The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

Fatherhood


You and me against the world.

(2021) Dramedy (Columbia/Netflix) Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howley, DeWanda Wine, Melody Hurd, Paul Reiser, Anthony Carrigan, Deborah Ayorinde, Frankie R. Faison, Thedra Porter, Holly Gauthier-Franel, Ellen David, Julie Trépanier, Julian Casey, Anne Day-Jones, Teneisha Collins, Maria Herrera, Anthony Kavanaugh, Puja Uppal. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Some actors fill a niche, and pretty much stick to it their entire careers. Most actors, however, feel a need to branch out, to flex their dramatic (or comedic) wings and fly out into uncertain winds. Sometimes the result is a steep drop into a faceplant on the tarmac. However, when the landing is stuck, the actor then faces the double-edge sword of raised bars and higher expectations.

Kevin Hart has mostly played irascible immature men conning their way through life, but in this film, based on the experiences of author Matthew Logelin as chronicled in his book Two Kisses for Maddy, Hart plays Logelin, a tech engineer in Boston who is about to be a dad. His wife Liz (Ayorinde) gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, but a pulmonary embolism cuts short her life.

Now Matt faces the daunting task of being a single father and a grieving widower. He is devastated by the grief, but doesn’t have time to let it be front and center; he’s got a career to deal with and a baby to take care of, even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Initially, he gets help from his mom (Porter) and his somewhat overbearing other-in-law Marion (Woodard) who are willing to stay much longer than they are welcome, but Matt is firm; he can do this, although Marion has her doubts. She exacts from him a promise that if it gets to be too much that he’ll move back to Minnesota – where he met his wife – and where Marion can keep a better eye on him.

Hart delivers a career-defining performance here. He dials back the volume and emphasizes Matt’s loneliness and humanity without sacrificing the confusion and loneliness he feels. He’s so unprepared for being a dad that he doesn’t even know what colic is – and let’s not get started about the joys of assembling a stroller. His Matt has skated through, notorious for procrastinating until he realizes he is in a situation where he simply can’t afford to put anything off, particularly when it comes to his daughter. And the love he feels for Maddy (Hurd) shows through in every frame.

Movies like this can easily become maudlin and manipulative but with the sure hand of Weitz (About a Boy) at the helm, it never descends into either pitfall. The movie does occasionally stumble; the character of Jordan (Howley), Matt’s immature best friend, is a little too over-the-top for the film. However, it does better in pointing out the difference in the ways men and women approach parenthood; women get it far more intuitively than men do (for the most part – there are always exceptions) but Weitz wisely doesn’t let this descend into a “men are buffoons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without women” tone that movies sometimes descend into.

What we have here is a really good movie about the challenges of facing single fatherhood alone. It is well-acted with a great ensemble cast and the interplay between Hart and Woodard is priceless. This is easily one of the best movies that the streamer has delivered to its subscribers (although to be fair the movie was originally intended for theatrical release until COVID put a stop to it) and if you have a Netflix subscription, this one should be on your radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Hart gives his best performance by a mile. Great chemistry between Woodard and Hart. Really gets how men fumble around for what women understand intuitively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Howley’s Jordan character may be a bit TOO inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing Tatum was originally going to play the role of Matt when the project was first announced in 2015, but couldn’t get it to work in his schedule; he remained on board as an executive producer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bring Your Own Brigade

3 Day Weekend


No matter what, he’s got her back.

(2019) Suspense (Sleeper CellMorgan Krantz, Maya Stojan, Nathan Phillips, Scott MacDonald. Directed by Wyatt McDill

Sometimes a movie will show a tremendous amount of promise but end up sabotaging itself with the execution. 3 Day Weekend is just such a movie.

Millennial Ben Boyd (Krantz) decides that after a painful relationship break-up to go camping and get away from his heartache. Never mind that he really has no experience camping; how hard can it be to pitch a tent and set up a sleeping bag? Exactly.

However, he stumbles upon a deaf girl (Stojan) locked in the trunk of a car and intuits that a kidnapping is in progress. There is a menacing looking redneck (Phillips) with a gun involved and Ben’s attempts to rescue the damsel in distress go awry. When another redneck bearing a gun (MacDonald) shows up, things get even more lively, but Ben couldn’t possibly imagine the truth of what is happening; it certainly isn’t what it might seem to be to him at the time.

And there you have it; a simple concept, which McDill enhances by keeping dialogue to a bare minimum (there’s almost no dialogue at all in the first 30 minutes other than text messages which become important later), and to McDill’s credit he pulls it off. Also adding to the list of admirable qualities for the film is that it is told from the viewpoint of each character at various times with each character adding to the information that the audience has, changing our interpretation of events subtly until it ends up being quite a major shift. Kudos to McDill (who also wrote the script) for that.

Where the film loses its goodwill is in the camera work. McDill and cinematographer Brian Lundy rely a great deal on handheld cameras, leading to shaky cameras running through the Minnesota woods. He also utilizes some very questionable camera angles that end up annoying the viewer rather than impressing us with their skill. I’ve never been a big fan of shaky cam to begin with; it’s a much-overused camera technique. Used in moderation, it adds immediacy. Used to excess, it adds nausea.

It’s a shame because Lundy and McDill have some beautiful woods to work with, and McDill has written a very good film. However, movies are a visual medium and if that aspect of the project isn’t up to par, it really creates an unpleasant experience. The good news is that McDill shows a lot of potential here and if he just settles down a bit with the cinematography I’m positive he’s capable of delivering some really good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Builds up the tension nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some really questionable camera angle choices and way too much handheld shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival, near where filming took place..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood and Money
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Musical Comedy Whore

Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Murder in Mansfield

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

(2014) Drama (Amplify) Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Kanako Higashi, Ichi Kyokaku, Ayaka Ohnishi, Mayuko Kawakita, Takao Kinoshita, Yumiko Hioki, Natsuki Kanno, Brad Prather, Earl Milton, Madde Gibba, Phil Hall, Ravi Jasthi, Lucy Luu, Jim Wescott, John Edel, Fredrika Dukes, Kirsten Gregerson. Directed by David Zellner

Florida Film Festival 2015

We are all searching for something. Be it a spiritual goal, an esoteric concept or something concrete, we spend most of our lives in search of something. Usually that search is just a part of who we are, a means of achieving some sort of meaning. Sometimes, however, the search consumes us.

Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a Tokyo office lady, a kind of executive assistant. Like many things in the world of Japanese business, her role is heavily choreographed, from the hierarchy within the office, to the role she is expected to play to even the clothes she must wear – black skirt, white blouse, plaid vest. There are those who would say that it is a sexualizing of the position, taking women fulfilling valuable support roles and reducing them to little more than a pornographic icon.

Kumiko trudges through life in a kind of a daze, as if she’s drugged. She communicates in barely audible muttering, commits small acts of anonymous defiance (like spitting into her boss’s tea) and accepting the abuse of both her boss and her overbearing mother.

In a sea cave she discovers a buried tape of the Coen Brothers brilliant Fargo and gets the idea that the suitcase full of money that is buried near an anonymous fence post in the film by Carl Showalter (the Steve Buscemi character) is really still there, waiting for her to dig up. The idea takes root in her and becomes impossible to dislodge; it consumes her attention.

When the opportunity presents itself for her to flee to America, she takes it, leaving her beloved bunny Bunzo in a subway car (an earlier attempt to set Bunzo free in a park didn’t go the way Kumiko planned when Bunzo refused to hop off to freedom). Once in America, completely broke, she single-mindedly makes her way in the general direction of Fargo, with and sometimes despite the help of well-meaning Americans with whom she communicates in broken English. One well-meaning and generous deputy sheriff (D. Zellner) tries to tell her that the movie isn’t a documentary and the treasure isn’t really there but she refuses to believe it and freaks out about it a little. To Kumiko, there is nothing more real than the treasure which she believes is the ticket out of her terrible, constricting life and the way to true happiness.

This movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and received mostly positive response although there were some who felt differently. In all honesty, I can see both points and how you respond to this movie is going to depend on your point of view about a few things.

However, I don’t think anyone is going to deny that Kikuchi is brilliant in this movie. She doesn’t play Kumiko’s gradual downward spiral broadly; instead, it is a subtle thing, a gradual loosening of grasp on reality. She seems to realize that life is passing her by but is uncomfortable talking about such unpleasant things; when her boss asks her how old she is, she responds 29 but in truth she looks much older and this isn’t to say that Kikuchi isn’t a beautiful young woman; her eyes reflect the kind of despair that comes with age.

I like a lot of things that the Zellner Brothers (director/co-writer/actor David, producer/co-writer/actor Nathan) do here, in terms of writing a thought-provoking script with an ending which might seem ambiguous but really isn’t. Visually, Kumiko’s red jacket stands out whether in a crowded Tokyo subway station or trudging in a field of snow in Minnesota. Even when she makes a make-shift coat from a hotel comforter she becomes a kind of bedraggled Conquistador on a quest for El Dorado, an image Kumiko herself subscribes to. Little things like that make the film all the more delightful.

The score is done here by frequent Zellner Brothers collaborators The Octopus Project and it won a special jury prize at Sundance. Da Queen didn’t care much for it, claiming it gave her a headache but in all honesty I think the score is part of the means that the filmmakers are using to portray Kumiko’s descent into madness, as well as her humdrum existence in Tokyo.

The pace moves a bit slowly – Kumiko doesn’t arrive in America until about 45 minutes in – but I think that if you can overlook that the story is being told at its own pace you will be engrossed by it. There are moments that are genuinely funny (and not all of a “fish out of water” nature – some of the best laughs occur while Kumiko is in Japan) and some that will elicit a great deal of pathos, like a phone call near the end of the film that Kumiko has with her mother and slowly realizes that she will never be the woman her mother wants her to be – and that her mother will never accept her. This realization is done very quietly and without histrionics, just a sad expression and a slow movement of her hands. One more reason to qualify Kikuchi as one of the more brilliant actresses of the day.

REASONS TO GO: Outstanding performance by Kikuchi. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi, whom the media erroneously reported in 2001 had come to the United States to find the treasure depicted in Fargo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is a True Story
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Overnight

Rio


Rio

Linda (foreground, in the blue) gets her inner samba on.

(2011) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Clement, Carlos Ponce, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The benchmarks for animated features have been Disney for traditional animations and Pixar for computer animations. While some recent entries into the field have shown some promise, for the most part the best animated features to come from places other than the Mouse have largely been those with their own style and subject matter.

Fox has had success with their Ice Age trilogy (a fourth entry makes its way into theaters next year) and the makers of those films have turned their eyes to more sultry climes, the Brazilian paradise of Rio de Janeiro. However, things start off initially in the Arctic-like environment of Moose Lake, Minnesota where lives Linda (Mann), who found a blue macaw that had been stolen from the rain forests of Brazil and sent to the United States for purchase (except it had fallen off the truck). Blu (Eisenberg) lives a very pampered life, warm and secure in Linda’s bookstore, wanting for nothing and being provided with every little need by the doting Linda. They have a wonderful life together.

Into their life walks Tulio (Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist who informs Linda that Blu is one of only two blue macaws left in the world and that it is imperative that he be mated with the last female, who is in Rio. Because they have a controlled environment available in his bird research center, it is decided that it would be easier to bring Blu to the mountain rather than the mountain to Blu. Reluctantly, Linda agrees to it although she’s not too enthusiastic about leaving home – she has no desire to see the world, somewhat refreshing amongst spunky animated movie heroines.

Blu is flown down and shoved into a lovely environment with Jewel (Hathaway) who wants nothing more than to escape captivity. She is not really interested in mating, particularly with a pampered pet that can’t even fly. The two don’t get along at all which means of course they are going to get along GREAT by the end of the movie.

An amoral poacher named Marcel (Ponce) sends a couple of thugs and a nasty cockatoo named Nigel (Clements) to kidnap the two blues, knowing that as the last of their species they’ll fetch a hefty price. Together Blu and Jewel manage to escape and flee to the rain forest where they are aided by a crafty toucan named Rafael (Lopez), a couple of disreputable looking birds named Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) and a drooling doggie named Luis (Morgan). With Nigel and a barrelful of monkeys looking for them, Blu unable to fly and Linda and Tulio desperately searching for them, it will be a long walk back home. Oh, and did I mention it’s Carnival time in Rio?

In many ways this is the most Disney-like of all the Blue Sky/Fox films. From the score to the musical numbers, this looks and sounds very much like a traditional animated Disney film, from the bright colors to the cute, cuddly anthropomorphized parrots. This is going to appeal to the very young and the merchandising that’s sure to go on is going to drive the kiddies absolutely bonkers and their parents to the poorhouse.

The problem here is that all the color is on the screen – none of it went into the characters, who are all as bland as can be and could have been culled from dozens of animated movies and television shows. And for a movie set in Brazil there’s little to no spice and this movie could have used some. Brazil has some beautiful, exotic locations but one gets the feeling that the farthest the animators went to research their drawings was the Jungle River Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Sure, it’s a great looking movie but I for one am getting tired of animated features that extol kids to believe in themselves. Judging from surveys, self-belief and self-confidence isn’t something our children are lacking. Rio looks good but in the end it’s like cotton candy – colorful but lacking any substance.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and colorful, with some beautifully drawn images.

REASONS TO STAY: Stock characters and story; trying too hard to be Disney-esque and wind up without much of an identity.

FAMILY VALUES: This is absolutely fine for any family – nothing for parents to be concerned about for any ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The makers of the wildly popular Angry Birds game created a version of the game set in Rio as a tie-in with the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s beautiful and the kids are gonna insist.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Hanna