Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

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The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo

Split


James McAvoy is having a ball.

James McAvoy is having a ball.

(2016) Thriller (Blumhouse/Universal) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Lyne Renee, Kate Jacoby, Peter Patrikios, Kash Goins, Julie Potter. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

The human mind is a marvelous thing but also a dangerous thing. When you scratch the veneer, you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes what you find can be absolutely horrifying.

Three young girls – haughty Claire (Richardson), sycophantic Marcia (Sula) and outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped in broad daylight from a birthday party at a mall in suburban Philadelphia. They are rendered unconscious with a kind of spray chloroform and brought to a dungeon by Kevin (McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered young man.

Except it’s not just Kevin; there are a lot of different personalities jockeying for position “in the light” (i.e. the dominant personality allowed to show their face to the light) including prim and proper Miss Patricia, scheming manipulative Dennis, foppish Bradley, and 9-year-old child Hedwig. All are completely unique and some are more dangerous than others.

Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist (Buckley) who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder or good ol’ schizophrenia. Kevin has 23 such personalities rummaging around his head and a 24th getting ready to emerge with the ominous name of The Beast who has special plans for the young girls.

There have been some who have called for a boycott of the movie for it’s portrayal of DID patients which is, to say the least, far from realistic. I find that kind of disingenuous since nobody in their right mind would think of this movie as a scientifically accurate portrayal of a very real psychiatric issue – it certainly isn’t meant to be that any more than The Incredible Hulk is meant to be a realistic presentation of radiation poisoning. It’s a case of agenda-pushing politically correct sorts with sticks lodged firmly and deeply up their anal cavities trying to inflict their world view on the rest of us. Sometimes a movie is only after being a good time; lighten the hell up already.

Shyamalan who started out as a golden boy after his first couple of movies fell out of favor with both critics and fans alike and after a couple of really awful movies (I’m talking about you, After Earth and The Last Airbender) rebounded in 2015 with The Visit which was the highest-grossing horror film of that year. Judging on its performance so far, Split has a good shot at equaling that accomplishment.

One of Shyamalan’s strengths has always been his ability to tell a story well. It is when he drifts away from that strength and tries to be either too complicated or too cute that he gets into trouble. His last two movies have been more economical not only in terms of budget but also in terms of story; there is little or no fat on the bones of either film and as a result the movies feel more taut and involving.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor deliver an exceptional performance and McAvoy does as Kevin. It’s hard to imagine but Joaquin Phoenix was originally cast in the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; I don’t think the movie lost a thing for the change. In fact, I think Phoenix might have been less effective in the role, as good an actor as he is. McAvoy doesn’t oversell the various personalities and uses a lot of subtle facial expressions to convey his characters. There is a little CGI help, particularly near the end of the movie (which is not coincidentally the weakest part of the movie) but otherwise it’s all McAvoy and hopefully it will help him garner some meatier roles in the future.

The supporting performances are adequate but frankly the three captives have little depth to them (which is more a function of the writing than the performances) although Taylor-Joy continues to develop as one of the most exciting up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood right now. Buckley hams it up a little bit as the scientist too blinded by her research to see the real danger that is developing right in front of her very eyes. Like McAvoy, she seems to be having a grand old time making the film and it shows. In fact, I get the sense that Shyamalan himself seemed more confident and while he did express that this was one of his most challenging shoots ever, there is an element of fun throughout with some appropriately placed humor.

Some are calling this his comeback film but I am still a bit on the fence about that. Certainly he is on the right path but this doesn’t compare with his best two films, both made at the beginning of his career. While the post-credits scene absolutely floored me and left me leaving the theater with a huge grin on my face (and sets up a sequel that is sure to happen), the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and the final sequence when The Beast makes his appearance is a bit of a letdown in many ways.

Still this is in the upper echelon of Shyamalan’s filmography and that’s a good thing. While he has been disappointing of late, his last two movies are showing a return to form and leaves me hopeful that we will soon be seeing movies on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Now that would be truly a Hollywood miracle.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is nicely taut and suspenseful. McAvoy gives a very strong performance. The twist in the post-credits scene is absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The girls are in general pretty much without personality. The film drags a bit in the middle. The Beast is a little bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, thematic content that may be squirm-inducing for some, a bit of foul language and some behavior that is suggestive of pedophilia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth film directed by Shyamalan to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Psycho
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Book of Love

Hollywood Beauty Salon


Lookin' GOOD!!

