Rockaway


The young cast of Rockaway.

(2018) True Life Coming of Age Drama (Paladin/Gravitas) Keidrich Sallati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, Harrison Wittmeyer, Nolan Lyons, Sophia Rose, Wass Stevens, Marjan Neshat, Frankie J. Alvarez, Wendall Lloyd, Nicholas J. Coleman, Jake Taylor, Luke Guldan, Drew Powell, Dan Puck, Christy Escobar, Samantha Cocozza. Directed by John J. Budion

 

NOTE: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, skip the rest of the review down to the last paragraph and just read that. Basically going through almost any element of the plot or evaluation of the various elements of the film may spoil your experience of it. If you’ve already seen it, read on…

There are plenty of coming of age dramas out there; films that depict a season or a year in the life of the lead character which becomes critical to shaping them into what they eventually become. Often these films are viewed largely through a sepia lens, the tones of summer and autumn becoming golden and sun-dappled with the warm refraction of memory. It is difficult not to compare those celluloid memories to your own.

Anthony (Sallati) and John (Apple) are a couple of kids growing up in a small town on Long Island long since immortalized by the Ramones but when this is set, 1994, the boys have bigger fish to fry. Their drunken stepfather (Stevens) beats on their long-suffering mom (Neshat) and on the boys themselves; when the younger John comes home with a slightly and easily mended shirt, dear old dad smacks the boy upside the head and not in a friendly, dad fashion but in a mean drunk fashion with the express intent to intimidate.

Still, there are things that the boys have to look forward to – their beloved New York Knicks are in the midst of an unlikely run into the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Houston Rockets. While Patrick Ewing was the ostensible star of the team, the player who had captured both of their hearts (especially John’s) and much of New York City as well was blue collar shooting guard John Starks.

They also have a plan to murder their stepfather, involving a broken light fixture, a whole lot of tennis balls, and a boiler. Whenever their stepfather is drunk and arguing (and smacking around) their mom which is nearly every night, Anthony soothes his plucky but timid little brother with tales of Mr. Doo, who is anthropomorphized poo and the stinkiest stool in town.  Anthony is extremely protective of his little brother; following the torn shirt incident, Anthony swears to John that their stepdad will never touch him again.

The two boys lean on each other exclusively and while Anthony is very affectionate with his mom, he has no illusions that she will ever get rid of the monster in her bedroom and knows he will have to do it if the family is to survive. However, into this horrifying situation comes a group of guys who become almost like family – the leader Billy (Wittmeyer), intelligent and thoughtful Brian (Flood), small tough-talking Dom (DiGiacomo) and motormouth Sal (Critchley) who clearly went to the Vinnie Barbarino School of Charm.

The boys will bond over bicycles, baseball games, the mystery of boobs and the improbable run of the Knicks and a deep friendship will result. It’s a bond that will last a lifetime, but they could have no way of knowing the type of curveball that will be thrown their way.

For some reason after reading the synopsis of the movie I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about seeing it but I was pleasantly surprised that this is actually a solid film. It’s not a movie that sheds any particularly novel light on domestic abuse, although the matter-of-fact tone it takes about it gives the viewer an idea of how a family in the grip of an unpredictable drunk bully suffers through uncertainty over just when he will erupt and what will trigger it. Walking on eggshells doesn’t even begin to describe it.

That said, the coming of age aspect of the movie has all the right feels and while the end of the movie becomes anti-climactic after a fashion (the big emotional scene that precedes it tends to drain the viewer) the story keeps the viewer largely engaged. There feels like lately a tendency to make movies run a bit longer than the story supports it; this one runs exactly as long as it needs to be.

They don’t really do a great job of re-creating the era; some of the cars parked at the side of the road and in parking lots and driveways were manufactured well after 1994 (imagine if in American Grafitti there were AMC Pacers and Chevy El Caminos parked at the sock hop. The amount of years that separated 1955 from 1973 is a little less than 1994 until 2018 – 18 years versus 24 years for the math-challenged.

