Thursday, October 17, 2019

ROBERT EGGERS' PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER "THE LIGHTHOUSE" CHARTS A COURSE FOR MADNESS

Original caricature by Jeff York of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in THE LIGHTHOUSE.
(copyright 2019)
Filmmaker Robert Eggers reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe. His movies are filled with gloom and doom and madness. Like Poe, Eggers too fancies dramatizing the horror of confined spaces, bullheaded protagonists, and compulsive behavior. In THE WITCH, a stubbornly religious family’s pride kept them from seeing all the tempestuous goings-on around their 1630s farmhouse until it was too late, and the devil took ahold of each of them. In THE LIGHTHOUSE, a prideful man lets the tempestuous goings-on at a remote lighthouse on the eastern seaboard slowly but surely drive him to madness. Poe would be very proud.

THE LIGHTHOUSE, co-written by Eggers and his brother Max, is set in the 1890s and starts with two new lighthouse attendants shipping into a remote island to man the lighthouse there. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the gruff and bushy-bearded veteran, while Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a walrus-mustached newbie. They’re there to replace another male duo who just finished a month-long stint. The four men cross each other, two coming up the hill, two going down it, saying nothing to each other, like ships passing in the night. The symbolism is exceedingly clever.

Immediately upon getting there, Wake takes charge, instructing Winslow on what his tasks are and most of it is the most awful kind of menial labor. Winslow must haul all their supplies, clean the small cottage where they're staying, and even carry the buckets filled with their feces and urine down the hill each morning. At one point he even has to paint the lighthouse, precariously hanging from a few ropes being held by Wake. It doesn't end well.

Wake, on the other hand, hogs all the important jobs. Only he is allowed in the top of the lighthouse, and he takes charge at mealtime too, cooking whatever he sees fit to feed them. At first, Winslow struggles just to get used to the schedule, the chilly weather, and all the different odd jobs he must manage each day. He’s not fond of Wake’s bossiness or bluster, nor his tendency towards flatulence, but the young man nonetheless tries to connect with him as friends. They share some tales, sing some sea chanteys together, and compare their pasts.

It turns out Winslow has had all kinds of vocations, none lasting more than a few months, and a history of never staying in one place very long. Wake chalks it up to Winslow's youthful immaturity, but there's something more to it. Winslow's demeanor would suggest a strong anti-authoritarian streak, and very likely, a history of violence to go along with it.

Winslow resists Wake's attempts to get him to drink more and more, as it's clear he has trouble holding his liquor.  But he caves, and the more Winslow drinks, the more his mind starts to run away with all kinds of paranoia and suspicion. What goes on up at the top of the lighthouse becomes an obsession with the young man as he imagines all sorts of crazy things. He even imagines Wake having sex with some sort of tailed sea monster up there while manning the light. 

Soon enough, the job, the resentment, and the enclosed spaces all start to get to Winslow. Making matters worse each day is how Wake barks his orders and constantly reminds Winslow of his lower station. The younger man doesn’t like being treated like a lackey and his rage boils. His drinking accelerates, his imagination runs wild, and soon enough, he’s completely losing his grip. Is that an actual mermaid he sees splayed out on the rocks, beckoning him for sex? Are the seagulls purposely tormenting him? And is the inclement weather pinning them down inside just happenstance, or is it the work of a vengeful God or even the devil who wants to drive them mad in their inescapable claustrophobia?

In many ways, the story reminds one of Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART, and indeed Eggers did make a short film of that legendary story in 2008. Here, the old man with the eye is replaced by Wake, whose crotchety style, grunting, and farting start to grate on Winslow’s nerves. Their surroundings become a prison to Winslow and soon enough he even imagines Wake wanting to kill him. For a job that supplies light for passing ships, Winslow's world gets darker and darker.

This is a two-hander essentially, as the mermaid (a bewitching and comely Valeriia Karaman) is only seen fleetingly during some of Winslow’s fever dreams, and the two men are exceptional. Dafoe can do macho bluster in his sleep, but here he pushes his performance to the edge of being irritating, showing a man who isn’t aware of just how selfish he’s become over the years. His performance is funny, sometimes monstrous, and always fascinating. 

Pattinson, employing a heavy east coast accent, knows how to brood and glower like he has a master’s degree in it, but here, he’s more vulnerable than he’s ever been. His unraveling is very gradual, and it's a superbly calculated performance from the first second to last. And yet, through it all, he keeps us hoping for the best for him. In fact, your heart will break a little as he goes madder and madder. 

One does wish that Eggers had expanded his comfort zone as much as his two leads. As he did in THE WITCH, he proves he’s an excellent filmmaker who knows how to light, write, and pull great performances out of his cast. Eggers knows how to build dread and create bizarre tableaus to terrify an audience. Still, he is a touch too restrained, showing an artist’s elegance even when he’s showing a pile of dead fish. At times, you wish he’d go a little mad too, lose some of the restraint, the “just-so” of his framing. 

It’s great that Eggers fancies darker material and he’s expert at creating psychological horror that showcases man as monsters that far eclipse any in the sea or on land. Eggers is very much a modern-day Poe, but one who could stand to show a little more of that writer's madness. Eggers' movies are exquisite; he just needs to let ‘em rip more. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

FILMMAKER PEDRO ALMODOVAR'S "PAIN AND GLORY" IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2019

Original caricature by Jeff York of Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodovar of PAIN AND GLORY.
(copyright 2019)
Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers so it's no surprise that I really enjoyed his latest film PAIN AND GLORY. Starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, it's a semi-autobiographical look at a Spanish film director looking at his past, as well as trying to forge his way into the future. 

It's not only my favorite films so far this year, but it's easily one of 2019's very best!

I wrote a review of it for Creative Screenwriting here: http://bit.ly/2M8tuLy and I drew the caricature of Banderas and Almodovar that accompanies this post, of course. Enjoy!

Friday, October 11, 2019

THE NEW CARTOON “THE ADDAMS FAMILY” DOES THE PROPERTY PROUD IN A SNAP-SNAP


Most animated movies aimed at kids must also appeal to their parents. After all, if the chaperones aren’t amused, they’ll likely not return for another Cineplex viewing when their children plead to see it again. The great thing about the new computer-animated film based on cartoonist Charles Addams’ THE ADDAMS FAMILY is that it will appeal equally to adult audiences due to its avid homage to the classic 1960s TV series. This adaptation borrows heavily from the show, not to mention parts of the 1991 cult classic ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES as well, yet this take has its own energy and originality as well. With all that going for it, this reboot should easily appeal to a wide audience. 

For those who haven’t a clue about the eccentric clan, the film does a sly and swift job of setting up the premise. Gomez Addams (voiced by Oscar Isaac) and his new bride Morticia (voiced by Charlize Theron), have barely finished their nuptials when the local townsfolk chase them out of town for being, well, creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky. Gomez could pass for merely a sinister businessman in pinstripes, but Morticia? Hell, she evokes Dracula’s bride with her deathly pallor and raven-haired looks. 

As the two oddball newlyweds drive over hill and dale to escape the mob, Thing, their right-hand man, er hand, tries to direct them to find shelter. Their car ends up hitting a body lying in the middle of the road. Gomez and Morticia delight in hitting something, a joke that may get lost on the kiddies, but it’s an excellent example of this film’s willingness to employ very adult gallows humor. 

Their ‘victim’ is Lurch, a hulking 7 ft. tall Frankenstein’s monster-lookalike who they find wrapped in a straight-jacket. He’s escaped from the recently closed asylum up the hill, and before you know it, the Addams’ roll into the massive mansion and make it their home. Lurch quickly becomes their manservant and displays talent on the organ as well. Together with Thing, the two plunk out various tunes, including Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” before plunking out Vic Mizzy’s iconic TV theme song. (Da-da-da-dun SNAP SNAP!) 

This wonderfully energetic exposition, that surges through the birth and childhood of the Addams’ two children Wednesday (voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (voiced by Finn Wolfhard) as well, takes up only about 10 minutes of screen time. From there, the rest of the film bops along at an equally furious pace, tossing off tons of visual gags and throwaway one-liners with such abandon, audiences may need a second viewing just to catch them all. (More rewards for those returning chaperones, you see.) 

Grandmama (voiced by Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (voiced by Nick Krall) move in, and the film starts to tick a lot of boxes from the original Addams’ panel cartoons from the '40s and '50s, and even more from the TV take. Some of the homages that become major parts of the story include Gomez's love of fencing; Morticia’s French utterances engorging her husband’s libido; Uncle Fester playing human target for the kids' lethal hijinks, and the family house cat - a hungry lion - roaming from room to room. 

The voice characterizations are all splendid, with Isaac earning special kudos for playing up his Latino heritage for Gomez. Moretz does a sly riff on Christina Ricci as she gives every line reading an ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES flavor. Allison Janney also does clever work as the voice of Margaux Needler, the antagonist in the story. Needler’s a TV host of a fixer-upper show wanting to renovate the Addams’ haunted house to flip it. Any movie with a plot driver as home equity is a movie truly after an adult audience.

Where the film caters more to kids is in its dual stories centering on Wednesday and Pugsley. Wednesday befriends Needler’s daughter and promptly converts her into an Emo girl. Meanwhile, Pugsley is about to turn 13, driving Gomez to prepare festivities for his son's passage into manhood. It’s all sweet and affecting, without ever getting too maudlin or preachy. Nor does it get too macabre either, though Pugsley’s penchant for miniature bombs and dynamite may strike some as a bit insensitive for today's times. 

The trajectory of the story is fairly predictable with its message of inclusion, but it's nice to see the Addams convert the regular folks to their more open way of thinking, rather than condemn them. Screenwriters Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler, and Erica Rivinoja never dumb-down a gag or line, and they shrewdly utilize a lot of what’s worked for the franchise in the past. They’re also smart enough to write a lot of big visual set-pieces that simply could not have been done as live-action. 

The entire film feels a lot more intellectual than it had to be, but it's a pleasure to see such adult sophistication ladled throughout. That’s especially evident in the spectacular production design showcasing every nook and cranny of the Addams environment. Co-directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (veterans of SAUSAGE PARTY and SHREK 2) have done a terrific job of making what should be a crowd-pleaser, especially for the nostalgia set. The film's end credit sequence is even a shot-for-shot spoof of the TV show's original black and white opening credit and theme song. That was enough to make me want to see this film again in a snap-snap. AND I don’t even have kids.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

“THE FURNACE” IS A FIERCE AND INSPIRING TALE ABOUT KEEPING THE FAITH

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jamie Bernadette in THE FURNACE. (copyright 2019)
There is a surprising sunniness evident throughout THE FURNACE, the new movie about a handicapped long-distance runner facing the toughest race of her life. It permeates writer/director Darrell Roodt’s film in everything from the golden glow of its cinematography to the narrator’s warm, reassuring voice-over. It's a shrewd maneuver, cloaking a story about death and physical suffering in earnest optimism. And yet, it works, spectacularly, making for one of the most inspiring motion pictures this year.

THE FURNACE is the nickname for a grueling, week-long foot race across the wilds of the African bush in this fictional story, inspired by true events, and it becomes the main focus of central character Mary Harris (Jamie Bernadette). She's not only an avid runner, itching for such a challenge, but the race might be the only way for her to rise out of her deep depression. She's been demoralized since her new husband Matt perished in a freak car accident at Christmas, one that gravely injured her as well, leaving her with just one lung. Mary now struggles to breathe, using a respirator and oxygen tank to aid her intake. She also has eschewed God, blaming him for taking her husband from her.  

The race is a way to honor Matt too, as the young couple planned to run it together. Mary even clings to the special running shoe he bought for her as the last vestige of her connection to her husband. Ultimately, the race is more than just a symbol of her marriage like that shoe; it's a journey back to her better, healthier self. 

THE FURNACE, written by Roodt and co-screenwriter P.G. de Jonge, is a salvation story, as well as an underdog tale, but there's artistry here seldom seen in such material. For starters, the film's script is very clever, mixing up timelines, reveals, flashbacks, and fantasies, to keep the viewers on their toes. This is not a typical A to B narrative and the sophistication of the writing is apparent in every scene.

Next, the cinematography is gorgeous and looks like the movie costs ten times what it likely did. The sumptuousness of it all is particularly evident in the multitude of outdoor location scenes. Cinematographer Justus de Jager has created some of the most stunning tableaus in any film of 2019. The editing, score, and sound design are superior attributes here as well.  

Still, as good as all those production values are, this type of film sinks or swims depending on how well the underdog role is pulled off. In Jamie Bernadette, Roodt has hit pay dirt. She makes Mary a winner long before she participates in that challenging race. Bernadette creates a complex protagonist, one that's developed much deeper than most such characters. Her Mary is wry, honest, sexy, soulful, and scarily steely when she has to be. Those dark, glaring eyes come in particularly handy when she needs to face down some wild animals along the race path, and stare them down she does. 

Bernadette has gained a stellar reputation in Hollywood as the go-to-girl in the horror genre. She’s done excellent work in many a frightener, including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE: DEJA VU this past spring. Bernadette always gives 100% to such material, making audiences believe every second of sheer hell she’s going through. Here, her Mary goes through hell and more, and Bernadette does a masterful job conveying all the physical demands her character faces. Yet, just as compelling is how the actress conveys her character's growing confidence, as well as the pluck and wit she employs to confront adversity. She's a fascinating woman; no wonder the cemetery gravedigger (Luthuli Dlamini) can’t help but be drawn to her when he happens upon her visiting her husband's grave. 

Coffin, as he cleverly asks Mary to call him, has his own tragic story as well. The African transplant lost his entire family to a civil war back in his country, but the wise sage remains an optimist nonetheless. Coffin even accepts that his MD license doesn't translate in America, leaving him stuck in the menial labor job at the cemetery. His upbeat attitude inspires Mary all the more to run the Furnace, and soon, she's employing him as her coach and muse.  

The film could’ve spent a lot of time showing Coffin guide Mary in building up her strength and stamina, but filmmaker Roodt wisely truncates such scenes. Even after Mary lands in the hospital, exhausted from a small race in her hometown, Roodt doesn’t spend much time milking the pathos. Instead, he moves the narrative along briskly, getting Mary and Coffin together in Africa and ready to run by the 30-minute mark.

Here is where Roodt spends the rest of the film and pulls out all the stops with his creative team. Everything is shot on location, there are no recognizable green-screen effects, and that's really Bernadette running over hill and dale, doing a ton of stunt work. Indeed, she interacts with the wildlife along the way in one scene after another that will leave audiences, dare I say, breathless.   

The landscapes are lush, lit naturally, and Roodt smartly highlights Mary’s appreciation of her surroundings as she runs too. (The giddy expression on Bernadette’s face as Mary gawks in awe at a cluster of zebras is adorable.) Meanwhile, Coffin follows her journey, tagging along with track officials, to meet her at the markers during the lengthy race. 

Dlamini is the warm narrator that starts off the film, and he continues to provide a sort of play-by-play for us of the highlights of Mary's journey. His baritone has a Morgan Freeman type of gravitas to it, and he works wonders with a line, even when they tend towards being on-the-nose. (‘Sorrow looks back. Worry looks around. And faith looks up.”) But more often than not, Roodt relies on the actions of his actors, not their words, to tell the story. 

