I, Tonya


Some mother and daughter relationships aren’t exactly storybook perfect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie

 

Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.

Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.

Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.

She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser)  to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…

The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.

Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.

Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.

Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.

Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.

This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Jigsaw

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New Releases for the Week of January 12, 2018


THE POST

(20th Century Fox) Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie.  Directed by Steven Spielberg

After the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, they were in the center of a firestorm of controversy. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post also acquired some of the classified documents that detailed American acts that violated the Constitution as well as the Geneva Convention. With the Nixon Administration threatening to shut down the freedom of the press over the Papers, new Post publisher Katherine Graham – already a rarity in the newspaper business for being a woman as a publisher of a major newspaper – and her crusty editor Ben Bradlee face a decision to do what’s safe for the newspaper or what’s right for the country.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for language and brief war violence)

Agnyaathavaasi

(Haarika and Hassine Creations) Pawan Kalyan, Keerthi Suresh, Anu Emmanuel, Aadhi. An exiled heir to a massive fortune in India returns home in disguise as an ordinary employee of his father’s company in order to discover the identity of his father’s murderer and to make things right with the company, only to become a target himself.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace

Rating: NR  

Call Me By Your Name

(Sony Classics) Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar.  In 1983 the son of an American researcher working in Northern Italy is enjoying a leisurely summer enjoying the cultural delights of the region. However when his father’s research assistant arrives, the teen discovers that his own emerging sexuality may be more difficult to deal with than his academic pursuits.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)

The Commuter

(Lionsgate) Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill. A businessman is taking the commuter train home from work when he is given an offer he can’t refuse; to find the person on the train who “doesn’t belong there” or else face increasingly dire consequences. However, this businessman has a particular set of skills…

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some intense action/violence, and language)

Condorito: The Movie

(Pantelion/Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Omar Chaparro, Jessica Cediel, Cristián de la Fuente, Jey Mammon. A soccer-playing condor (and the star of a Chilean comic strip) must save the world – and especially his family – from evil invading aliens.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website (Spanish)

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for rude and suggestive humor, and some mild action)

I, Tonya

(Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson. Figure skater Tonya Harding comes from an impoverished background which places her at a competitive disadvantage – the snooty judges of the sport count her background and trailer park look against her. Still, there’s no denying her ability as the first woman to attempt and complete a triple axel. She could be on the way to Olympic gold; but her husband and his best friend take her down the road to scandal and late night talk show jokes instead. Look for the Cinema365 review tomorrow.

See the trailer, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes (expanding next week)

Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity)

Paddington 2

(Warner Brothers) Michael Gambon (voice), Ben Whishaw (voice), Sally Hawkins, Imelda Staunton (voice). Now comfortably ensconced with the Brown family and a beloved member of the community, Paddington is looking to buy the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday – a pop-up book. He takes on a variety of odd jobs so that he can afford to buy the tome. However when it turns up stolen, Paddington looks to be the prime suspect. The Browns and their friends must find the real thief in order to clear the bear’s name and save Aunt Lucy’s birthday.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Proud Mary

(Screen Gems) Taraji P. Henson, Neal McDonough, Danny Glover, Xander Berkeley. Mary is a paid assassin for a Boston crime family. In the course of a hit, things go South and she ends up crossing paths with a young boy. That fateful meeting turns her life completely around which is a dangerous thing to have happen when you’re in her line of work.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Acts of Violence
Ang Panday
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Jai Simha

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Acts of Violence
Dim the Fluorescents
Hostiles
Inside
Jai Simha
Sketch
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Gang
Inside
Jai Simha
Rangula Ratnam
Sketch
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Ang Panday

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Call Me By Your Name
The Commuter
Hostiles
I, Tonya
Paddington 2
The Post
Proud Mary

New Releases for the Week of November 24, 2017


COCO

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Gabriel Iglesias, Edward James Olmos. Directed by Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich

A young Mexican boy is obsessed with music but had the bad luck to be born into a family that didn’t care much for song and frivolity. A devotee of a recently deceased troubadour, he is accidentally sent to the Land of the Dead and must work out the mystery of why his family hates music so much before he can return to the Land of the Living.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for thematic elements)

Last Flag Flying

(Amazon/Lionsgate) Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson. Three ex-Marines who served together in Vietnam come together for one last mission; to bury the son of one of them who was killed in Iraq. This is the latest from director Richard Linklater.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong language throughout including some sexual references)

The Man Who Invented Christmas

(Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow. One of the great traditions of Christmas is the beloved novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. He wrote it at a time in his life where he was surrounded by tribulations but where did these ideas – a Christmas ghost story, after all – come from? Look for the review for this tomorrow.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)

