “Please don’t let it be a cell”) and eventually rage, lashing out at brutal guards and equally brutal inmates. Only his love for Antoinette, his mother and grandmother back in Trinidad and the support of KC keeps him going. Stanfield captures the full range of Colin’s emotions.

I’m not sure where this was filmed but I suspect it was either in a working prison or a decommissioned one. It looks a little too authentic to be a set. I could be wrong on that count of course and if I am, the production designer Kaet McAnneny is to be doubly commended. Ruskin also gives a very stark look at life inside. It isn’t as brutal as, say, Oz but it does capture the feeling of simmering anger and violence that exists in a prison and especially the hopelessness.

The movie suffers from an inconsistent pace. Certain parts of the movie seem to move very quickly (the arrest and initial trial, for example) and others seem to drag. Ruskin utilizes graphics to tell us how long Colin has been incarcerated. There are some jumps in time and quite honestly there is a lack of consistent flow here. I didn’t get a good sense of time passing; other than the graphics, all of the action could have taken place within the same year with the viewer being none the wiser.

Stanfield is impressive here and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line he became one of the very best in Hollywood, the sort of actor who is a threat to win an Oscar every time he signs up for a movie. He elevates this movie and he is supported by a thoroughly professional cast. The acting is uniformly good and other than what I discussed earlier there aren’t really any serious faults to really distract from what is a very good film. It tells a story that will outrage but sadly isn’t uncommon as graphics near the end of the film show. Definitely this is one if you’re looking for a serious movie to see that may have some outside Oscar implications later on.

REASONS TO GO: Stanfield delivers a performance that just sizzles. A cathartic ending enhances the gritty portrayal of the brutality of everyday prison life.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is inconsistent..
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of profanity, some violence and sexuality as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asomugha is a pro football player who is a two-time All-Pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man in Red Bandana

City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster