The Irishman


I heard he paints houses.

(2019) Gangster (NetflixRobert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Jonathan Morris, Jim Norton, Aleksa Paladino. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Much of the American fascination with the mob can be traced to Coppola’s The Godfather saga and the films of Martin Scorsese. If you take Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed as part of the same franchise, The Irishman may well be the concluding episode in the saga.

This film, which has been winning the kind of effusive praise from critics normally reserved for pictures of their grandkids, follows the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who went from being a war hero during the Second World War to a refrigerated truck driver, to a thug in the Philadelphia mob run by Russell Buffalino (Pesci)  to the bodyguard and right hand man of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). We see Sheeran transverse the glory days of the mob, covering the late 40s all the way up until the mid-70s. While there are references to watershed moments in the history of American organized crime, this isn’t really a primer on the subject; rather, it is the point of view of an insider, one whose claims as to the disappearance of Hoffa – still considered unsolved to this day – are perhaps self-aggrandizing but there is at least some evidence that says it might have happened the way it’s depicted here.

I am being purposely vague as to the plot points because this is an intensely long movie – right around three and a half hours. While as of this writing it is still in certain select theaters around the country, and in all honesty, it should be seen on a big ass screen with a big ass booming sound system, the length makes this kind of prohibitive. Those who have short attention spans won’t be able to tolerate this and those of us who have mobility issues might find it preferable to watch this at home on Netflix, where it just debuted Thanksgiving eve.

Scorsese doesn’t skimp on the cast, with De Niro and Pacino as powerful as they have ever been in the film. Pacino, in fact, may count this alongside Michael Corleone and Tony Montana as the roles that will mark the absolute apex of his distinguished and memorable career. His fans will be delighted to watch this; those who can take or leave him can watch this and understand why others consider him one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

Not that Pesci and De Niro are slouches by any means. Pesci was lured out of retirement (he hadn’t made an onscreen appearance since 2010) which is a godsend; I truly missed the man as an actor, with his charming sense of humor and occasional fits of rage. Here he is much more subdued and plays Buffalino as a more reserved and restrained Don who is smart enough to keep a low profile but ruthless enough to do whatever is necessary to keep his empire humming along. De Niro, for his part, is De Niro here – explosive and vulnerable in equal parts.

There is a fourth Oscar winner in the cast – Anna Paquin, who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter who adores her Uncle Jimmy Hoffa and takes a wary dislike to Russell, whom her father feels closer to. When Hoffa disappears, she understands that her father was involved in some way and refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life, which apparently mirrored real life. Paquin only gets a couple of lines but her venomous looks, delighted smiles and eventually sad eyes remind me why she is an Oscar winner and makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her in the movies.

Scorsese utilizes technology in a very un-Scorsese-like manner, using computers to de-age the actors for flashback scenes (all three of the leads are well into their 70s). The technology has advanced to the point where it is actually effective here; the men look truly younger, even more so than Will Smith in Gemini Man. With technology like this, it is bound to alter how movies are made. If you have a role for a 20-something that calls for the kind of emotional depth and acting experience a 20-something actor won’t have, why not cast a veteran actor and de-age them for the role? I can see a lot of drawbacks to this, not the least of which that it will be tougher for young actors to get the kind of experience that propels younger actors into becoming great ones. Still, with the dizzying amount of product out there to fill all of the streaming services and their needs, that point may end up being moot.

Some critics are waxing rhapsodic about The Irishman and proclaim it the best film of the year (it isn’t) and among the best that Scorsese has ever done (it isn’t). There is a bittersweet feel to the movie, particularly in the last 20 minutes as if this is the end of an era, which it likely is. At 77, Scorsese doesn’t show any signs of slowing down; he has already directed one other movie released on Netflix earlier this year, a Bob Dylan documentary with at least another documentary on the music of the 70s in the pipeline. Still, getting the universe to align to get this kind of cast together and to get this kind of film made for the kind of budget it took to get it made isn’t likely to happen again, plus after this I really don’t know if there is much more Scorsese can say about the mob, although I will be the first to temper that with a never say never warning; if there is a story out there to be told, Scorsese can find a way to tell it.