Lookin’ GOOD!!

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, Sanetta “Butterfly” Watkins, Darlene Holmes Malone, Glenn Holsten, Crystal Smith, Rashida Herring, Edward Kozempel, Anthony Young, Paris Tyree, Serena Carter, Viola Wilson, Clyde Joelle, Paul Barnes, Cheryl Cobb, Irene Tindal, Margo Chavis, Marva Evans, Diane Daniels, Wilbur Ruhl, Laverne Davenport. Directed by Glenn Holsten

 

As a society we have a tendency to try to funnel the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the poor into places where we can’t see them, where they can languish largely forgotten by the world. The sad thing is that these are all human beings – troubled to be sure, but still just as human as you or I. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and they have lives. Generally, we don’t give them credit for any of that.

One glimpse of Hollywood Beauty Salon may change your minds. These aren’t drooling, feeble-minded village idiots who can’t dress themselves; at least one of them has a college degree (two of them, at that) and all of them compassion for one another. The stories they have to tell are often horrific; tales of witnessing their mothers commit suicide when they themselves are only five years old and tales of abusive relationships ending in gunfire. These are tales of bullying and foster care, of drug abuse and despair. These people have overcome some genuinely nightmarish pasts and have done so hampered by schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. It’s amazing that some of them are here at all.

One of their number, Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, managed to fight through the pain of losing a baby followed in short order by her partner being murdered; suicidal and hearing voices, she got the help she needed and in fact got a license as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, enabling her to give back to the community that helped her on the road to recovery. She set up a beauty salon in a mental health recovery complex in the largely African-American district of Germantown in Philadelphia, citing that feeling beautiful helps with the recovery process. Training some of the residents there to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures and apply cosmetics helps give the residents marketable skills they can eventually use to get employment.

But strangely despite the title, this isn’t about the salon, although it does serve as something of a center for the film. It’s about the people in it; their stories, told through dramatic recreations, animated sequences or the old-fashioned way – talking to the camera and/or to each other. Filmmaker Glenn Holsten not only shows us the stories of these people but in a curious meta sort of way, shows us how the documentary itself was put together. For my money, that’s some impressive innovation.

The gist of the film is that under the aegis of Timms, the Salon is about to put on their second annual Hair and Fashion Recovery Show, in which the various clients and stylists of the Salon not only show off their skills but also their tales of recovery. We get to meet Sanetta Watkins, who wants to be known as Butterfly – not only because she loves them and their colorful wings but because they are a symbol of herself, coming out of a self-created chrysalis of loneliness and blossoming into a functioning, social human being. We also meet Edward Kozempel, once a bright and promising flutist who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and cancer – he loses everything, including his ability to make music and lives out in the streets until the program in Germantown finds him.

Dorothy Holmes Malone tells us a harrowing tale of how she grew up in foster care, always hungry and rarely being allowed to bathe except when social workers were coming for an inspection and endured a childhood full of bullying. She allows her tale to be told through dramatic recreation, her story so affecting one of the child actresses that she bursts into tears to be comforted by Malone herself.

But it is Hollywood’s story that really is at the emotional center of the film; it is hard to imagine losing nearly everything you love in life. She contemplated suicide and only her last remaining child, Cadence, convinced her to stay with the living. “Life is a choice,” she says in typical blunt fashion. She is as compassionate as they come but she can be a drill sergeant when she has to be. To me, Hollywood is the kind of hero America really needs, someone who overcame tremendous odds and gives back to her community in a tangible way. When she is doing some glamour shots for the Show, we get to see some of her inner joy and it is contagious. Everyone needs a little Hollywood in their lives.

Given the headlines of late of terrorism, mass murder and of a Presidential election that is perhaps the most depressing event in American history, it is refreshing to see a story like this one. One might even say it is necessary to our continued mental health to know that there are people out there with the kind of hearts and courage that these people exhibit just to get through their day. Sure, they break down from time to time but for the most part, these people are just like you and me. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have lives. And I’m glad we got to share a little bit in them. It truly made my day a lot better and how often can a movie do that?

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that shows a whole lot of heart but brings a whole lot of tears. The stories as horrifying as they sometimes are all are triumphant in their own way. The animations truly enhance the story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story jumps around a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes coupled with some sexual references and allusions to violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over the course of four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Ghostbusters (2016)

King Georges


The joy of cooking.

The joy of cooking.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Georges Perrier, Nicholas Elmi, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jean Perrier, Yvonne Perrier, Genevieve Perrier, Michael Klein, Abraham Abisaleh, Michael McDonough, Craig LaBan, Edmund Konrad, Ed Rendell, Bruce Holberg, Pierre Calmels, Lilianne Nina, Hilary Hamilton. Directed by Erika Frankel

Most of us who have never worked in a kitchen have absolutely no clue what it takes to run a fine dining establishment. When you’re running one of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, the pressure multiplies exponentially.

Georges Perrier emigrated from Lyon in hopes of founding an authentic French restaurant in the United States. He did just that but not in New York City but in Philadelphia where his Le Bec-Fin became one of the first iconic French restaurants in the country and paved the way for other French émigrés like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud to found similarly iconic establishments in this country.

Le Bec-Fin closed in 2013 after more than 40 years of service, and Frankel – a documentary producer making her feature film directing debut – spent three years backstage at the restaurant observing and chronicling Perrier’s somewhat abrasive manner and giving us one of the most realistic and intimate looks at what happens in the kitchen than any reality show does. You get a sense of how cramped and hot it is there; a close-up of one of the line cook’s hands reveals burns and scars a-plenty to remind us that loss of focus for even a moment can result in injury, sometimes of a serious nature.

We do get some talking head interviews from some celebrity chefs, Philly foodies and critics, former staffers from the restaurant, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and of course Georges himself, but the real meat and potatoes of the documentary is the scenes in the kitchen where we see Georges and his sous chef Nicholas Elmi work their magic.

It is the relationship between Georges and Nicholas that is particularly compelling. Where Georges is abrasive and manic, screaming at his team when things aren’t going exactly the way he wants them to, Nicholas is much calmer and seems to connect better with the younger line cooks and chefs. Georges is very hands-on; a renowned saucier, he holds his sauces in very strict regard. When a crab cake order is messed up, he fires a new one up himself, screaming at the offending chef the entire time. He’s not above vacuuming the carpet or washing dishes.

The relationship between Georges and his restaurant is almost as compelling as that father-son mentor-apprentice relationship with Nicholas. The restaurant is Georges’ passion; his drive for perfection has cost him his family and any kind of normal life, although Georges himself ruefully says that there is nothing normal about a chef’s life because of the hours; he’s often up shopping at local markets at 4:30am after having shut the doors at the restaurant at midnight. It’s not conducive to keeping a wife and children happy when you never see them.

The movie is extremely informative, particularly when we get to see a single meal for the Delaware Valley Chaine (a sort of gourmet society) prepared for them en masse but where it falls down is in connecting us to Georges on a more personal level. I get the sense that he is a private man and that may not be a fault of the documentary entirely, but still I would have liked to have known what drove him better, particularly as he sacrificed so much for his dream. I would have also changed the soundtrack as the music was often intrusive and annoying.

Many of us think of cheesesteaks and pretzels when we think of Philly cuisine; Le Bec-Vin did a great deal to change all that. No less an august institution than the New York Times crowned that restaurant as good or better than any in New York City, which at the time was the center of the dining out universe. Times have changed however; our dining habits have become more casual and we demand less pricey fare. These changing times did in Le Bec-Fin, sadly; it was the last of its kind in the United States and as much as there was no place for it, there was a need for it whether we choose to admit it or not.

There’s something about the fine dining experience, surrounded by opulence and impeccable service with an assurance of an incredible meal, fine wine and memories that will last a lifetime. Some may look at Georges Perrier as a dinosaur but I prefer to think of him as a conservator, a man dedicated to a craft that requires patience, skill, determination and above all, passion. I’ll always regret not having visited his establishment while it was extant, but his legacy will always be in those chefs he trained to bring some of his magic to their own establishments.

REASONS TO GO: A sense of being on the inside of a real kitchen. Informative as to kitchen politics and Philly cuisine.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give us too much depth in the portrayal of Georges. The score is a bit annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elmi won the Top Chef competition
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (check your local provider)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Son of Saul

Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game