The movie rests strongly on the shoulders of the juvenile actors; other than the mom and the stepdad there are almost no adults visible in the film. The problem with most juvenile actors is that they try to act and that’s what happens here; the performances come off as mainly stiff and forced. They would have benefited from a hand at the helm that would calm them down and elicit performances that feel less like performances. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional. Even John, the stand-in for writer/director Budion, doesn’t have a ton of depth to him beyond his obsession with Starks, his devotion to his big brother and his terror of his father. Anthony comes off as nearly too good to be true; he is the emotional center of the movie without a doubt but even he sometimes feels more like an archetype than a real person.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to and that’s not easy to do. It snuck up on me and maybe that’s the best way to approach it. If you read all the way through the review to this point and haven’t seen the film yet (ignoring the advice I gave you at the very beginning), this is still a film worthy of seeing but the experience you have with it, having soaked in what I’ve already written about it, will be much less meaningful than if you followed my advice. If you skipped down to this paragraph, by all means stop what you’re doing and stream the movie on whichever service you prefer (see below) and then come back and re-read the review. See if you don’t agree.

REASONS TO GO: This is a coming of age movie with an edge and has all the feels you need.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the young actors try too hard and end up with performances that don’t feel true.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Budion began his career as a special effects supervisor, working on such films as Beasts of No Nation and The Grand Hotel Budapest. This is his first feature as a director and the film is loosely based on events from his own childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sandlot
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Anthem of a Teenage Prophet

Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

The Girl on the Train (2016)


Emily Blunt realizes she's on the express train to Hell.

Emily Blunt realizes she’s on the express train to Hell.

(2016) Thriller (DreamWorks/Universal) Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Lana Young, Gregory Motley, Mac Tavares, John Norris, Peter Mayer-Klepchick, Darren Goldstein, Nathan Shapiro, Cleta E. Ellington, Tamiel Paynes, Fernando Medina, Rachel Christopher. Directed by Tate Taylor

 

Perception is a tricky thing. Memory is unreliable; we may think we see something but did we really? Was it something that our minds embellished, either because of altered perception or our own prejudices? Was it something important? Ask ten people about something they saw fleetingly from a moving vehicle and you’ll get ten different answers as to what they saw.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the Long Island Railroad train from the Island into the City twice a day. She’s been through a lot lately; a divorce following the revelation that her husband Tom (Theroux) had been cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Ferguson) – and had worse still married Anna and had a beautiful baby daughter with her, after efforts for Rachel to get pregnant had turned out fruitless. She already had a problem with alcohol when they were married; now that problem has become full-blown alcoholism.

From the train she sees a house not far from the one she used to live in and where Tom still lives with her new wife. In the house live a beautiful blonde and her husband, the perfect couple to Rachel’s mind, who have everything she ever wanted but cannot have. It comforts her somehow that this perfect union exists. Then one morning she sees the wife in the arms of another man and this sends her into a tailspin. She gets blackout drunk and ends up in a field not far from her old house and the one that the not-quite-perfect couple live in.

Then comes the news that the woman is missing; her name is Megan Hipwell (Bennett) and husband Scott (Evans) is frantic. As Rachel was spotted in the area, she is questioned by Detective Riley (Janney) about the situation. Rachel tells the Detective what she knows but Rachel isn’t exactly the most reliable witness.

Consumed by the case, Rachel sets out to find out who the mysterious man was and to find out what happened to Megan. Slowly, as she stumbles drunkenly from one clue to another, she begins to get closer to the truth about what happened to Megan – and discovers to her shock that the answer is closer to her than she could ever know.

This is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins and is quite frankly a hot mess. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has a history of deftly weaving multiple tales of different women together into cohesive films but that doesn’t happen here. The focus is largely on Rachel but Megan and Anna are both heavily in the mix and we do get their points of view as well.

Blunt has gotten some strong praise for her performance as Rachel, even critics calling for Oscar attention but I don’t see it. Frankly, this is one of her weaker performances that I can remember. She is unconvincing when asked to do scenes of drunkenness; quite frankly I’ve spent a lot of time among the inebriated and this is more of a caricature than anything else. Blunt tends to be more successful here when we get glimpses of her underlying torment. Rachel is definitely not a happy woman and when Blunt gets to let glimpses of that out, the performance works.

She isn’t helped much by the other cast members. Their performances are mainly unmemorable, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. They are given preposterous dialogue to say and characters who have little or no development to work with. It’s like the filmmakers decided to do something Hitchcock-esque (which this is) but instead of writing actual characters they used stereotypes from other films to fill in the blanks. While Rachel’s alcoholism is a nifty idea, it’s used more as a gimmick than as a real interesting plot point.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m told it’s very well-written by people whose judgment I trust on such matters. I can’t believe though that the story is identical; it’s too pat, too been there-done that. The twists are telegraphed and let’s face it, if you can’t tell who the criminal is in the first twenty minutes you’ve been asleep.