The big problem I have with the film is its aforementioned length. I can understand why Scorsese let it run so long – he may never have the chance to direct something like this with this cast again – but as much as I respect him as perhaps the greatest American director ever, the movie is repetitive in places and quite frankly we could have done without about an hour of it. Watching this is no spring; it’s an endurance contest and you’d best enter into watching it prepared for that. Hydrate regularly, watch from a comfortable seated position and take a few breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. The magic of Netflix is that you are allowed to do that whenever you like.

In the end, I think this is one of Scorsese’s best movies, but not with the triumvirate that make up his absolute best films – Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino. This is more along the level of Raging Bull, The Departed. Mean Streets and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think most cinephiles are going to see this anyway but if you’re on the fence, I think you should pull the trigger and see what all the fuss is about. After all, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it off and start binging The Rick and Morty Show.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the greatest casts this decade. Scorsese is still Scorsese. A plausible explanation of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity as well as its fair share of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest feature film Scorsese has ever directed and the longest overall to be commercially released in more than 20 years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 94//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: GoodFellas
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

The Heiresses (Las herederas)


We are all just shadows of ourselves.

(2018) Drama (DistribAna Brun, Margarita Irun, Ana Ivanova, Nilda Gonzalez, Maria Martins, Alicia Guerra, Raul Chamarro, Ines Guerrico, Chili Yegros, Lucy Yegros, Yvera, Regina Duarte, Javier Villamayor, Ana Banks, Rossana Bellasai, Antonella Zaldivar, Marisa Manutti, Clotilda Cabral, Patty Gadea, Mecha Armele, Beto Barsotti, Norma Codas, Natalia Calcena. Directed by Marcelo Martinessi

 

Some movies are loud and brazen – the films of Michael Bay are an example of these. Others are quiet and subdued in tone, sometimes because they really don’t have much to say. However, others say much with their silences.

Chela (Brun) and Chiquita (Irun) are a pair of aging lesbians who have lived together for 30 years in a posh section of Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. They have been living off of their dual inheritances but they have hit hard financial times, mainly because Chiquita – a social butterfly – has been living and spending well beyond their means. They have been forced to sell their things in an effort to pay her debts – an unsuccessful effort as it turns out. Her debts have become so massive that the Paraguayan courts have finally convicted her of fraud and sent her to prison.

Chela, the more introspective of the two, finds herself trapped in the fading prison of their home. Outlines where paintings once hung dot the walls and strangers come into their home to paw their things. This is absolutely anathema to Chela who wants nothing more but to live a quiet life but it has grown necessarily silent without Chiquita in the house to liven things up. As a parting gift, Chiquita got Chela a maid (Gonzalez) to serve the somewhat rigid Chela who freaks out if the handle of her coffee cup on her breakfast tray faces the wrong direction.

Chela, who can drive but has no license, gives a friend a ride to her weekly card game; her friend Pituca (Martins) insists on paying for it. Soon, Chela is driving friends and friends of friends in the ancient Mercedes her father left her that doesn’t always start right away. Chela though begins to develop a sense of freedom and confidence that has been lacking in her life, to the point where she even attempts to drive the motorway, something she has been unwilling to do up until now.

Part of the reason is Angela (Ivanova), the daughter of a friend of Pituca. Angela is younger, lively and sexy, willing to discuss her libidinous past with Chela. Chela for her part has discovered a bit of a crush on Angela. Still, Chiquita won’t remain in prison forever and can Chela return to the life she was leading then?

It is amazing to note that this is the debut feature film for Marcelo Martinessi and he handles it with a remarkably self-assured hand. For a very quiet film, there is an awful lot going on particularly in subtext. Martinessi lets you discover these things for yourself rather than spelling things out particularly for you, which is entirely respectful of his audience, something a lot of directors could learn.

One of his smartest moves was casting Ana Brun as Chela. Brun is not a professional actress but she is an expressive one. Much of the subtext comes from her body language, the expressions on her face and in her eyes. She doesn’t have a ton of dialogue to deliver but every word sounds natural coming from her mouth.

This is definitely a movie that is going to appeal to older women, particularly those of Latin descent. All of the main parts here are female and there are virtually no speaking parts for men; that’s not a bad thing by any means but it feels surprisingly, particularly coming from a Latin American film and a male director in particular. It’s refreshing to see a film about a fairly underserved audience and hopefully it will find a niche audience.