One of Bernadette’s best physical bits is when Mary is stung by a scorpion and starts to hallucinate. Mary frets and stumbles around, discombobulated, yet trying to gain back control over her mind and body. She even ends up carrying on a conversation with herself, just this side of delusional, as if she's confiding with a girlfriend at a bar. It could've played as silly. Instead, the accomplished actress makes her character's plight incredibly touching.

Because this is a salvation story, there’s a lot of discussion of God and faith throughout, particularly with a true believer Mary meets at the race, played by an insinuating Laura Linn. This fellow runner will help Mary realize, along with the spiritually-driven Coffin, that such a journey requires faith in God as well as herself. Sometimes the moralizing can get a little heavy-handed, but by and large, it lands. Still, an over-the-top visual towards the end probably goes a smidge too far, but damn if it didn't give me goosebumps anyway.   

THE FURNACE inspires, not only with its message about faith but in how impressively this modest feature delivers the goods. This film, opening October 15th in select theaters and on VOD, is shot with verve and performed with passion, its heart unabashedly on its sleeve. I can think of no better place for it to be worn.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

JOKER GETS THE LAST LAUGH WITH A RECORD OCTOBER OPEN OF $94 MILLION DOMESTIC

Original caricature by Jeff York of Joaquin Phoenix as JOKER. (copyright 2019)
The controversial take on the clown prince of crime proved that polarization doesn't necessarily hinder box office receipts. Indeed, Todd Phillips' JOKER may have been too intriguing for even those fearing the worst with what he'd done with the Batman villain's origins story. Though the film at present is resting at a 69% (certified fresh) rating at RottenTomatoes.com, it brokes all kinds of box office records for autumn, including a $234 million worldwide take and a heartily endorsing Cinemascore of B+.

I, myself, gave it a very positive review at Creative Screenwriting, and I urge you to read it there as it evaluates why this take is so dark and what such themes of psychopathy and society play in making men into monsters. In many respects, its origin story is closer to that of Charles Manson or Richard Ramirez, more than previous takes on the mobster whose permanent grin was forged by an unfortunate drop into a vat of chemicals. 

JOKER won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks back, and Empire magazine, the UK's top film magazine, named it the best film of the year too. We'll see how the critics and Oscar feel about it in the next few months, but suffice it to say, the film is causing a stir. Additionally, Joaquin Phoenix's intensely riveting performance is sure to be an awards contender. His portrayal of the lost soul in JOKER, driven to depression, despair, and violence, could almost be part of a loneliness triptych shared with his work in THE MASTER (2012) and HER (2013).

As I often do with films I admire, I caricatured Phoenix in this now seminal role as you can see in the illustration that accompanies this article. If you see JOKER, don't hesitate to share your comments here, good or bad. It may be a polarizing film but it's certainly got cinema fans talking and tweeting! 




Thursday, October 3, 2019

THE CHICAGO INDEPENDENT FILM CRITICS CIRCLE IS NOW THE CHICAGO INDIE CRITICS

Hello friends and followers! 

As you are probably aware, I have been an original charter member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle since its inception in 2016. Since that time, our group of critics has grown exponentially, and we've given out our annual years three times now. When we awarded Spike Lee three awards last year for BLACKKKLANSMAN, he used our accolade in the "For Your Consideration" ads the film ran in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety during Oscar season.  

You may have also noticed that our URL is chicagoindiecritics.org. That's a much shorter and catchier moniker, and thus, our group has officially changed our name to that. So, from now on, we are the Chicago Indie Critics. You can follow all 20 of our critics here at our redesigned website: https://chicagoindiecritics.org

Oh, and here's our spiffy new logo!


Friday, September 27, 2019

“JUDY” STRUGGLES TO BRING AN ICON TO LIFE



“A is for effort,” as the saying goes, but as a work of cinema or a truly affecting biopic, director Rupert Goold’s JUDY doesn’t quite make the grade. The production values are strong, star Renee Zellweger gives it her all, and the story of Judy Garland is an inherently compelling one, but this take on her life comes up short. It simply doesn’t go deep enough and fails to truly illuminate her backstory, her talent, or what made her the icon that she was and still remains today, 50 years after her tragic death by an accidental barbiturate overdose.

Goold’s missteps start with using screenwriter Tom Edges’ adaption of the controversial 2012 stage production END OF THE RAINBOW by Peter Quilter. The play told the story of the final weeks of Judy Garland’s life in London when she was performing at the famed nightclub The Talk of the Town. The work had as many fans as it did distractors, and genuine Judy aficionados were more inclined to be wholly outraged by its overemphasis on her drug use and the host of inaccuracies and other liberties taken with Garland’s biography in it. Granted, a play or a film can take license with genuine history, but in both the play and this screenplay, there are too many instances of it that seem like cheap shots and they end up seriously marring the telling. 

The film also skimps on a lot of basic back story that would help in one's viewing. Few of us are Garland aficionados and yet so much of this film assumes we all know oodles about her checkered history as a child star, the battles she had with men and money, and the star’s steep career decline in the last decade of her life. JUDY just plops us down into the middle of all of it, eschewing proper exposition in favor of bite-sized, and inflammatory introductory bits. Maybe the movie ROCKETMAN approached Elton John’s life with too much of a primer take, but at least it gave the audience a proper sense of that superstar’s life starting with his childhood. JUDY doesn’t, favoring shock value over context from the very start. 