Bailey as Megan shows some promise (she’s also in the much better Magnificent Seven remake) doing her best Margot Robbie impression and ironically enough Robbie was originally considered for the role. Ramirez incomprehensibly has a Spanish accent for a character who’s supposed to be Arabic and Janney is unbelievable as a tough Detective Sergeant. I mean, think about it; these are all competent actors who are known for their consistently strong performances. Why are they all doing subpar work here all at the same time? One can only blame the filmmakers. The only actor who really makes an impression is Lisa Kudrow in a brief but important role who gets to utter the immortal line “Rachel! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” which may or may not be a conscious reference to Friends.

I’ve read some decent reviews for this thing and can’t for the life of me which movie those critics saw. Most of the reviews have been, like this one, on the negative side. The houses don’t look lived in, the lives don’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie in which Barbie and Ken dolls are used as surrogates. Blunt shows flashes of her normal brilliance but that is tempered with her portrayal of drunkenness as more of a lampoon than anything remotely approaching realism and that is symbolic of the movie’s issues as a whole; at the end of the day, this feels empty and without a connection to anything like real life. Why spend money on a movie that feels divorced from reality when you can watch a presidential debate for free?

REASONS TO GO: The alcoholism makes for an interesting plot point.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot twists and the whodunit are incredibly predictable. The acting is surprisingly blah.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexual content, profanity and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Taylor has made that hasn’t had Octavia Spencer in it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vertigo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Handmaiden

Sinister


Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Summit) Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King, Lorraine Aceves, Rachel Konstantin. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

It isn’t hard to wonder why people do the things they do. Why they feel compelled not just to take life but to do so in particularly gruesome and sadistic ways. There really is no explanation for it. No earthly one, anyway.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a writer specializing in true crime. A decade previous, he wrote Kentucky Blood which not only chronicled a lurid murder in the Bluegrass State but also solved it, making the police of the area look awfully bad in the process. Since then, a string of failures has left his career disintegrating before his very eyes. He has moved his family from New York City to a house in Long Island which they aren’t too happy about.

They would be twice as upset if they knew that an entire family had been murdered there weeks before and that the youngest daughter of that family was missing. Ellison means to solve the murders and find the missing girl which he believes would be enough to make him famous again. However, first things first; he has to get his study set up and the family moved in.

While exploring the house, Ellison finds a box of super 8 films in the attic. They have innocuous titles such as Pool Party ’66, BBQ ’79 and Family Hanging Out ’11. However when Ellison views them to his horror they turn out to be footage of entire families getting murdered, including the one that had lived in the house.

He chooses not to tell the police about his find, mainly because the Sheriff (Thompson) takes a dim view of a writer who wrote such uncomplimentary things about the police. However, his nebbish Deputy (Ransone) has a major case of hero worship and agrees to help Ellison in exchange for being mentioned in the book as a researcher or something along those lines. It soon becomes clear that the apparently random murders are all connected – and that a mysterious figure identified as “Mr. Boogie” in childish drawings of the murders is the connecting thread.

In the meantime, the pressure is getting to Ellison and he’s begun drinking much to the chagrin of his wife (Rylance). After consulting with occult specialist Professor Jonas (D’Onofrio) Ellison is worried that his family has now become the targets of Mr. Boogie. Can he protect his family from something that he can’t understand?

A couple of years ago this one made some big waves in Hollywood for making big box office numbers on an indie-like production budget; in fact, the movie was initially shown at South by Southwest and was picked up there by Summit, an unusual move for a major. However it paid lots and lots of dividends.

Derrickson used this as a springboard to get the director’s chair for the upcoming Dr. Strange movie coming from Marvel in 2016. You can see why; he has a talent for painting a mood and making the most out of a small budget. Hopefully with a bigger budget like James Gunn before him he’ll turn it into a flat-out global blockbuster.

Hawke has always been consistently good, one of those steady actors who never turns in a bad performance. It is only recently that I’ve begun to think of him as an outstanding performer and this movie is one of the reasons why. Ellison is far from being likable. He’s self-centered and puts his career ahead of the well-being of his own family. However, in Hawke’s capable hands we still end up rooting for the character.

Like The Legend of Hell House this is much more of an atmospheric horror film than a visceral one. There isn’t a ton of gore but the creepy factor is off the charts. Much of the action takes place in Ellison’s office space which is cramped and shadowy. That gives the movie a nice claustrophobic feeling.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie and really makes for negative marks in the film’s overall rating. While the use of found footage is cleverly integrated into the movie, this feels a lot like V/H/S which used the same concept much more gracefully. Those who are looking for real scares there aren’t a lot of them and those mostly of the jump scare variety. The movie is spooky rather than scary which may not necessarily be what you’re looking for, although the horror wimps in your household looking to show some Halloween bravery may find it palatable. The demonic figure and the children may be nightmare-inducing for those sorts however.

I liked Sinister more than it probably deserved but I’m rating it lower than I’d like. I just can’t get past the ending I’m afraid. However if you don’t mind being disappointed at the end of the movie and you like your horror to be more creepy than crawly, this might be what you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t overstate the gore. Relies on atmosphere and claustrophobia for scares. Hawke does some fine work here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending is a bit of a letdown. More spooky than scary. Trope of found footage murder reels has been done before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Disturbing images of violence and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer C. Robert Cargill came up with the idea after a nightmare he had following a viewing of The Ring. He also admits that the name of the lead character, Ellison Oswalt, comes from author Harlan Ellison and comedian Patton Oswalt.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A couple of interesting featurettes; one on real life true crime authors, the other of experiences the crew had living in a house where a murder happened for real during filming.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.7M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Four!

The Great Gatsby (2013)


It's my party and I'll smirk if I want to.

It’s my party and I’ll smirk if I want to.

(2013) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Daniel Gill, Iota, Eden Falk, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward, Olga Miller. Directed by Baz Luhrmann   

The Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was known for conspicuous wealth and the wealthy who partied capriciously even as a stock market crash loomed ever closer. It was an age of the flapper, of gangsters and bootleggers, of old money sneering at the nouveau riche with all the venom of an aging viper whose territory is being taken over by a younger and deadlier snake.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what is arguably his masterpiece in 1925 to tepid sales and lackluster reviews. When he passed away in 1940, he believed himself to be a failure although ironically his work would receive the acclaim and sales only a few years later. ‘Tis the melancholy truth about artists – most have to die in order for their work to matter.

So what’s so great about Gatsby? Well, a lot of things – it’s depiction of the lavish excesses and the empty morality of the very rich, but also the language. Few understood the American idiom quite as well as Fitzgerald and the words truly flow beautifully off the page. Read it aloud and you might think you’re delivering the words of an American Shakespeare into the ether. That is, perhaps, overpraising the work but many consider it to be the Great American Novel and if not that, at least the Great American Tragedy.

Given the lavish excess of the book, Australian director Baz Luhrmann might well be the perfect choice to make the film version. Three others have preceded it – a 1926 silent version which sadly has been lost to the mists of time as no prints are known to exist, although a trailer for it does and if you look it up on YouTube, you can see it. Another version was filmed in 1949 starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field but has been held up for 60 years over mysterious copyright litigation which someone needs to sort out. The most famous version is the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version which famously flopped and has been disowned by nearly everyone involved (there was also a made for television version in 2000).

However, this one is the only one that I am aware of that is available in grand and glorious 3D. Why is it available in such a format, you might ask? So that the glitter and confetti from the various parties might seem to pop out of the screen at you. Otherwise there really is no particular necessity for it.

The film follows the book pretty faithfully – surprisingly so. Midwesterner Nick Carroway (Maguire) moves into a carriage house in the fictional Long Island community of West Egg on the grounds of the fabulous mansion of Jay Gatsby (di Caprio), a reclusive sort who throws lavish parties for which everyone who is anyone shows up at uninvited and about whom all sorts of rumors are floating about.

Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) lives across the bay – in fact directly across from Gatsby’s mansion – with her philandering husband Tom (Edgerton), an old money sort who is a racist jerk who makes Daisy’s life miserable. Tom inexplicably bonds with Nick and takes him to visit his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Fisher), a clingy shrewish sort who is married to George (Clarke), an auto mechanic who is somewhat slavishly devoted to Myrtle and treats Tom, whose cars he repairs, as something like a potentate.

But Daisy has a secret of her own; prior to meeting Tom she was courted by Jay Gatsby, then an officer in the Army preparing to be deployed into the Great War. By the time he returned, she was married to Tom. Gatsby then set to amassing a fortune by as it turned out fairly nefarious means, utilizing underworld businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Bachchan)  as a go-between.

Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea which he does; Nick genuinely likes Gatsby whose optimism appeals to Nick’s sensibilities. Once Daisy and Gatsby are together it’s like a flickering torch reignited. The two realize they are meant for each other. Gatsby urges Daisy to tell Tom that she doesn’t love him. Daisy is extremely reluctant, although it’s true. This will lead to a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel in New York that will have deadly consequences.

Luhrmann is known for visual spectacle and for thinking outside the box. He frames the story with Nick in his later years committed to a sanitarium for alcoholism, writing down the events of his youth as a means of therapy ordered by his doctor (Thompson). Fitzgerald’s words literally flow into the film as 3D graphics. It’s a nice conceit.

Luhrmann is also known for willful anachronisms – filming period films with a modern soundtrack (which includes songs by Lana del Rey, Jay Z – who supervised the soundtrack – and Andre 3000, among others) which as a personal note drives me entirely crazy. Why go to the trouble of meticulously re-creating an era which Luhrmann does and then immediately take his audience right out of it by having a jazz orchestra rapping? Methinks that Luhrmann doesn’t care if his audience is immersed in the film or not as long as they know who directed it.

Gatsby is one of the most enigmatic literary characters of the 20th century and is a notorious part to get down properly. He is a driven soul, passionate in his feelings for Daisy but absolutely amoral when it comes to money. He is a self-made man, largely willing his own image of himself into reality only to  come to understand too late that these things are illusions that are ultimately empty reflections in a mirror that we can’t see. Di Caprio once again reminds us that he is a powerful actor capable of mesmerizing performances at any given time. This is certainly one of his better works, capturing that enigma that is Gatsby and giving it flesh and soul.

Nick is our surrogate, floating in a world of wealth and privilege with eyes wide open. He joins in on the debauchery and recoils in horror as it turns savagely on itself. He watches the events unfold towards their inevitable conclusion and manages to retain his own humanity. He is a decent sort who is thoroughly capable of being corrupted – and to an extent he is – but in the end it’s his own decency that saves him. Maguire is particularly adept at radiating decency and does so here. He’s not particularly memorable – he was never going to be in this kind of role and opposite di Caprio – but he does everything you could ask of him here.

Mulligan, who burst onto the scene not long ago with an amazing performance in An Education has continued to blossom as an actress since then. This is not really a role she’s well-suited for; Daisy is a self-centered and vacuous soul who doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions. Mulligan is far too intelligent an actress to play vacuous and thus she isn’t terribly convincing in the role. Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice and she’s closer to di Caprio’s age range to boot.

There is a lot of spectacle here but sadly it is sabotaged by Luhrmann’s own imagination, which is kind of ironic. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, as Jay Gatsby would surely have known, is an ultimately empty gesture. There is plenty here to like but one gets too distracted by the fluff. Brevity is the soul of wit and Fitzgerald was fully aware of how to use language economically. So too, simplicity is the soul of film and that is a lesson Luhrmann has yet to learn.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio delivers another bravura performance. Captures the era in many ways. Follows Fitzgerald’s story surprisingly closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too many instances of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing.” Afflicted with the Curse of the Deliberate Anachronism.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some violent images (although none especially shocking), some sensuality, partying and smoking within a historical context and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duesenbergs are the automobile of choice for Jay Gatsby but the real things are far too rare and valuable to be used as movie props. The one you see in the film is one of two replicas, each painted yellow and modified to match each other for filming.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; critics were pretty much split right down the middle on this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Iceman

Nice Guy Johnny


Tastes great? Less filling!

Tastes great? Less filling!

(2010) Coming of Age Drama (Marlboro Road Gang) Matt Bush, Kerry Bishé, Edward Burns, Max Baker, Anna Wood, Brian Delate, Marsha Dietlein, Jay Patterson, Harper Dill, Michele Harris, Vanessa Ray, Callie Thorne, Anna Wood. Directed by Edward Burns

What do you want to be when you grow up? We get asked that question a lot when we’re a child. Usually we have some really cool idea of what we want to do – an astronaut, a cowboy, a teacher – but as we get older, we find something else that occupies our imagination. But still, the question persists throughout our lives, which begs the question whether we ever really grow up at all.

Johnny Rizzo (Bush) is living the dream. He works as a call-in radio host for a sports talk show in a small town in Northern California. He loves what he does. He also loves Claire (Wood), his fiancée who has bigger plans for Johnny. She’d made him promise that if he wasn’t making $50K by the time he was 25. Well, he’s just turned a quarter century and it’s time to pay the piper. Even though he’s doing his dream job and is happy and content, Johnny is also a man of his word so it’s off to New York to interview with his prospective father-in-law for a position as a warehouse manager at a cardboard box factory which is nobody’s dream job.

Once there he hooks up with his Uncle Terry (Burns) who is a hedonistic ladies man. Like Claire, he thinks that Johnny needs to make some changes – he thinks Johnny needs to get laid. So he takes his nephew in hand to Long Island to “get some strange,” as he puts it. So Johnny goes, knowing that he isn’t going to cheat on his fiancée but unwilling to disappoint his uncle, who is probably more about finding a married woman to have an affair with.

While there he meets Brooke, a free spirit who he connects with from the get-go. She’s a tennis instructor who thinks he’s an idiot to give up on his dream for a bigger salary job. Of course the two fall for each other in a big way, bringing up a moral dilemma for Johnny – he’s committed to Claire who he’s plainly not suited for but can he break that commitment and still be a nice guy?

Edward Burns is what I think of as a niche director which sounds a lot worse than it is. What I mean by that is that he consistently does movies that approach life and love from the viewpoint of working class mokes from the burbs of New York (generally Long Island where Burns grew up). As an actor I’ve always considered him a bit of a poor man’s Ben Affleck which again, sounds a lot worse than it is.

This isn’t one of Burns’ best in either role. His Uncle Terry really is a bit of a stretch for him. Not that he isn’t capable of this kind of role but he really isn’t convincing here. He’s a bit of a lynchpin too which makes it worse; what he needed here was someone who could have been more outrageous. As a director, he didn’t really cast this part very well but budgetary constraints and all. You know what I’m saying. Still, he’s entertaining enough in the part to be memorable which helps. He just needed more here.

Bishé really steals the show here. She takes what is essentially a typical indie free spirit role and runs with it. I like what she does here; she’s down to earth and never makes this a caricature. She’s sexy as hell and, unlike a lot of indie roles here, without shame or apology. It’s part of who she is and she doesn’t feel compelled to obscure it with self-conscious cuteness.

Bush doesn’t fare quite as well. He’s a good-looking guy with an aw-shucks demeanor but he’s kind of bland here. I know he’s supposed to be a nice guy (hey it’s the title of the freakin’ movie and all) but that doesn’t mean he has to be vanilla. I think he’s following the lead of his romantic interest and trying to avoid the quirky indie leading man cliché but he takes it a bit too far which leaves the audience with a character without character. By the middle of the movie I was less interested in him than in the female lead which, when you’re the title character in a movie, bodes a bit ill.

I think they would have benefitted from making Claire less of a materialistic harpy. There really isn’t any competition between Johnny’s two love interests and that takes the tension out of the film. If Claire was really loving and supportive it would have made for a more compelling decision. What we’re left with is a case where the audience is wondering why he stayed around as long as he did. There really is nothing to recommend Claire as a romantic partner to anyone other than that she’s pretty and quite frankly Johnny isn’t that shallow a character, or shouldn’t be. Maybe he is and I’m missing something.

Anyway with a few tweaks this could have been a really interesting romantic comedy. As it is, it’s pretty good entertainment and worth checking out for the performance of Bishé alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably romantic without being sentimental. Burns is always entertaining.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Writers needed to work a little harder.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and some salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in ten days by a crew of three who worked for free, although they would share in any profits the micro-budgeted ($25,000) movie would make.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some choppy, grainy audition footage. There is also a special edition (???) that also includes an interview with director Edward Burns. Why?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Texas Killing Field

3 Backyards


3 Backyards

Edie Falco clearly misses her days on “The Sopranos.”

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe, Rachel Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Danai Gurira, Ron Phillips, Dana Eskelson, Randi Kaplan, Louise Millman, Pam La Testa, Antonio Ortiz, Nicole Brending, Kathy Searle. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

 

The suburbs are quiet, peaceful places where we go to raise our children in an environment that is far from urban. Away from the noise and the hectic place, it is a place of lawn mowers, shopping malls and chain restaurants. Still, the peaceful facade can sometimes disguise the most painful of hearts.

Long Island is maybe the ultimate suburb. Being so close to New York City, it offers a respite from the concrete and asphalt, a bit of greenery and wildlife within shouting distance of skyscrapers and taxis. But for all the manicured lawns, the sweet songs of robins and blue jays, all is not perfect here.

Take John (Koteas). His marriage is far from perfect; he and his wife (Erbe) are always fighting and finances aren’t so good. He is going on a business trip but his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he checks into a hotel provided by the airline. Instead of staying put, he goes back home and stalks his own family and home. When he calls his wife, he pretends he’s on the plane instead of watching her from the shrubbery. What is he looking for? What does he expect to see? He retires to a diner where he overhears a young woman (Gurira) applying for a waitress position. He follows her out of the restaurant and becomes witness to tragedy.

A little girl (Resheff) impulsively steals some of her mom’s jewelry. Her inexplicable action causes her to miss her school bus. Scared of her crime being discovered (which it surely will if she is late for school), she determines to walk the distance via a shortcut she knows. She comes upon an intimidating young man (Broulik) masturbating in a shed. She also frees a stray dog tied to a tree. Both of these events will have consequences later.

Peggy (Falco) lives a life of quiet unfulfillment. She yearns for recognition, glamour, acknowledgement but instead must settle for a suburban existence of gossip and shopping. She paints as a means of expressing herself, but when a well-known actress (Davidtz) moves into the neighborhood, her imagination is excited. Then when the actress needs a lift to the ferry, Peggy volunteers to drive her, leading to a conversation that is much more revealing of Peggy than it is of the actress.

These three tales are not so much interconnected so much as parallels within the same environment. Mendelsohn’s first film, Judy Berlin, was made very much within the same kind of suburban purgatory as this, his second which follows ten years after the first. Notably, Falco stars in both films and is really the chief reason for seeing both.

All of the characters are for the most part drifting through their own landscapes, powered by their yearnings and melancholy. That pervasive aimlessness colors the movie and prevents it from really taking hold in the imagination, or at least mine – the movie has been well-reviewed and obviously it is connecting with critics other than myself, so take my own lack of connection with a grain of salt.

Falco, who most will remember from her television roles in “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” is one of the best actresses working today. That she isn’t doing more movie work is most likely due to her heavy television schedule, but she always puts on a marvelous performance and this is no exception. Her story arc is the most compelling of the three and she and Davidtz work well off of each other and even though much of her storyline puts her in a car having a conversation, it nevertheless has the most dramatic tension.

Koteas, a longtime character actor who has had moments of brilliance throughout his career, turns in another fine performance as John. While it is at times difficult to understand what is going on inside his head (which to be truthful is true of most of us in real life), we get a sense of his frustrations thanks to Koteas. John’s not getting what he needs in his marriage and career so he plays hooky one day, probably not understanding why he’s doing it himself.

There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in the movie, if I may do a little armchair psychoanalyzing and that’s okay although it gets a little bit tiresome here. The dialogue sometimes doesn’t ring as true as it might – I get a sense of a writer trying to be clever rather than real people talking.

I also get a sense that there is a good movie here and I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day to absorb it properly, or for whatever reason I just couldn’t find a place to latch myself onto. That happens sometimes. I can’t really recommend the movie – I can only go by how I react to it and as you can probably guess, my reaction is fairly negative but those who like Edie Falco should see it and if any of this sounds appealing to you (particularly if you are looking for a suburban-set slice of life) do feel free to disregard my un-enthusiasm and give it a whirl.

WHY RENT THIS: Superior performances from Falco, Davidtz and Koteas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit too much. Dialogue  a bit stilted in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene that has some sexuality involved but most of the rest of the film carries some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mendelsohn is the only director to have won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice; for this film and also for Judy Berlin in 1999.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43,073 on an unreported production budget; might have broken even but it probably didn’t.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mission: Impossible 2