This isn’t a movie with a whole lot of dramatic tension and some might have an issue with that. However, if you are attuned to it, the movie is actually quite delightful in places despite the often-depressing milieu. It’s out now on home video and should be one discerning cinema buffs should be seeking out.

REASONS TO SEE: You never know where the film is going to take you. Has a definite Latin flavor.
REASONS TO AVOID: May appeal to a fairly narrow audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, much smoking, adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Paraguay’s official submission for the 2019 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: ROMA
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Faithful Man

The Christmas Chronicles


He sees you when you’re sleeping…

(2018) Holiday (Netflix) Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Steven van Zandt, Oliver Hudson, Vella Lovell, Jameson Kraemer, Solla Park, Seth Mohan, Kayla Lakhani, Glen McDonald, Danielle Bourgon, Tony Nappo, Martin Roach, Lamorne Morris, Marc Ribler, Jeff Teravainen, Elizabeth Phoenix Caro, JaQuita May. Directed by Clay Kaytis

 

Every year at Christmas time there is a plethora of made-for-TV Christmas films that generally are barely tolerable. Once upon a time though, major studios made Christmas films that were heartwarming, sent a positive message and were actually entertaining but frankly, there hasn’t been one like that in the multiplexes since Elf.

Netflix has the last couple of years looked to fill that gap, with this being the crown jewel in this year’s crop of four or five Christmas releases. It has a big star, a well-known name in family filmmaking behind the camera (producer Chris Columbus) and a fairly big budget for effects and such. Does this have the makings of a Christmas perennial?

Through a series of home movies we are introduced to the Pierce family. Doug (Hudson), a firefighter, is one of those guys who puts a ton of effort into Christmas. His kids adore him and his wife is head over heels for him. Firefighting is, sadly, a very dangerous occupation and one year Dad is not there at Christmas. His wife Claire (Williams-Paisley) works in the local Emergency Room and on Christmas Eve she’s called in to cover a shift. Times being what they are – single moms need to work all the shifts they can, particularly at Christmas – she puts teen Teddy (Lewis) in charge of moppet Kate (Camp) and off sh goes to earn a living.

Kate still believes in Santa Claus which Teddy finds to be an eye-rolling mess. Teddy has fallen in with a bad crowd and is doing some underage drinking and worse, stealing cars. Kate clings to Dad’s massively outdated camcorder like Linus clings to his security blanket. She manages to convince Teddy – who against all odds decides to stay and babysit rather than go out with his friends as he’d planned to – to set up the camera to catch Santa in the act. To Teddy’s absolute shock, they do.

Going outside to get a better look at the magical sleigh, the two are accidentally taken along when Santa (Russell) takes off for his next destination. When he discovers the stowaways, he is taken by surprise and in the process loses his magic hat (which allows him to deliver presents at lightning sped), his sack of presents, the flying reindeer and the sleigh itself which crashes to Earth – in Chicago. Had Alex Jones made this movie, Santa would have had to be packing in order to make it out alive.

In any case the two kids responsible for Santa’s nightmare have to help him reclaim all his items and deliver the presents before dawn or else Christmas spirit would be drained from the world. The last time that happened, Santa tells us, the Dark Ages ensued. Somebody needs to tell Santa that there’s a good chance that the Second Dark Ages have already begun.

On the way to rescuing Christmas Santa gets arrested (!) and performs a blues musical number with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in the jailhouse (!!) while Kate scrambles to find the elves who turn out to be Minion-like merchandising opportunities creatures who speak in an unintelligible language. But can these two kids help Santa save Christmas – and can Santa save this family in crisis? Duh – it’s Christmas!

Russell was an inspired choice for St. Nick. He’s not the jolly old geezer that we’ve seen in past films, nor the hot mess that Tim Allen made him to be. This Santa is a straight shooter, a bit rough around the edges and well, some female reviewers have taken to calling him “hot Santa” which was enough to curl the mistletoe in my home.

As a counterpoint though are the two children. The performers are okay but they needed to be more than that to carry this film, which ends up being a Kurt Russell-fest because of it. Not that it’s a bad thing mind you but the film spends a lot of time following the kids and quite frankly you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them after the first few minutes. Kate’s actions imperil Christmas but there are no repercussions, no remorse really on her end; it’s just “they made a mess and it got cleaned up so everything’s copacetic.” Worse, there are absolutely no consequences for Teddy’s crimes which is criminal for a family film, and in fact Santa participates in a carjacking himself! It’s enough to make an elf burst into tears.