Right off the bat, the film starts out with a vicious monologue by MGM mogul L.B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) as he dresses down a young Judy (Darci Shaw) on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ. By his tone, we’re supposed to gather she’s been stalling the production and making trouble. The film was plagued by oodles of production problems, but the way Mayer insults her looks, talent, and level of professionalism, you’d think Garland was the Wicked Witch herself. It doesn’t help that Shaw looks to be about 11 when Garland was 17 at the time and a rather womanly 17 at that. It also hurts that Shaw looks nothing like Garland, or Zellweger for that matter, and projects nothing of Judy’s essence. This misguided scene starts off the movie on a horrendously ugly note, going out of its way to play “dramatically,” but instead it comes off more like tabloid hysteria.  

From there, we’re introduced to the adult Garland as she performs in a cheap club with her two children, earning a measly 150 bucks for her song and dance. Zellweger’s physical transformation is impressive, and she captures Garland’s blend of heart-on-her-sleeve earnestness mixed with a superstar’s haughtiness. Even so, the script undercuts her by short-changing the explanation of why she’s struggling to find work, what ruined her finances or any salient details about the relationship she has with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). He’s portrayed here as a sinister gangster-type, little more, even though that’s far too simplistic a take on the complex man whom she was married to for 13 years, served as her manager, and produced her lauded remake of A STAR IS BORN. 

The film fails to flesh out such details properly, missing an opportunity to set the record straight and illuminate Garland's financial troubles due to her corrupt agents Freddie Fields and David Begelman. They not only mismanaged her money, they even embezzled her personal funds. The script also plays fast and loose with Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), Judy and Sid’s daughter. Ramsey is a petite actress, yet she’s made up and photographed in JUDY to look even younger, coming off like a child of maybe 12. In actuality, Luft was 16 during the film’s time period of 1969, and very aware of all that was going on around her. 

JUDY is more successful when the story moves to Garland's five-week run at the London cabaret later that year. There, the film takes an uptick, showcasing her command on stage, and balancing good moments with bad in the portrayal of her backstage machinations. Zellweger is particularly effective in the scenes with Garland’s handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, wonderful in a tricky role) as she struggles to handle the pressures of being a headliner there. The scenes between the two women crackle with suspense and feeling as Wilder both plays confidante and nanny to her charge and her many moods.  

Less successful is how the film presents Garland’s fifth and final husband Mickey Deans. As played by Finn Wittrock, he’s a handsome scoundrel and little else. Even when he and Judy are playing happy newlyweds, Wittrock is directed to leer out from under his brows and it makes him too easy of a bad guy. Same with Sewell, who comes to visit London and reads each of his lines as if he was directed to hiss them. It’s clear Goold is siding with Judy against these two men, but it begs the question why she'd ever marry such two-dimensional villains. 

Zellweger insisted on doing her own singing, and she’s got a good voice, but she cannot convey Garland’s command or timbre wholly onstage. One of the things that made Garland such a star was that even though she was only 4’11”, her voice made her seem ten feet tall. Even with her health issues, Garland’s contralto remained clear and bold. The film showcases musical numbers onstage a half dozen times and despite Zellweger’s best efforts, it would’ve helped the audience understand Judy’s prowess better if the Oscar-winning actress had chosen to lip-synch instead.

That’s what Judy Davis did in the 2001 ABC miniseries JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS, and it helped to make for a more accurate performance. Davis won an Emmy for her efforts, as did ingenue Tammy Blanchard for rendering the young Garland so vividly as well, but both were wise enough to not attempt Garland’s distinct singing voice. Of course, that production also had six hours to tell the tale and came off fuller than JUDY, a mere 118 minutes. Still, the film should’ve managed its narrative better, spending less time on the songs that don’t quite resonate as they should, and more on getting the facts and nuance right.

Ironically, for all of the missed opportunities to present the actual history of Garland, et al. more accurately, the film works best in its one completely fictional scene. Garland befriends a gay couple who have frequented her show numerous times, joining them for a late supper at their flat. There, she bonds with them, especially Dan (a splendid Andy Nyman) as he talks about the difficulties of living as someone whom society diminishes. Judy all too readily relates because she too has been belittled in so many ways, starting with Mayer and the demands of Hollywood way back when. This film makes a valiant attempt at showing the human side of the superstar, but despite courageous work by Zellweger, the story simply misses too much of Judy. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

JULIE ANDREWS IS THE 48TH RECIPIENT OF THE AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Original caricature by Jeff York of Julie Andrews in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. (copyright 2019)

The AFI Life Achievement Award is a career award that has often courted controversy. The trustees of the American Film Institute notoriously gave the award to Tom Hanks in 2002, when he was merely 45. The award has never gone to a screenwriter unless he was also a director. And perhaps most notoriously, they’ve only honored one artist who wasn’t an actor or director, and that was composer John Williams in 2016. This year, there’s little argument to be had in debating the merits of their choice as the 48th recipient – actress Julie Andrews. She is wholly worthy if not a slightly surprising choice this late in the game. 

Some, including yours truly, thought that perhaps the AFI had overlooked Andrews. After all, the trustees have ignored many worthy artists over the decades – Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Edith Head, Ernest Lehman, William Holden, Robert Redford, and Michael Caine, just to name seven - and with the latest recipients being younger ones like George Clooney and Denzel Washington, it appeared that they may have forgotten about the 83-year-old Andrews. Fortunately, that was not the case. Indeed, Andrews lives up to the ideals of the AFI award better than most, and it was wise for the trustees to backtrack and honor someone whose career started onscreen back in the 1940s.

The two tenets that are supposed to determine the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award choices are fundamentally advancing the art of film and big screen achievements that have stood the test of time. Andrews has done both demonstrably. Many of her films, like MARY POPPINS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, 10, and VICTOR/VICTORIA are esteemed and beloved classics. Andrews is one of those rarest of rare talents who have become iconic. This is in part due to her talent, persona, and ability to pull off comedy, drama, romance, thrillers, and musicals. She's also quite simply, one helluva actress.

Andrews is also a one-of-a-kind-star, one whom there is simply no other like. Name one actress in the history of film who has such a unique combination of intelligence, grace, bearing, wholesomeness, sexiness, a four-octave range, and a sense of continual joie de vivre to her approach in life. You cannot. The fact that she’s British only ensures all the more that she is a singular sensation. 

She has won all kinds of major awards during her career, including an Academy Award, a BAFTA, five Golden Globes, three Grammys, two Emmys, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kennedy Center Honors Award. In addition to her big-screen work, she was a major music hall performer as a child, the original Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY and Queen Guinevere in CAMELOT on the Broadway stage, as well as the original CINDERELLA for Rodgers and Hammerstein on television in 1957. (That musical special was seen live by over 100 million viewers.)

Of course, Andrews holds a special place in audiences’ hearts because she was very likely the first movie star that millions upon millions of children fell in love with due to her endearing and enduring performances as MARY POPPINS and Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Singing dozens of classic songs like “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Do-Re-Mi,” who from age eight to 80 didn't fall in love with her? I know I did. And that love hasn't wavered in over five decades. 

I’ve taken issue before with the AFI trustees for their choices and snubs, but this selection I wholeheartedly endorse. Julie Andrews deserves this incredible honor and I can hardly wait to see her receive it next April. Bravo!

Friday, September 20, 2019

"AD ASTRA" EXPLORES THE OUTER REACHES OF SPACE AND THE INNERMOST FEELINGS OF MAN



The title AD ASTRA is Latin for “to the stars.” Perhaps it’s a touch on-the-nose for a space travel adventure, but this is more of a character study anyway. The outer edges of the galaxy may be where Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) may travel in search of his long-lost astronaut father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), but his truest exploration is one of introspection. That’s not to say that the spaceman’s adventures aren’t exciting. They are, but filmmaker James Gray’s latest movie is more intellectual than visceral. Still, it's a film that is both intensely thrilling and profoundly moving. 

The story, taking place in the not too distance future, starts off with Roy acing some astronaut duties while scaling a space station. Suddenly, an unknown surge of energy shakes the super-structure like an earthquake. Ginormous pieces plummet, NASA employees fall to their deaths, and Roy himself takes a nasty tumble. His cool-head prevails though as he manages to grab a beam to break his fall. The ever-responsible Roy even manages to save some of the structure from further destruction. He understands NASA’s investments and his responsibilities to the program are baked into his core.

From there, Roy is called upon by his government to put himself in harm’s way once again. The brass identifies the surge coming from the outer regions of  the planet Neptune and they suspect its source is a spaceship thought lost 15 years ago. That vessel’s mission was to find new life in the galaxy, and it was manned by Roy’s legendary astronaut father. When earth lost contact with the ship over a decade ago, everyone assumed that the crew aboard perished, including Clifford. Now, his son must fathom that his dad may still be alive while he works against the clock to save planet Earth from another destructive surge.  

It’s a steep ask, but Roy is all about the job. And as he travels to the outer reaches of space, the veteran astronaut is constantly being monitored on whether he’s up to the task. Much is made about Roy’s heart rate never rising above 80 during recorded crisis’ and indeed, Roy is as cool as a cucumber even when his adventures encounter moon pirates, unexpected explosions, and other obstacles. 

But as he journeys farther through the galaxy, Roy also burrows deeper into his memories and emotions. He dwells on the final days of his broken marriage - Liv Tyler cameos as his wife - as well as past conflicts with his dad when he was a boy. Roy’s cool starts to crack even more when he discovers that the government hasn’t been wholly honest with him about the mission, and some he encounters who are supposed to be friends turn out to be foes. Still, he remains resolute and even stoic, never losing control of his emotions or the mission despite all the distractions. 

Much has been made about Roy’s stoicism during the film’s press junket, including a perception that such astronaut-themed films are chock full of “toxic masculinity.” (Brad Pitt has commented explicitly on this in interviews.) The themes at play here are more complex than that, most notably in the examination of the incredible commitment it takes to be an astronaut. Life is on the line every moment an astronaut is in space, even more so with a mission to save the planet as Roy is handed. This film is much more about exploring the limits of control and honor. 