Novitiate

(Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron. A young woman in the early 1960s gets swept up by the idea of becoming a nun and so enters a convent just at a time when sweeping changes were overtaking the Catholic Church. You can check out my review for the film here.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality and nudity)

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Tony Plana. A former activist turned lawyer finds himself confronted with a crisis of conscience. Passed by and struggling to survive, a series of events leads him to consider extreme action.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Legal Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for language and some violence)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones. When the police fail to discover the identity of the killer of a young woman, the victim’s mother frustrated by the lack of progress puts up three billboards near her home castigating the authorities for their inability to solve the crime. Her actions sharply divide the community in this latest darkly comic drama from Irish director Martin McDonagh.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a video feature here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Balakrishnudu
Mental Madhilo

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Abracadabra
The King’s Choice
Mental Madhilo

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Mental Madhilo

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Balakrishnudu
Faces Places
Hey, Pillagada
Mental Madhilo

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Coco
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Novitiate
Roman Israel, Esq.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Black Mass


You don't want to get on Jimmy Bulger's bad side.

You don’t want to get on Jimmy Bulger’s bad side.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Bill Haims, Erica McDermott. Directed by Scott Cooper

There are certain people that you meet who are corruptors. Any contact with them sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole of bad choices which once taken build upon each other until you are hopelessly lost in it. One day you wake up and realize that you are as corrupt as that which you associated with, without meaning to be.

In the 70s and 80s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) – who incidentally hated that nickname and saying it to his face was a good way to get on his bad side, a place you surely didn’t want to be – was the kingpin of crime in Boston. Something of a folk hero in South Boston where he grew up and where most of the Winter Hill Gang, the crew which he ran, were from, he was known to be less flashy than other criminal bosses but no less vicious, although he could be kind and supportive to those in his neighborhood that he felt merited it, as well as faultlessly loyal to family and friends.

One of those friends was John Connolly (Edgerton) who went into the other side of the law as an FBI agent. A rising star in the Bureau, he was brought to Boston to take down Jerry Angiulo (Haims) and his organization which at the time was the undisputed criminal leaders of North Boston and who were making inroads into Southie which was Bulger territory. The two would form an alliance that in exchange for information about the Angiulo family, Connolly would essentially protect his childhood friend and allow him free reign in Boston, which would come back to haunt him.

In addition, Jimmy’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch) was a state senator and the most powerful politician in Boston at the time. While Jimmy took great care not to involve Billy in his affairs, Billy would later suffer by association to his notorious brother and be forced out of politics.

Jimmy would run roughshod over Boston for more than a decade until an incorruptible Federal Prosecutor, Jimmy’s own hubris and Connolly’s own lies and misinformation would lead to Jimmy going on the run for 16 years until he was eventually captured in 2011 (he has strongly denied that he was ever a government informant, incidentally).

Scott Cooper, most notable for his Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, has elicited the most powerful performance Depp has given in years and one of his best ever. Barely recognizable in a protruding forehead prosthetic, receding white-blonde hairline and rotting teeth, Depp inhabits his role like it’s a comfortable apartment. Early in the film, he shows a compassionate Bulger – devoted son and father  and loyal friend – but as the film goes on, a vicious and paranoid streak begins to emerge as Bulger, prone to violence, begins to lose control. It’s a riveting performance, not unlike that of Al Pacino in the original Godfather although not quite to that level of accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see an actor who has been on a bit of a cold streak of late return to form and deliver the kind of performance we know he’s capable of. Hopefully this will mean that Depp will have some really good roles in his near future.

The supporting cast is extremely accomplished. Best of the bunch is Edgerton who is blossoming into an extraordinary actor and building on his performance here and in The Gift is poised to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. His John Connolly is a Southie street kid who has matured into a federal agent, but whose misguided loyalties and tragic misfire on crime fighting strategy brings the character to an inevitable fall. Cumberbatch, who has parlayed an ability to spot roles that grow his career into stardom, has little to do but when he gets the opportunity to shine makes the most of it. Plemons, Cochrane and Brown as Bulger associates Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano respectively are also outstanding as are Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour as lawmen Charles McGuire, Fred Wyshak and John Morris respectively.

While the movie mainly takes place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Cooper doesn’t club you over the head with the era recreation. There is a timeless feel to Southie and it is in many ways much the same now as it was then. Cooper wisely chooses not to mess with that by throwing tons of bell-bottoms, mutton chops and floofy hair. Sure, there are period automobiles and signage as well as home furnishings but it is all rather low-key. Boston itself is given a kind of wintry patina that makes you feel a little bit on the cold side throughout, even when some of the action takes place on beautiful spring and summer days.