The special effects lack the wow factor of previous Santa-themed Christmas films and the stock aerial footage looks outdated. Much of the action is fairly predictable and rote and while the blues number seems a bit against the grain, it’s actually one of the best moments in the film overall – Russell really brings it. Still, it really doesn’t hold up to the Christmas movies that we tend to watch year after year. This one might get an occasional viewing once you’ve seen it once but even the least discerning Netflix viewers will probably think twice about a second streaming session but Russell’s performance is worth viewing at least once.

REASONS TO GO: Russell makes for a terrific Santa.
REASONS TO STAY: Parents might want to consider the message the film is sending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and kid mischief.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kurt Russell grew his beard out for the role; that’s actually his hair and beard he’s wearing as Santa, not an appliance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lasso

The Hitman’s Bodyguard


Mace Windu’s got a brand new bag.

(2017) Action Comedy (Summit) Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman, Elodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Tine Joustra, Richard E. Grant, Michael Gor, Kirsty Mitchell, Barry Atsma, Sam Hazeldine, Ori Pfeffer, Dijarn Campbell, Rod Hallett, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Nadia Konakchieva, Roy Hill, Georgie Glen, Noortje Herlaar, Donna Preston, Samantha Bolter. Directed by Patrick Hughes

 

The most important thing about a buddy action movie is that the chemistry between the buddies is good. Judging from the trailer, it appeared like that was a slam dunk for The Hitman’s Bodyguard – action veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds looked to be like the best buddy combo since Gibson and Glover. Then I saw the movie.

The premise is a simple one; down on his luck executive  bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) whose “triple A rated” agency took a tumble after a Japanese CEO he was hired to protect had his grey matter splattered all over a private jet window. Now his ex-girlfriend Amelia (Yung) who works for Interpol these days has a proposition for him – to escort a hired killer named Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from Manchester to the Hague to testify in the trial of an Eastern European dictator (Oldman) being tried for war crimes. Of course, neither the dictator nor elements within Interpol that he paid off want to see Darius make the court date and they mean to make sure he doesn’t.

There is an over-abundance of car chases which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you like car chases. Some of them are actually quite well done – in fact quite a number of stunts are really well-performed here. The problem is that many of the best ones are spoiled in the trailer. In fact, this is one of those occasions where the experience of a film is ruined by viewing the trailer. I can sympathize that those folks who make trailers have a difficult job – to get people excited about a movie without revealing too much about it. It’s a fine line to walk and not every trailer walks it successfully. This one doesn’t.

The all-important chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds isn’t nearly as strong consistently as the trailer would have you believe. Like any good buddy action combo, the relationship is strictly love-hate (emphasis on the hate to begin with) but there are times that the two feel awkward together. I think part of the problem lies with a studio decision to change what had been a pure action drama into an action comedy just weeks before shooting started. The original script had been on the Black List for best unproduced screenplays but I suppose the powers that be thought – with some justification – that a team-up between Reynolds and Jackson should be heavier on the comedy. Unfortunately for them, comedy can be a tricky thing to write and what looks good on paper may not translate to onscreen laughs.

The supporting performances are pretty solid. Oldman is suitably snarly as the generic Eastern European dictator and Grant has some nice scenes as one of Michael’s more recent clients but the show is nearly stolen by Hayek as Darius’ foul-mouthed wife. I would have liked to have seen a lot more of her and a lot less of Yung who is nondescript here.

2017 was a good year for action movies and this one had the potential to be right there among the best. Sadly, it squandered a lot of opportunities and ended up being merely adequate. Adjust your viewing plans accordingly, particularly since there are a plethora of great action movies out there that are far more worth your rental dollars.

REASONS TO GO: There are some great stunts in the film. Hayek was terrific in the film; it could have used more of her.
REASONS TO STAY: The chemistry between Jackson and Reynolds is inconsistent. Many of the best sequences were spoiled in the trailer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Criminal which also was Europe-set and featured Gary Oldman and Ryan Reynolds shared over 100 crew members in common.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Pursuit
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

Loving


A loving couple.

A loving couple.

