The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

Beautiful Boy (2018)


A father and child reunion.

(2018) Biographical Drama (AmazonSteve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Amy Aquino, Timothy Hutton, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, LisaGay Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Carlton Wilborn, Stefanie Scott, Marypat Ferrell, Amy Forsyth, Kue Lawrence, Brandon Cienfuegos, Cheska Corona, Mandeiya Flory, Martha T. Newman. Directed by Felix van Groeningen

 

Drug addiction remains a problem for humankind; as a species we seem driven to do things we know are bad for us because they feel good. Nic Sheff (Chalamet) is a white, upper middle-class teen who seems to have everything; a loving family, particularly his father and two half-siblings he adores. He’s super-bright, having been accepted at every college he has applied to. His future looks exceedingly bright.

But for whatever reason Nic turns to drugs; what drives him there is never really explored in the film. Perhaps it was the divorce of his dad David (Carrell) – a respected journalist who was one of the last to interview John Lennon before his untimely death – from his mom (Ryan) who lives in L.A. David is remarried to Karen (Tierney) who struggles to understand her stepson.

Nic’s addiction takes the family on a roller coaster ride of disappearances, binge drug use, periods of sobriety, then repeating the cycle again. David grows more desperate, trying to figure out what is driving his son; the two fight a lot but David is fiercely protective of his son, refusing to give up on him. This puts strain on his marriage as his wife begins to feel that he’s neglecting his current family for his ailing son. At last, with Nic fast approaching rock bottom, David is forced to make a terrible choice.

The movie is based on two books – one written by David, the other by Nic – and uses both to get the viewpoints of both characters. Van Groeningen seems pretty even-handed here; he doesn’t make amy judgements but presents the behaviors for the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s hard at times not to get angry with Nic, who at times seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. There is a wrenching scene in a diner when Nic, who is showing signs of relapsing, asks his father for money so he can move to New York. David begs him to stay in Northern California but Nic doesn’t like the vibe. Things escalate and it ends badly for both men. There is also a scene very late in the movie where David, following a phone call from Nic, finally accepts that he can’t help his son. After giving Nic some tough love, David breaks down and slowly starts taking the pictures of his son down from his office. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that families of addicts may well identify with.

I can’t say enough about the performances of both Carrell and Chalamet. Carrell, like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks before him, has morphed from a zany comic actor to an outstanding dramatic actor. I think he’s a role or two away from being a regular part of the Oscar conversation. As for Chalamet, after an unforgettable performance in Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young actors in Hollywood. He may well be the best young actor since Pacino.

The movie also benefits by one of the most fascinating and most diverse soundtracks I’ve ever seen. It has everything from opera to punk to ambient pop to jazz to classic rock to folk to easy listening. On the negative side, the movie from time to time (albeit rarely) descends into maudlin territory. Van Groeningen also likes to employ flashbacks to help explain the actions going on.

This can be very hard to watch at times; nearly unbearable. There are also some moments that are incredibly tender. Father-son relationships often get the shaft when it comes to Hollywood; dads are often portrayed as lovable but befuddled buffoons who have no clue what’s going on. This is a very real and very touching portrayal of a close father-son relationship that is put to the most torturous test imaginable.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling performances by Carrell and Chalamet. A fascinating and diverse soundtrack enhances the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashbacks are sometimes intrusive and hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly straightforward drug content, plenty of profanity and some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Royo, who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, also played a drug addict himself on The wire.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Camp Cold Brook

Them That Follow


(2019) Documentary (1091) Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Thomas Mann, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, Dominic Cancelliere, Annie Tedesco, Bradley Gallo, Katherine DeBoer, Brooks Roseberry, Erik Andrews, Connor Daniel Lysholm, Catherine L. Albers, Kami Amore, Chris Breen, Logan Fry, Christine M. Pratt, Ramona Schwalbach. Directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

It is said that faith can move mountains, but in the mountains of Appalachia faith is much more than that. Faith is everything; one’s devotion to God must be absolute. There are no other alternatives. In some rural churches, faith is a life or death equation.