While I don’t think this is quite as good as some of the gangster epics of Scorsese and Coppola, it nevertheless merits consideration as a memorable addition to the elite films of the genre, which I think it will be considered as when years go by. Depp will have a good deal of stiff competition this year but his performance here will have to merit at least some Best Actor consideration for next year’s Oscars. It may lack quality women’s roles and might feel a little bit on the long side, but it is the best crime drama you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Depp’s best performance in years. Likely to become an essential gangster movie in years to come.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too long and a little too masculine.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of bloody violence, quite a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scenes depicting murders in the movie were filmed in the same locations where the actual murders took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cold Nights, Hot Salsa

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Julianne Nicholson discovers that if you get a few glasses of wine in him, Timothy Hutton will begin to loosen up with the Ordinary People stories.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Julianne Nicholson, Will Forte, Timothy Hutton, Dominic Cooper, Bobby Cannavale, John Krasinski, Christopher Meloni, Denis O’Hare, Max Minghella, Lou Taylor Pucci, Josh Charles, Frankie Faison. Directed by John Krasinski

What do men really want? Why, any woman knows the answer to that – it’s sex and lots of it, in some cases the kind most humiliating and degrading to the woman possible. But how accurate is that portrayal?

Apparently right down to the bone, according to this adaptation of a collection of short stories by the late David Foster Wallace of the same name. In those stories, the questions are asked by an anonymous interviewer just denoted by a Q and a colon. Here, a character is created to be the interviewer; Sara Quinn (Nicholson), a low-key cropped-haired gamine who sits down a group of men in front of a pitcher of water and a tape recorder and asks them a variety of questions. These interviewees are rarely given names, only numbers. They rarely have anything nice to say. She does all this for a post-graduate thesis for pompous Professor Adams (Hutton).

Not everything here is a formal interview. Some of the vignettes are snippets of overheard conversations, or Adams pontificating on whatever. The last is Sara’s ex-boyfriend Ryan (Krasinski) who had dumped her without explanation, leading her to this graduate project. When she at last gets to question him as to why he would hurt her in that way, the answers are far less than forthcoming and far more than humiliating.

Krasinski, better known as Jim in “The Office,” chose a very difficult first project for himself and to his credit doesn’t become lost in it, although the movie does meander a little bit in the final third. Still, he has an excellent sense for casting as the impressive cast often delivers spot-on performances. Along with Hutton, Faison plays the son of a washroom attendant who worked a demeaning job for decades in a hotel he wouldn’t be allowed o stay in. He narrates his story with a mixture of disappointment, shame, and respect. Meloni (from “Law and Order: SVU”) and O’Hare discuss a rather tragic event while waiting in a train station and both are as good as anyone else in the movie, particularly Meloni who is both caustic and sympathetic at once.

The movie has been criticized for lack of a unifying thread but I disagree with that assessment. I do think all the stories are related in more than just a general way; they have to do with the self-image of men and their insecurities that lead them to treat women so poorly. While at times this seems to be a rant against the male species in general, I chose to take it as simply the viewpoint of those who are mystified by the cruelty and arrogance of men and who have yet to find men with better qualities, at least in men that are available to them.

My problem with the movie is that while Nicholson is usually a fine actress, here she is emotionally cut off, so wounded is she from being dumped by a boyfriend that she is frankly well rid of. She kind of floats in and out of the movie, carrying absolutely no inertia which in turn gives the movie a strangely languid quality that I found somewhat unpleasant.

However, Krasinski chose to retain much of Wallace’s terrific dialogue in the movie, utilizing the novelist’s style as much as possible when he couldn’t quote directly. It is one of the movie’s best qualities, and given the fine actors who he recruited to recite that dialogue, makes for a movie that stimulates the mind as much as the libido.

I’m not sure you’ll get any further insight into men by watching this, but you might get a few explanations about our behavior here and there. It is an oversimplification to say that men are all about sex; that aspect is more of a symptom than the disease. However, that men are capable of wanton cruelty is certainly not a surprise. What is surprising is that neither Wallace nor Krasinski could find anything or anyone redeeming in the gender to act as a counterbalance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the vignettes particularly that between Meloni and O’Hare and a late monologue by Faison are brilliant. The dialogue is well-written and the impressive cast delivers in most cases.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes the movie feels a little aimless. Nicholson is bland and too expressionless.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of sexual innuendo and conversation as well as some foul language of the non-sexual sort. The overall theme and situations are not for children in the least.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Professor Adams’s office there is a pile of books, the top one of which is David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” Wallace also wrote the book this is based on.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,745 on an unreported budget; the theatrical release lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bonneville