(2016) True Life Drama (Focus) Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood, Christopher Mann, Alano Miller, Winter Lee Holland, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, David Jensen, Michael Shannon, Matt Malloy, Jennifer Joyner, Quinn McPherson, Dalyn M. Cleckley, Brenan Young, D.L. Hopkins, Keith Tyree, Coley Campany. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 

At one time in our history, interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states of the union. Those who supported such laws often cited the Bible about how God never meant the races to intermix. This is living proof that the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Richard Loving (Edgerton) is a hardworking construction worker in rural Virginia, a town called Central Point. He lays bricks to build homes. He also has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), a woman of African descent. The feeling is mutual and he gets her pregnant. Richard is over the moon about this in his own stolid way; he proposes marriage and she accepts. However, in order to marry her, he’ll have to drive to Washington DC where interracial marriages are legal. The couple returns home to live with Mildred’s parents.

Five weeks after the ceremony, Sheriff Brooks (Csokas) and his deputies kick down their door and arrest the couple who had been sleeping soundly in their bed. Richard is bailed out but Mildred is kept several days as the obsequious county clerk refuses to allow anyone to bail her out until after the weekend. The couple engages a lawyer (Camp) who is acquainted with Judge Bazile (Jensen) who is hearing the case. He agrees to drop the charges – if the couple leaves the state of Virginia immediately and vow not to return for 25 years.

The Lovings are willing to comply but life in Washington DC (where they’re staying with a member of Mildred’s family) is a far cry from the peaceful rural life they loved. Homesick and without anywhere to turn, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General who refers the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is assigned to lawyer Bernie Cohen (Kroll) who knows that this could be a landmark case – but it will require much sacrifice on the part of the Loving family.

The case is an important one, one that was used as a precedent in striking down recently the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented same-sex marriages. There is certainly a modern parallel to be made here but director Jeff Nichols wisely chooses to play that aspect down. He seems to prefer making his point quietly and subtly.

There is no speechifying here, no grand courtroom arguments and no stirring orchestras highlighting moments of great sacrifice. Mostly, Nichols portrays Richard and Mildred as ordinary folks who just want to be left alone. They are thrust into the national spotlight somewhat unwillingly; they never set out to be civil rights symbols but they certainly had to be aware that they would become one. We aren’t privy to that side of them however; what we see is the couple going about their lives while coping with what had to be immense pressure.

Negga’s name has come up this awards season for Best Actress honors and she’s almost certain to get a nomination for the Oscar (although she will have an uphill battle against Natalie Portman’s performance In Jackie which is currently the odds on favorite to win the award) . It is Mildred’s film and mostly seen from her point of view. A shy and retiring sort, she is by necessity the spokesperson for the couple; Richard is so taciturn that he is almost surly. Negga plays Mildred with grace and dignity, and at no time does she ever give a hint of feeling sorry for herself, although Mildred had plenty of reason to.

Edgerton has much less dialogue to deliver although he has maybe the most emotional scene in the movie when he breaks down when things are looking their bleakest. Richard was not a very complicated man and certainly not a loquacious one; he just wants to be left alone, but he realizes that he can’t have the life he wants in the home he’s always known if something isn’t done and so he simply allows those who have the savvy and the education to get things done to guide his steps, although he clearly isn’t always happy about it.

The overall vibe is very low-key; there are few scenes that are loud and I don’t mean just in volume. Mostly Nichols keeps things quiet and simple. He resists the urge to portray the couple as heroic in the traditional sense; they were heroic simply by saying “we only want to love each other and build a life together.” They weren’t activists, they weren’t firebrands and Nichols prefers to stick to history here. Some might even call them dull.

But they were heroic nonetheless. Many thousands of people who have married outside of their race owe their freedom to do so to Richard and Mildred Loving. Both of them are deceased at this point so there’s no way to know what they thought of this portrayal of them; something tells me that had they lived to see this movie, they probably would have wondered what all the fuss is about. This is an outstanding movie that portrays the kind of people that I think should truly considered American heroes. Heroes don’t always run into burning buildings or run onto battlefields; sometimes a hero is the one who simply says “this isn’t right” and sees things through until real change occurs. The Lovings certainly did that.

REASONS TO SEE: A story with reverberations that make it timely even now. Understated but powerful performances from Negga and Edgerton elevate the film. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.
REASONS TO MISS: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nichols, Edgerton and Shannon previously combined on Midnight Special.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Loving Story
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Allied