Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

Rockaway


The young cast of Rockaway.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/1


A random quote for a random image.

(2018) Drama (Gravitas) Lindsey Shaw, Judd Nelson, Dendrie Taylor, James P. Engel, Leland Alexander Wheeler, Danna Maret, Veronnica Avila, John E. Tremba, F. Robert McMurray, Troy Bogdan, Mary Agnes Shearon. Directed by Jeremy Phillips

 

There is a difference between Art and art; art illuminates, Art condescends. Art calls attention to itself; art comes by your attention honestly. Art is pretentious; art is genuine. Art appeals to a limited “in” group; art is for everybody. I love art; I find it nearly impossible to personally connect to Art.

Lissa (Shaw) lives in a small rural Pennsylvania town where there isn’t much to do. Predictably, she’s bored. 20 years old and employed as a waitress, she is sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to find out if her life is going to change radically or not. While she waits, she reads her diary and the events of the last two years begin to flit through her mind. Her relationships with her boyfriend Daniel (Wheeler), her mother Joan (Taylor) and her father (Robert) are at the forefront of how she got to where she is at this very moment.

Phillips decides to tell his story in an unconventional way, using a barrage of visuals that employ all sorts of techniques from over-saturated colors to grainy home movie-like interludes to still photographs, soft focus and occasionally footage that doesn’t make sense. We see Lissa over time as somewhat manipulative and often difficult. Like many women her age, she makes plenty of bad choices (and occasionally some good ones). There is enough angst in her to fill one of the Great Lakes and then some; Phillips has stated that he wanted to essentially create a John Hughes coming of age movie for the 2010s. Molly Ringwald was obviously not available.

The images are jarring and distracting; there’s actually a pretty good story to be told here and maybe even some insight to be had but it gets drowned out by Phillips’ need to call attention to himself as a director. Shaw actually delivers a fairly compelling performance but it gets lost amid all the white noise. The electronic soundtrack also contributes to the chaos.

I really can’t recommend this at all. I spent most of the film wanting to be anywhere else but where I was and when the final credits started running, I felt relief more than anything else. I hate being snarky like this; I will allow that the movie didn’t connect with me in the least and that it’s quite possible – and maybe even likely – that it will connect with others. I hope that those folks find this movie. For my part, I really hope that Phillips takes to heart this advice; it’s not the singer, it’s the song. In other words, it’s not about the direction; it’s about the movie. The sad thing is that there was a decent story in here; it’s just too much effort to pluck it out from all the distractions going on.

REASONS TO GO: Shaw gives an effective performance.
REASONS TO STAY: I had a lot of trouble connecting with the film. Too many images become too distracting. One gets the sense that Phillips is trying to reinvent the wheel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack is by the Aussie-American indie rock group Liars and is their last recorded work after breaking up amicably in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collected Works of Lars von Trier
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Men on the Dragon

Funeral Day


Not exactly what the doctor ordered.

(2017) Comedy (Random Media) Jon Weinberg, Tyler Labine, Suzy Nakamura, Tygh Runyan, Dominic Rains, Jed Rees, Kristin Carey, Sarah Adina, Jeremy Radin, Ron Butler, Rahnuma Panthaky, Robert Bela, Joe Fidler, Mat Kohler, Nakia Secrest, Luca Secrest, Ralph Cole Jr., Jared Adams, Noam Emerson-Fleming, Shauna Bloom. Directed by Jon Weinberg

 

Funerals are a drag. Nobody ever really wants to go to one; while we couch them in terms of “it’s a celebration of his/her life,” it is also very much a reminder that a funeral of our own awaits us down the road.

Scott (Weinberg) wakes up on the morning of a close friend’s funeral (who passed away at a young age from cancer) and discovers a lump on his own scrotum. A bit of a hypochondriac to begin with, he is completely freaked out and decides not to go. When his pal Chris (Runyan) arrives to take him to the event, Scott refuses to go. We discover that Scott never visited Ryan the entire time he was in the hospital; “I don’t do cancer” is Scott’s lame explanation.

But Scott has it figured out. Instead of going to a depressing ritual of saying farewell amid tears and tea sandwiches he decides that the better thing to do is turn his own life around “in honor of Ken.” He determines to make amends to those he has wronged, and to trim his scruffy beard and get a haircut, among other things. As much as he wants to change though, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t really want to change his life; he just wants to change his circumstances. The very embodiment of a self-centered hipster, Scott has a lot of growing up to do if he is to affect serious change and maybe a group of characters including a sexually aware waitress he’s sweet on, a married couple who have some pretty bizarre ideas of health and a self-absorbed real estate license who is focused on selling Scott a property he can’t afford particularly after quitting his job as part of his “remake Scott” project.

There are also endless shots of Scott running throughout L.A. without ever breaking a sweat. Didn’t he get the memo that nobody walks in L.A.? In any case while I think it was meant for comic effect, it really isn’t all that funny and to be honest there isn’t a lot to laugh about here. Some of the stuff that pokes fun at shallow Los Angeles culture works pretty well but those moments tend to get repetitive also. Besides, it’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

This is meant to be a comedy that involves taking stock of one’s life and finding the motivation to getting out of one’s rut. The problem with this movie (and it’s a big problem) is that Scott is so thoroughly selfish, so incredibly unlikable that even though the film is a short one you feel like you’re being forced to hang out with that guy nobody likes. I’m not sure Weinberg intentionally made Scott so unlikable so that when he achieves some sort of redemption at the film’s conclusion it will be a cathartic moment, but no such catharsis occurs. You’re not motivated enough to care at all whether Scott gets his redemption and makes the changes he yearns to. It just feels like an exercise in self-absorption.

Although the supporting cast (with the exception of Labine and Nakamura, both in very brief roles) is largely less well known, their performances are actually pretty strong particularly Runyon and Adler. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to make this film, which actually has something to say, worth much more than a mild “check it out if you have nothing better to do.” I think if they had written Scott as more deserving of redemption maybe it would be possible to get more invested in the film but that just doesn’t happen.

REASONS TO GO: There are some decent performances, particularly from Runyan and Adler.
REASONS TO STAY: Scott may be the most annoying protagonist ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references, further sexual content and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took Best Comedy Feature honors at both the Twister Alley Film Festival and the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
King Cohen

Baby Driver


Baby and Debora want their Big Mac meals right NOW!!!

(2017) Action Comedy (TriStar) Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Elza Gonzalez, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Morse Diggs, Flea, CJ Jones, Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Lance Palmer, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon, Hudson Meek, Brogan Hall, Richard Marcos Taylor, Viviana Chavez, Hal Whiteside, Brigitte Kali. Directed by Edgar Wright

 

This has been a really good year for quirky action movies and this one is one of the best of the year. British director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) channels Tarantino through a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack filter and turns in an absolute gem.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. Due to a childhood accident, he suffers from tinnitus – a ringing of the ear that can sometimes be distracting. To combat this, he wears an iPod and ear buds to drown out the white noise with classic rock and roll from such diverse groups as The Damned, Golden Earring, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and T-Rex.

He works for a criminal named Doc (Spacey) who robs banks, although he doesn’t actually do the robbing himself; he puts together the master pan and assembles the crews. The only common denominator is Baby who he considers his “good luck charm” and who besides owes Doc a debt which he pays for with each job. Baby has one more job to go before the debt is paid but Doc doesn’t really want to let him go.

The trouble is from Doc’s standpoint is that Baby has found himself a girlfriend, Debora (James) who waitresses at the diner he frequents. The two are eager to get the heck out of Dodge (or at least Atlanta) and drive west and never stop but Doc has Baby sucked in. Still, Baby has his own plans and he might just be able to outthink the brilliant Doc if he gets a few breaks going his way.

The action sequences which were done practically and without CGI are flat-out amazing. Some of the best car chase sequences since Bullitt populate this film. The backstory and mythology of the piece is riveting and Wright populates this world with a cast of characters that would do the aforementioned Tarantino proud. The dialogue as you would expect from an Edgar Wright film is smart and occasionally brilliant.

Elgort who has not impressed me particularly to this point does so here. He’s done a lot of teen heartthrob films and he is completely wasted in them; this is the kind of movie he was born to do and he makes the most of it. The rest of the cast is uniformly at the top of their games, with Hamm and Foxx particularly noteworthy.

Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Spacey a few weeks ago, there are likely many who will want to boycott the film because of his presence in it and yes, he plays a very critical role and takes up a good deal of screen time. I won’t begin to excuse his performance or advise for or against boycotting this film because of it but I will say that while he shows off the best of his abilities here, I can understand why people will want to give this film a miss because of his presence. Again, I won’t judge anyone’s moral compass other than to say that the rest of the cast and crew who made this one of the year’s best movies may deserve your support in this case but again, it is understandable if you choose to withhold it. Nevertheless this is one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are second to none. Elgort gives the best performance of his career to date and has real chemistry with James. The backstory is not only credible but entertaining. The soundtrack is spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s quite possible that the film is too hip for its own good. The presence of the disgraced Spacey may make it a moral choice whether to support this film or not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CJ Jones, who plays Joseph (a deaf character) is himself deaf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mr. Roosevelt

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

All We Had


Have a Coke and a smile.

Have a Coke and a smile.

(2016) Drama (Gravitas) Katie Holmes, Stefania Owen, Richard Kind, Luke Wilson, Mark Consuelos, Eve Lindley, Siobhan Fallon, Katherine Reis, Judy Greer, Richard Petrocelli, Odiseas Georgiadis, Michael Cavadias, Lolita Foster, Tim Markham, Osh Ghanimah, Randy Gonzalez, Milly Guzman, Rahmel Long, John McLaughlin, Amelie McKendry, Aly Brier. Directed by Katie Holmes

 

Statistically speaking, women make up the majority of the poverty class. Statistics however do not tell us the entire story. Each number on that sheet is a person, a person with a story and a person who has been under unimaginable stress. Unimaginable…unless you’ve lived it.

Rita (Holmes) hasn’t exactly had a sterling track record when it comes to men. She’s made a lot of bad choices and now, in 2008, she is fleeing her latest boyfriend disaster along with her 15-year-old daughter Ruthie (Owen). She sells her TV set and hits the road, hoping to make it to Boston where she and her daughter dream of having a two-story house with a pool. Given that the economy is about to crash and burn, it isn’t a very realistic dream but it is a dream nonetheless.

The two shoplift when they need to until the car finally gives out in a small town. A kind-hearted diner owner named Marty (Kind) goes the compassionate route when Rita and Ruthie fail at the dine and dash scam and gives Rita a job waitressing along with his transgender niece Peter Pam (Lindley).

Ruthie turns out to be quite the smart cookie and shows signs of doing really well in school, but tries to fit in with the wrong crowd. Rita hooks up with an unscrupulous realtor (Consuelos) who puts her in a foreclosure house; Rita doesn’t realize the terms of her mortgage are predatory and as business begins to dry up at the diner as the town is hit by unemployment and foreclosures, Rita and Ruthie realize they are about to lose their home.

Still, there is Lee (Wilson), an alcoholic widower who is also the town dentist who has taken a shine to Rita, whose former beau has since hit the road. Rita, who has a history of running away at the first sign of trouble, wants to stay in town. Ironically it is Ruthie, who has been the more mature one in the relationship, who wants to leave. Rita is finally getting her act together and recognizing her own issues, but is it enough and in time to salvage her relationship with Ruthie?

This is Katie Holmes directing debut and while it isn’t particularly an auspicious one she doesn’t disgrace herself either. The movie is pretty much shot by the numbers which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mistake a lot of first-time directors make is trying too hard to make a mark by using unusual shot setups or narratives. While the narration by Owen is occasionally off-putting, the story is told in a straightforward manner which is at least from this quarter well-received.

There is more than a passing physical resemblance between Holmes and Owen; they look very much like mother and daughter (although the running joke in the movie is that they are mistaken for sisters) which does a lot to add to the realism. One of the things I like about the script is that Ruthie isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is, which again is somewhat realistic when looking at teens, particularly teen girls. The roles of the two women move towards each other; as the movie begins, Ruthie is the mature one. As the movie ends, it is Rita who has that mark.

You’re not used to seeing Holmes in this kind of role; it is gritty and often unpleasant. She wears too-short skirts on dates and blue eyeliner without a whole lot of other make-up; it’s kind of a white trash look. It isn’t the most attractive you’ll see Ms. Holmes, but it is a challenging role for her and I for one am glad to see her stretching a bit, even if she had to direct herself in order to do it.

Kind is one of those actors we tend to take for granted; he always seems to reflect a real honest humanity that genuinely makes me like him. It’s nice to see him have a meatier role than he usually gets. Wilson also is one of those genuinely nice-guy actors who when he gets a chance to play one seems to hit it out of the ballpark and he does so here. In a movie in which Rita starts off a cynic “trust nobody” sort, it’s a smart move for Holmes to pepper her cast with actors who reflect genuine warmth and goodness.

It should also be noticed that the film deals with the transgender issue pretty honestly if a bit over-the-top. There’s a fairly shocking scene in which some of Peter Pam’s tormentors go to the next level. It is a situation all too many transgenders have to face in reality, a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon particularly now.

One of the big problems with the movie is that the pacing is uneven. Some scenes feel rushed and seem to fly by; others seem to stretch out for uncomfortably long periods. A surer hand in the editing bay might have helped here. Also, the script doesn’t benefit by seeing all the major issues that Rita and Ruthie face getting neatly solved one after the other. Anyone who has lived hand to mouth as these ladies do will tell you that it really doesn’t work that way in real life. Some problems don’t have neat solutions.

I don’t know that Holmes has a bright future as a director, but I think she might. Certainly she made a movie that is entirely watchable and while it isn’t perfect, she acquits herself pretty well as a first-timer. I do like the point of view that she takes as a filmmaker and I like that she’s willing to take risks as an actress. I hope that she plays it a little less safe next time as a director.

REASONS TO GO: An unflinching look at women in poverty. This is a very different role for Holmes.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is somewhat erratic. Problems are too easily solved here which isn’t very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Anne Weatherwax novel this is based on was endorsed by no less than Oprah Winfrey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mermaids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Stevie D

Angels Crest


Here's an angel that Charlie missed.

Here’s an angel that Charlie missed.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Dekker, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Piven, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth McGovern, Emma Macgillivray, Joseph Morgan, Greg Lawson, Chris Ippolito, Dave Brown, Colin A. Campbell, Marty Antonini, Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, Jonathan Lachlan Stewart, Julian Domingues, Aedan Tomney, Wally Houn, Lindsay Burns, Barbara Williams, Christianne Hirt, Kate Walsh. Directed by Gaby Dellal

Bad things happen, sometimes to good people and sometimes to bad. Even the worst of events that occur have nothing to do with a person’s goodness or lack thereof. What the true measure of a person is depends on how they deal with the truly awful things that life throws at us.

Ethan (Dekker) is a 21-year-old young man who works at an auto shop in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Angels Crest. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, where rugged individualism is the expectation and where the bleak winters often mirror the bleak outlook for many, who have no hope of escaping the lives they lead.

Ethan is the father to 3-year-old Nate (Carroll) and his sole caregiver, mainly because Nate’s mommy Cindy (Collins) is a mess, a raging alcoholic who can barely care for herself with a side order of promiscuity. One bright afternoon, Ethan takes Nate for a boy’s trip into the woods. On the way back, an exhausted Nate falls asleep and as Ethan drives towards town, he sees some deer. For whatever reason, he gets out of his truck, makes sure Nate is strapped in to his child’s seat, and leaving the heater running, follows the deer out into the woods.

You can guess that wasn’t a very smart idea. When Ethan returns to the truck, Nate is gone. He searches through the woods fruitlessly, then races back to town, returning with a search party but Nate is nowhere to be found. It takes a little while but little Nate is eventually found, frozen to death. Of course, Ethan is devastated and the hot mess that is Cindy blames Ethan for her little boy’s demise.

The town is sharply divided by the event, some joining Cindy in blaming Ethan and calling for his arrest for negligence (a feeling that the prosecutor (Piven) shares) while others believe Ethan when he says he was gone for just a few minutes and that this was just one of those horrible things that could have happened to anyone.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the film examines the effects of a tragedy on a small town but the similarities end there. In the Egoyan film, the school bus accident that took the lives of a fair amount of children touched nearly every family in town; here, the directly affected are few. Still, the howls of Ethan’s grief are no less heart-wrenching no matter the number of children lost; in some ways the grief of a single person is more relatable than the grief of multiple people.

But the movie goes off the rails because of the excessive number of subplots which for the most part have no real bearing on the matter of hand. There is a lesbian couple (McGovern and Walsh) struggling for acceptance, with McGovern trying to win the affections of her own son (Domingues) who is also a horror show. The prosecutor has some deep dark secret that is motivating him to obsessively pursue an investigation that is tearing the town apart. A diner waitress (Sorvino) struggles to raise her own son on her own and happens to be Cindy’s best friend. Ethan’s best friend (Lawson) feels guilt over having been banging Cindy at the time of the incident.

All of these little subplots are enacted by characters whose only reason to be in the movie is to be involved in these subplots. They add no insight and don’t really enhance the story any. While the movie is beautifully shot with plenty of picturesque snow-covered vistas, the whole thing feels a bit like a soap opera more than a drama. While some of the scenes carry a good deal of emotional resonance, an equal number of scenes fall flat. This is as inconsistent a film as you’re likely to see.

Still, there is enough here that the movie is worth a casual glance if the opportunity presents itself although I wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into seeking it out. The deficiencies in the film’s story and script nearly (but don’t quite) exceed the movie’s emotional impact.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the scenes work. Evocative. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes don’t. Heavy-handed and plodding. Soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, strong language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was titled Abandoned in the UK.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with Dekker and Sorvino.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $832 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Baby Gone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Creed

We Are Marshall


They are Marshall.

They are Marshall.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Warner Brothers) Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Katie Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Tommy Cresswell, Christian Kanupke, Nina Jones, Kevin Atkins, Mark Patton, Robert Patrick, Katie Kneeland Directed by McG

The American Experience 2015

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane carrying the football team of Marshall University, the Thundering Herd, back to Huntington WV where the University is following a loss to the East Carolina Pirates clipped some trees on the approach to the runway and crashed into a gully a mile from landing safely. Every one of the 75 souls on that plane died in the horrific, fiery crash.

It remains the worst loss of life regarding an American sports team in history but it was more than that. Along with almost the entire Marshall football team, the plane carried the athletic director for the university, four trainers, all but one of the coaches, a state legislator, a city councilman, four physicians and 25 boosters. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash and 18 were orphaned.

The effect on the community was devastating. Huntington was then (and is now) a small college town; much of the town’s life revolves around the university and their football team, though it had been mediocre in recent years, still was a source of pride to the town. With the town paralyzed by grief, Marshall’s acting president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) was ready to discontinue the football program. However, Nate Ruffin (Mackie), a wide receiver who hadn’t gone on the trip to East Carolina due to an injury, convinced Dedmon (with the help of the student body) to keep the team.

The surviving coach, Red Dawson (Fox) was offered the head coach position but was too grief-stricken to accept. After a long, fruitless search, Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) from tiny Wooster College, was given the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. Essentially, they’d be starting a team from scratch, utilizing athletes from other sports at the University and former members of the Junior Varsity. Dedmon, at Lengyel’s urging, petitioned the NCAA to allow freshmen to be eligible to play on the Varsity. At the time, Freshmen were forbidden to play for the Varsity, the line of thought being that they didn’t have the maturity to handle the pressures of big time college athletics and that a year adjusting to college life would be more beneficial; the NCAA has since changed their rules on that matter.

Still, it would be an uphill battle and everyone knew that the team would be just awful that year. Would a team woefully unqualified truly be able to honor the memory of those who had died, or would they tarnish it? Is just stepping on the field enough?

While We Are Marshall disappointed at the box office when it was released, it has since become something of an icon of the true sports drama genre. Certainly the story is compelling enough; watching an entire town and university grieve for an unimaginable tragedy is almost mind-boggling. Even now, almost a decade after the movie came out, I still mist up just thinking about it.

For the most part, McG handles the tragedy with sensitivity. For one thing, he doesn’t show the actual crash, just the aftermath. He doesn’t beat the audience over the head with grief, although certainly the grieving process is a part of the film’s story. Less is more in this case.

McConaughey at the time this was made was best known for romantic comedies in which he usually found an excuse to take his shirt off. In many ways, this was the movie that led us to reconsider our opinion about the actor and reveal that there was more to him than a laid-back romantic lead. The guy can act, as was revealed more recently with an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination.

There are some other performances here that are worth knowing. McShane plays a University trustee in favor of discontinuing football; his son – the starting quarterback – had died in the crash and in many ways his grief had overwhelmed him. Fox is outstanding as Dawson, a man with survivor’s guilt who slowly comes on board with the idea of resuming his life. Mackie’s Ruffin provides leadership for the team and University. Strathairn gives Dedmon gravitas and the reliable character actor is at the top of his game here.

One of the few things I can fault the film for is its dialogue. It doesn’t sound like human beings talking; it’s mostly a series of inspirational quotes. I would have preferred fewer platitudes and more realistic conversation. While it might have looked good in the script, it creates a gulf between audience and character that is unnecessary; we really want to relate to them and it’s harder to when they sound like Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s final speech.

That said this is one of the most moving sports films ever made, right up there with Hoosiers and The Miracle. Some might find it to be manipulative – the subplot involving Katie Mara’s waitress character (she was the fiance of Ian McShane’s son) certainly is – but overall I thought the movie comes by its emotional impact honestly. It can take more courage to get up in the morning and move on with your life than it does to step onto a battlefield, and in the face of overwhelming grief, the courage and heart of an entire town and University is to be admired.

WHY RENT THIS: McConaughey breaks out as a dramatic actor. Deeply moving and effective subject matter. Handled with reverence and respect.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subplots are occasionally manipulative and the characters tend to speak in platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: The material can be very emotional and those who are sensitive about such things should probably steer clear. There’s also some mildly harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While much of the movie was filmed in Huntington, the stadium that the Thundering Herd played in back in 1971 – Fairfield Stadium – had been demolished in 2004. The filmmakers used Herndon Stadium in Atlanta for Marshall’s home games in the movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray both include an ad for West Virginia tourism, a featurette on legendary college coaches and what techniques they used to motivate their students and a brief look at Marshall University today.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.6M on a $65M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld