The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Submission

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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!

The Nice Guys


An outtake from The Shining?

An outtake from The Shining?

(2016) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Jack Kilmer, Lance Valentine Butler, Ty Simpkins, Cayla Brady, Tammi Arender, Rebecca Dalton Rusk, Terence Rosemore, John L. Morris, Michelle Rivera, Nathaniel “Nate” Scott. Directed by Shane Black

 

1977 in Los Angeles was an interesting place. It was the golden age of porn; bell bottoms and flower shirts were the fashion, and guys with too-long locks and elaborate facial hair were on the prowl for chicks with teased hair. Smog choked everything and in the post-Watergate atmosphere, it felt a lot like innocence had been irrevocably lost. This is where and when I grew up.

Shane Black gets it note-perfect, and while I admit I had very little to do with the porn industry as a teenager (other than as a prospective consumer) this feels like the L.A. I grew up in. This is the kind of town where a sports car might crash from a hilltop road into your background, disgorging a beautiful naked porn star (Telio) whose final words are “How do you like my car?”

This is also the kind of place inhabited by Jackson Healy (Crowe), a Bronx-bred tough guy who is the kind of guy you call when you want someone hurt, but not killed. He’s also a bit of a knight in not-so-shining and dented all to hell armor, hired by a young woman named Amanda (Qualley) to discourage a guy who’s been stalking her.

That guy happens to be Holland March (Gosling) whom Healy appropriately sends to the hospital with a spiral fracture of his arm. But as it turns out, he’s been hired to find Amanda – he’s a private detective, albeit one who drinks far too much and isn’t nearly as bright as he thinks he is. After their encounter, Healy is visited by a pair of mobsters (Knapp, David) who are trying to intimidate him about the whereabouts of Amanda. March gets away from the two of them, leaving one of them with permanent blue dye all over his face.

Realizing that he’s stepped into something that doesn’t smell so good, he enlists the guy he sent to the hospital – March – to find out what’s going on and locate Amanda, who’s disappeared off the face of the Earth. At first none too pleased to be teamed up with him, March begins to grudgingly respect his new partner. The two are helped by March’s precocious daughter Holly (Rice) who is a better detective than either of them.

It turns out the case is related to the porn industry, the California Department of Justice whose head honcho (Basinger) turns out to be Amanda’s mother. On the trail is the chief bad guy John Boy (Bomer) who is thus named because he has a similar mole as Richard Thomas of The Waltons. And with avant garde pornographers, vicious hit men, and Vegas mobsters to contend with, these two ne’er-do-wells will have their work cut out for them if they plan to live to see 1978.

Black has always been a terrific writer, going back to his Lethal Weapon days and to an extent, he’s mocking the genre he helped create (the buddy cop movie) with this film, which would come out ten years after this film was set. As I mentioned earlier, he gets the period stuff right on with the fashions, the smog, the soundtrack and even the vibe. This is most definitely the City of Angels I remember.

He also casts his film nicely. Both Gosling and Crowe take to their parts like they were born to them, and the chemistry between the two is what carries the movie and holds it together. Crowe, who carries himself as a big guy, does the tough-with-a-heart-of-gold as well as anybody and while Gosling is often the comic relief, he never stoops to making his character a laughing stock, although March easily could be considering all the poor choices he makes.

Rice should also be given some credit. The movies are filled with precocious kids who are smarter than the adults in the movie, and often these types of characters are annoying as the fluctuating price of gas. However, Rice makes the character credible enough and vulnerable enough to avoid that pitfall, although again I do wish the adults here didn’t have to be quite so dumb.

The action sequences are decently staged as are the comedy bits, although I think most of the best comedy moments can be found in the trailer which is a bummer. At times, it feels like it is one irritable police captain away from a TV cop show from that era – Starsky and Hutch much?  There is also a little bit of a reach in the plot department in terms of the conspiracy going on in high places, although the movie is well-written overall in terms of plot construction. However, it feels a little bit like a noir film with a funk soundtrack, if you get my drift. Some of it just doesn’t work.

Overall though this is far more entertaining than a lot of stuff out there. It’s smart, it has some decent performances and it captures a place and time better than most. Some might find the immersion in the porn culture a bit distasteful but Black doesn’t stick it in your face overly much. Well, maybe not to me. While I have friends who dug this a lot more than I did, I can say they’re not wrong in giving this film the kind of love they’ve given it and as far as I’m concerned, Shane Black is the kind of director who always seems to make movies that are worthwhile viewing. Boom shaka laka laka, baby.

REASONS TO GO: Smart dialogue and plot construction. Crowe and Gosling have genuine chemistry.
REASONS TO STAY: Originally started life as a television pilot and has that kind of TV quality to it. A little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence abounds as well as sexuality and nudity with plenty of foul language and a smattering of drug use – all 70s-centric things.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the elevator scene, the same background Muzak plays as in the similarly-set scene in The Blues Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inherent Vice
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Warcraft