Mara (Englert) is the pretty young daughter of Pentecostal preacher Lemuel Childs (Goggins). Lemuel is part of the snake handler sect which requires his flock to prove their devotion to God by allowing a venomous rattlesnake to be draped around their neck. If the snake leaves them alone, fine; that’s God telling you that your faith is sufficient. However, if the snake elects to sink its fangs into you, you’ll undergo an agonizing slow death unless you can fight off the venom. With the help of friends or family praying away, anyone who succumbs to the snake bite does so due to a lack of faith, not to a lack of medical care which the congregation eschews.

It’s a highly patriarchal society in which women are made to wear ankle length skirts, perform roles of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing and to be absolutely submissive to their husbands. They are not even supposed to drive, making this a kind of Saudi America. If the Muslims hadn’t claimed the burkas first, I wouldn’t be surprised if the women of the congregation were made to wear them.

Mara is at an age where she is ready to be married. Daddy has picked out intense Garret (Pullman), a member of the parish and a true believer. However, Mara is kind of sweet on Augie (Mann), the son of local gas station/market owner Hope (Colman) who is known more commonly as Sister Slaughter. She was a bit of a hellraiser in her youth but her husband Zeke (Gaffigan) has essentially calmed her down. As for Augie, he is anything but a true believer; in fact he’s an atheist. His mother tolerates it pretty much as you tolerate the drunk uncle in the family.

Mara and her good friend Dilly (Devers) are inseparable, especially since Dilly’s mom abandoned her in fleeing the church and community which isn’t especially tolerant of free thinkers, particularly among the women. However, Mara is carrying a secret of her own and when it gets out it could rock the entire community to its core.

The feel here is authentic Appalachia; although the movie was filmed in Ohio it feels more like West Virginia. The gorgeous cinematography from Brett Jurkiewicz helps set that particular mood, as does the set design – Lemuel’s church is in a converted barn with only a neon cross to differentiate it from other barns. The life of the mountain folk here are pretty simple and uncomplicated; there are no television sets and things move at a fairly slow place, like the land the Internet forgot.

In fact, one of the drawbacks to the film is that the pacing is maddeningly slow particularly through the first two thirds of the movie. It does pick up speed towards the end, though so if you can sit through the first hour, you should be golden the rest of the way.

However, there’s still the performances of Goggins and Englert to enjoy; the two of them have a real chemistry and they both embrace their roles with gusto. Colman, who is a recent Oscar-winner, sounds a bit uncomfortable with the Southern accent, but she is solid as well as are Pullman and Mann as Maras two suitors. Gaffigan, a gifted comedy actor, shows off his dramatic chops nicely here.

The movie is largely about how far you are willing to take your faith before it becomes unhealthy. It’s hard not to see comparisons between these cultish Pentecostals and modern Evangelicals who seem to be grabbing the headlines lately. The directors respect the faith of the characters here which is nice to see; too often Hollywood tends to be either dismissive of characters with faith, or in the case of Christian cinema, too proselytizing. Some of the snake scenes are pretty horrible to watch and the sensitive sorts might want to take a pass on it, or at least watch it those scenes with eyes tightly shut and a trusted friend to tell you when to open them up again.

I’m not sure why anyone would think that God requires you to prove your faith by taking a rattlesnake to your breast, but some believe that it is so. The movie isn’t going to give you any answers in that direction but it is going to show you characters with strong faith and strong convictions – not to make them look evil, or backward but if anything to remind us that some good people sometimes believe in things that the rest of us might not understand – or accept.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is gorgeous. Englert and Goggins deliver incendiary performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves at a fairly slow and languid pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, an attempted rape and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis Pullman is the son of actor Bill Pullman who memorably played the President in Independence Day and its sequel.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apostle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
ZZ Top: That Lil’ Ole Band from Texas

Short Term 12


Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan