American Dresser


Give me life on the road.

(2018) Drama (Cinedigm) Tom Berenger, Keith David, Carmine Canglialosi, Gina Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Dern, Kathrine Narducci, Andrew Bryniarski, Becky O’Donohue, Elle McLemore, Rob Moran, Jennifer Damiano, Wyatt Lozano, Scott Shilstone, Ryan R. Johnson, Josh Owens, Jim Ford, Michael Perri, Sophia Franzella. Directed by Carmine Canglialosi

 

There are few things more American than hopping on your motorcycle and going off in a cloud of dust to travel the highways and byways of our great nation. It’s been an idea that has captivated American cineastes at least as far back as Easy Rider and it is a motif that has shown up in movies over and over again ever since.

John Moore (Berenger) is dealing with the grief of his wife’s (Gershon) death from cancer and not at all dealing with it well. He has fallen into the bottle, much to the disgust of his two adult daughters who are further mortified when he shows up late to his wife’s funeral. Basically in an alcoholic stupor all day, he decides to assuage his grief by going through his wife’s things – doesn’t everybody? – which is when he finds a letter she had written to him but never sent. The contents aren’t revealed other than obliquely and even then not until late in the film but John is inspired to dust off his old bike and head off on a road trip to Oregon from whatever Eastern hamlet he lives in.

Joining him is Charlie (David), John’s comrade-in-arms in Vietnam. Charlie has been recovering from the effects of an auto accident and the surgeries haven’t gone well. Facing the loss of a leg, he wants one last adventure with his buddy before going under the knife. And, to paraphrase the great Paul Simon, they rode off to look for America.

America in this case being a land of sexy waitresses in honkytonks, barroom brawls with inbred rednecks, hooking up with a group of L.A.-based lady bikers, having the black member of the party accused of a murder he didn’t commit and beaten up by small town cops and for John, finding romance with the cousin of Charlie’s fiancée. They also pick up a stray in hunky Willie (writer-director Canglialosi) who helps them out in the previously mentioned barroom brawl and whom women seem drawn to like catnip. He’s also hiding a secret, on the run from the cops. There is a point to the journey for John but I won’t mention it here.

This is a movie I really wanted to like. Road films are some of my favorites and the strong cast promised at least decent acting but alas, that’s not what happened in either case, me liking the film and decent acting by the strong cast. Although Berenger is game, David is as always reliable and Miller is as pretty as ever, other than a cameo by Dern the acting is largely disappointing. The overall tone is kind of muted, like all the energy has been wrung out of the film before it unspools. Considering the level of talent in the film that’s pretty shameful.

The hero of the movie is not John Moore or the man that plays him so much but cinematographer Jesse Brunt who comes up with some iconic shots of the back roads of the Midwest and West, the somewhat forced shot of the bikers roaring past Mount Rushmore notwithstanding. While the movie seems meant for an older adult audience, there seems to be little here to drive them into theaters other than a blast from the past cast; the relationship between John and Charlie for example seems pretty sketchy with little filling in the blanks other than a few story references and the obvious band of brothers in Vietnam reality but other than some insulting boys banter, the bond between the two remains maddeningly unexplored. For my money Canglialosi the writer should have eliminated the part of Willie entirely; that would have at least forced him to develop the relationship between the two vets more thoroughly. Frankly, Willie adds almost nothing to the movie other than to be the brawn for the two older men.

To be fair, there is some fun in watching some of these veteran actors go about their business and the scenery along the road is wonderful but that’s really all the movie has going for it which is mighty sad. You get the sense that the writer didn’t really have anything to say other than that older people can still ride and anyone who has been to a gathering of bikers can tell you that anyway. Did the film make me want to get on a bike and ride off? To a degree yes, but definitely not with these people.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice shots of the American road.
REASONS TO STAY: A little maudlin, a lot cliché, the tone of the film is tepid at best.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Berenger’s birth name was Moore, the same as his character’s last name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Hogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Queen of the World

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

The Artist


The Artist

Ta-da!!!!!!!!!!

(2011) Romance (Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Bitsie Tulloch, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian, Basil Hoffman. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

 

Some movies try to re-invent the wheel. On occasion they are successful and create something new and exciting. Strangely, sometimes going back to the beginning can in itself become something new.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of the world in 1927. He is a movie star, beloved by women and admired by men. His movies are smash hits, the studio loves him and he is married to a beautiful woman (Miller). There are clouds on the horizon however; the talkies are coming and George has a thick French accent.

But that is still on the horizon. For now, George has another fabulous premiere of another big hit to attend. Outside, while mugging for reporters, a female fan named Peppy Miller (Bejo) accidentally bumps into him; the two mug for the cameras and Peppy bestows upon George a kiss which makes all the industry papers.

George, a generous soul, gets her a bit part in a movie and thus begins the inevitable decline of the big star and the rise of a fresh face. George, refusing to do talkies, gambles everything on a big budget silent that nobody wants to see. Peppy, on the other hand, is just as her name describes her; energetic, smart, sly and full of moxie, see? She is the embodiment of the new Hollywood; stars that not only are beautiful but have something to say.

George’s fortune is lost in the crash. His wife leaves him. The studio boss (Goodman) fires him. As time passes, he is unable to afford his faithful valet (Cromwell) and fires him. All that is left is his dog – and Peppy, who is hopelessly in love with him but George’s pride won’t let him accept her aid. Pride goeth before the fall and George has an awful long way to go before he hits bottom.

Who would have thought that one of the best movies of 2011 would be a silent movie (not completely silent – there is a musical soundtrack, some sound effects during a dream sequence and a few lines of dialogue near the end of the movie). Hazanavicius has skillfully re-created not only the era but the style of the films. He went after a melodramatic look and it pays off; even though there are elements of the screwball comedy as well as the swashbuckler.

Valentin is a cross between John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks – dashing, handsome and with a crooked grin that is endearing, he is both masculine and charming. Dujardin plays him with a bit of a wink but as Valentin’s fortunes fall, the French star adds an element of pathos that really gives the movie a complete emotional gamut; it’s part of why the movie is so wonderful. At various times in this movie you’ll laugh and cry and Dujardin is a big reason why.

Bejo who is the daughter of an Argentine filmmaker but grew up in France is also the director’s wife; formerly best-known for her role as Christiana in A Knight’s Tale (2001) she is almost a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination (she already has a Golden Globe nomination among others). She brings a liveliness and joie de vivre to Peppy that adds a great energy to the picture. In fact, there is a great joyfulness to the movie that separates it from much of the dark, depressing fare that comes out of Hollywood these days.

There are some terrific supporting performances, particularly from Cromwell as the loyal valet but the performance most people are going to remember is the dog. Jack puts Lassie to shame. Jack gives the movie one rating point all by himself.

Needless to say, the critics are falling all over themselves to praise the movie and with good reason. Rarely does a movie come along that has as much heart and soul as this one. It has become quite literally the must-see movie of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Charming and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the silent film to be gimmicky.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s one disturbing scene and an obscene gesture but otherwise fit for most families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog Jack was actually played by three separate Jack Russell terriers and each one was colored to resemble the other dogs so that they matched onscreen.

HOME OR THEATER: Best viewed in an old movie theater, preferably one more than 70 years old if you can find one around.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination

Flipped


Flipped

John Maloney is fully aware that youth is wasted on the young.

(Warner Brothers) Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Anthony Edwards, John Maloney, Aidan Quinn, Rebecca de Mornay, Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Weisman, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Cody Horn, Ruth Crawford, Stefanie Scott. Directed by Rob Reiner

Everyone remembers their first love. It holds a special place in our hearts, something that is never recaptured in quite the same way. Often we can remember minute details about the object of our affection, where we were when we first realized what we were feeling, the music that was playing, even the smell of their shampoo. It’s the kind of magic that science can’t explain, that nobody can really put into words but nearly everyone can understand on one level or another.

Bryce Loski (McAuliffe) is moving into a new neighborhood, which in itself is a traumatic thing when you’re in the second grade in 1957. However, when you’re a 14-year-old boy in 1963, nothing is more traumatic than attracting the attentions of the girl next door, or in this case the girl across the street. She’s Juli Baker (Carroll) and she has the kind of smile that lights up a room, and the kind of spirit that warms that brightly lit room. Besides that, she has the kind of character to stand up for what she believes in, even if there’s risk. She also has the compassion to understand the frailties of those around her, especially her dad Richard (Quinn), who paints pictures for a living and sells them at local art shows and county fairs. She has the kindness to want people around her to be comfortable.

All that is lost on Bryce, however; he’s more concerned with the mortification of having someone besotted with him. He does everything he can to deflect her attention, some subtle and some downright cruel. The only thing he doesn’t do is tell her to leave him alone and that he’s not interested.

She takes his disinterest for shyness and redoubles her efforts. Even when he starts going out with her nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Taylor) she just sits back patiently and waits for the relationship to fizzle, which it does courtesy of Bryce’s best friend Garrett (Broussard), possibly the worst best friend ever.

Most everyone can see the shine on Juli, especially Bryce’s grandfather Chet (Maloney) who is grieving for his wife that Juli reminds him of strongly. Certainly Bryce’s Mom (De Mornay) can see it; perhaps the only one who can’t is Bryce’s dad Steven (Edwards) who is a bitter, angry man although he disguises it with a crooked grin and a manly slap on the back. Eventually all of Bryce’s little cruelties open Juli’s eyes to the thought that the boy with the dazzling eyes may not be greater than the sum of his parts. He may be, in fact, less.

This is bad news for Bryce who has begun to see Juli for what she is and has flipped for her. He’s made so many mistakes in running away from this girl; can he convince her that he is the boy she saw those years ago the day he moved in to the house across the street?

Rob Reiner has a great eye for era; he proved that with Stand By Me and Ghosts of Mississippi. He’s gone a few years without a truly outstanding movie on his resume, although he has plenty of great movies, including The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Misery and When Harry Met Sally among them.

Here he takes the acclaimed Wendelin van Draanen young adult’s novel and transplanted it from a modern setting to 1963, an era in which he seems comfortable filming, possible (because he was a teenager himself at the time albeit an older one (his IMDB page lists his birth date as 1946). What he does retain from the novel is the alternating point of view, relying on voice-over narration from the two main characters to address the same incidents from different points of view, something Kurosawa made famous in Rashomon only on a grander scale.

It works here because everything that happens is about motivation, and you can’t always tell what someone’s thinking by what they do and it’s very important that the audience understands what the two young people are thinking. That Reiner makes the back-and-forth work so seamlessly is a tribute to his skills as a filmmaker.

The movie is sentimental without being unnecessarily sweet; this is largely because the two young actors, Carroll and McAuliffe are so stellar. It may be my imagination, but we seem to be going through a phase where really good juvenile actors are much more common, from Dakota Fanning to Abigail Breslin to Saorise Ronan and now, these two. Carroll, in particular, strikes me as the kind of actress who could have a legitimate career that could extend well beyond her teen years; sometimes you catch a glimpse of that and it strikes a chord in you. I may be wrong about her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was right.

There are some notable performances in the supporting ranks as well, particularly from Maloney who always manages to project character and kindness in every role he plays; as the grandfather he is wise and giving, although saddled with a son-in-law who is not. Edwards, who we’re used to playing sympathetic roles as in “E.R.” and Revenge of the Nerds, plays a thankless, unlikable role and manages to give the character hidden depth; just enough of the source of his frustrations are revealed to hint at humanizing Steven Loski and making him almost sympathetic.

There is a different family dynamic between the Loskis, who are outwardly more prosperous but internally dysfunctional, and the Bakers, who are outwardly struggling and inwardly close. The differences between the two fathers – Richard who is loving, artistic and a little bit Bohemian and Steven who is uptight, condescending and boorish – help explain why the two children are who they are. I have to say that one thing that impressed me was that nothing here seemed manufactured in any way; everything about the plot is organic and flows nicely, even the flipping back and forth between like and dislike for Bryce and Juli.

Quite honestly, I initially wasn’t looking forward to seeing this and did mostly because something about the trailer spoke to Da Queen. While I like Reiner as a director, his recent track record has been spotty and I was thrilled to see him not only return to form, but deliver a movie that will seriously challenge for the number one spot on my year-end list this year. I was touched by the movie and left it feeling warm inside, remembering my own childhood crushes and aware of how wonderful sitting in a sycamore tree and able to view the world around you can be. I tell you, hand to God, you will not find a movie with more heart than this one.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful and rich in detail, this presents a romance in an organic and non-manufactured way that is charming and yet realistic. This is a movie that will grab you by the heart and keep holding you there.

REASONS TO STAY: People who have difficulty dealing with the finer emotions may find this boring.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of scenes that might be a little difficult for the smaller sort to understand, and there are a few suggestive words here and there but certainly this is fine for teens and most pre-teens as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rob Reiner founded Castle Rock, the production company behind Flipped but later sold it to Warner Brothers; this is the first time he’s worked with them since 1999.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of this movie is shot on an intimate level which is normally fine for home viewing, I think the overall experience is heightened by seeing it in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Frost/Nixon