Brad Pitt is having quite a summer, already being talked up as the odds-on favorite to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Don’t be surprised if he nets a Best Actor nomination for this film too, as he brings incredible gravitas and poignancy to the role. The fact that he does so much with very few words makes his acting achievement all the more striking. There are few actors today who can hold the screen as well as he does. 

Gray’s script, co-written with Ethan Gross, is as minimalist as Roy in its way. It too is serious and economical, never overdoing a set piece or a scene’s dialogue. Secondary characters, played by the likes of Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, have good moments onscreen, but they’re fleeting. They recede from focus as Roy concentrates on his mission, eschewing passersby from his focus. The special effects are terrific, as is the moody score, without ever being “showy.” All the better to complement the character study, rather than overwhelm it with grandeur.  

There are many surprises throughout the story, including some vivid violence, and a significantly higher body count than one would imagine for such a cerebral sci-fi adventure. But then again, this story is all about the costs that come with such a dangerous profession. It's not toxic masculinity, it’s every day at the office for jobs that asks people to put their lives on the line, be they soldiers, the police, or astronauts. Some careers are just more demanding than others as this enthralling film showcases.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"HUSTLERS" EARNESTLY STRUTS ITS STUFF


A film chock full of strip club scenes might seem like unusual material for a female filmmaker to helm, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria knows that the story of HUSTLERS isn’t about sex any more than a strip club is. Both are about power dynamics. Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article about how a group of savvy Big Apple strippers scammed a bunch of Wall Street wolves out of major bucks, Scafaria brings the material to life as a rollicking caper with heavy feminist overtones. She may overdo some of the sexual politics and underdo some of the characterizations, but it’s never less than earnest and involving, half OCEAN’S ELEVEN and half GOODFELLAS.  

Scafaria’s script starts in 2007 with Destiny (Constance Wu) struggling to fit in at the big-time, financial district strip club where she’s just been hired. Having to interact with grabby, drooling pervs in $3,000 suits makes her wince, almost as much as watching her earned cash get swiped by the male club management at the end of a shift. Fortunate for her, Destiny will soon be taught how to keep more money, as well as her dignity intact, when she befriends the veteran performer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona is the walking personification of power in such a place, strutting her stuff, earning her dough and keeping it, and keeping a cool head above it all. It's not for nothing that we never see Ramona get wholly naked in the story. She's too big for it, as is the wise Scafaria who refuses to dwell on nudity, even during the dressing room scenes. 

Then, in 2008, a lot of the club’s Wall Street customers tank the global economy,  and suddenly, everyone has lost their shirts. Soon, the club is all but vacant, bleeding cash, and forcing Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls to try their hands at retail to make ends meet. The story lays it on a little thick too giving Destiny a debt-ridden grandma (Wai Ching Ho) to bail out, and Ramona is revealed to be a single mom with a grade-school daughter (Emma Batiz).

After barely making rent and paying their bills, the two besties cook up a scam where they’ll target some of their previous customers, party with them, slip them Mickey’s, and run up their credit cards while the dupes are half asleep. This works like a charm, earning the women thousands a night, with the men none the wiser or too embarrassed to report that they were out with strippers and couldn't remember all that occurred. 

It's a despicable con game, sure, but the movie regards such shenanigans as payback for these greedy shits robbing the populace of their savings, 401K’s, and livelihoods. Destiny, Ramona, and the other girls they soon employ into their grifting are merely leveling the playing field. Plus, most of their marks are cheating on their wives, misogynists, or rolling in dough – often, all three. Indeed, the film makes it all very on-the-nose when Ramona stridently points out that none of the Wall Street hoodlums ever went to jail for their 2008 sins. 

Scafaria is a good enough filmmaker, but too often she’ll underline or overdramatize to make her points. If she shows the gals walking in slow motion once to show the weight of their con, she repeats it a dozen times. A lot of her directorial technique owes a lot to Martin Scorsese, what with all the slow-motion, kinetic editing, roving camera, ambitious scale, and blending of all kinds of hit music on the soundtrack. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best they say, but sometimes it borders on a parody of GOODFELLAS in style and substance.

The director does draw sharp and memorable performances out of Wu and Lopez, particularly the latter who gives every scene her all. Lopez is real heart and soul of the piece despite being billed second, and it's her best screen work in eons. Unfortunately, Scafaria doesn’t do a lot with the other characters surrounding them. The men are all one-dimensional, and most of the women don’t have much that defines them either. In fact, the two main co-conspirators present in dozens of scenes seem to be given one singular trait by screenwriter Scafaria. Street-wise Mercedes (Keke Palmer) is sassy, and the nervous Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) throws up continually.

Even the usually terrific Julia Stiles comes up a little short in her role as a one-dimensional reporter earnestly tracking down the story. The scenes where she interviews Destiny are wholly unnecessary, and they drag down the picture. Strangely, these scenes are the only ones where Scafaria shows no visual dazzle. The camera is locked down and placed far too close to both Stiles and Wu as they discuss Destiny’s past transgressions. 

Still, even with those shortcomings, it’s nice to have Scafaria handling the material instead of some male director who'd exploit the material. Despite the world of stripping, there’s almost no nudity, no sex, and little time is even spent showcasing the dancers on the pole. What this filmmaker dwells in instead are the emotions of Destiny and Ramona during their tumultuous journey. 

At one point, Destiny has to get her daughter to school after a con goes wrong, and the exasperated mother rushes into school wearing her night garb of a mini skirt, thigh-high boots, and over-the-top accessories. The scene could’ve been played for laughs, what with all the other parents dropping their jaws at Destiny's trampy clothes, but Scafaria plays it for genuine pathos.  

It’s in moments like this, with its heart on the sleeve, er, tank, that the film is most successful. And in a movie that is all about power - giving it, taking it, and taking it back - these are the scenes that play out most potently. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

“IT: CHAPTER TWO” BETTERS THE FIRST FILM YET MAKES SIMILAR MISTAKES


If ever there was a horror film tailor-made for a sequel, IT was, well, it, as the source material book by Stephen King is bisected into two parts. The first half of the story tells of seven children in the small town of Derry, Maine battling an evil entity in 1957 that not only kills children but preys upon their fears as well, creating hallucinatory nightmares that lure them to their deaths. The second half of the story moves the period forward to 1984, where the same seven, now grown adults, must return to their hometown to battle the same entity that has returned. In 2017, the adaptation of the children’s story became a runaway box office hit. 

Now, in 2019, comes this obvious sequel entitled IT: CHAPTER  TWO. This new film improves upon some of the shortcomings of the first one, eliminating narrative confusion and raising the performances of the younger actors who perform here in new scenes filmed as flashbacks. It also doesn’t let Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) overstay his welcome this time. He’s a good villain, but there was too much of him in the first film. This one also delivers much bigger scares, and the adult leads make a real difference in grounding the stakes and making it all play believably. 

Still, there is an issue with the consistency of tone throughout, and indeed, that is always the issue in adapting Stephen King for the big or small screen. King writes earnestly, no matter how outlandish the scenario is, and some films and miniseries have been better at conveying that than others. John Carpenter ensured that a killer ‘58 Plymouth Fury seemed all too real in 1983’s CHRISTINE, whereas Stephen King himself failed to make trucks feel the same when he directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE just three years later. When this film remains earnest, it works well, treating all of the visions coming to life as legitimate and lethal. The film loses its grip on some of the seriousness in the last 30 minutes, which is shocking considering the previous two hours did a credible and sincere job of addressing King's themes of sexism, racism, homophobia, and small-town isolationism. 

Things start off promisingly at the start; however, with an intense scene that would devastate in any drama, let alone a horror/fantasy like this one. The second chapter starts with a hate crime, just like King did in the novel. Two gay men are beaten up outside the Derry town carnival by three bigoted, bullying teens. Watching these innocent men get pummeled in the streets is absolutely horrifying. Then, one of the gay men gets tossed off the bridge into the river by the thugs, and as they race away, the evil clown Pennywise shows up to retrieve their victim. The evil entity ends up feasting on the gay man's midsection, killing him, and it is an all-too painful reminder of how the first film began with six-year-old Georgie dying from Pennywise's similar attack in the storm drain. 

For a while, this second chapter embraces such darkness full throttle. Its psychological terror continues too with the “loser’s club” members now all struggling with being adults. Their traumas from the past have not been erased, even if they’ve tried to put Pennywise, the entity, and the vicious murders in Derry out of their mind. Bill (James McAvoy) may be a successful novelist, but he’s fighting for the artistic integrity of his work as his books get made into movies. Jokester Richie (Bill Hader) has turned into a bitter and selfish asshole of a stand-up, one who loathes himself even more than the audiences he performs for. Ben (Jay Ryan) may be a successful architect, but he still harbors a lot of the insecurities he carried as an overweight child. Eddie (James Ransmore) is a successful financier, but you’d never know it from his ‘woe is me’ persona. And Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is married to a rich man who beats her routinely.  

Mike (Isiah Mustafa), the narrator of the story, stayed in Derry, but he’s still haunted by small-town myopia and the history of Pennywise. He gets by, managing the library, and living in the ramshackle apartment in the attic atop the building. Mike knows it's Pennywise's handiwork when that gay man is murdered, so he summons the others back to honor their vow to fight the entity should "It" ever return. Only one of the seven fails to show up in Derry a few days later. The cowardly Stanley (Andy Bean) was so freaked out by Mike’s call, he slits his wrists to bleed out in the bathtub. 

So now, the remaining six must wrestle with not only the murdering supernatural forces coursing through Derry once again but with their own damaged lives as well. It makes for a psychological thriller with a lot at stake, and the filmmakers give the material their all. Occasionally, screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director Any Muschietti over-emphasize points that are clear as a bell, but their earnestness is admirable, as well as all the detail they put into almost every scene. The adult cast is terrific and never condescend to the pulpy parts of the material. Special kudos should go to Hader for ensuring we buy all the silliness of the scene where he's chased by a giant Paul Bunyan statue run amuck. He makes it believable and exciting, not to mention wholly terrifying.  

Even better is the scene where Beverly revisits her apartment and has a run-in with the entity masquerading as a kindly old lady living there. When Beverly is distracted, Muschietti shows the old woman shaking uncontrollably in the background, and at one point, crossing into another room stark naked. It's cheekily humorous and eerie as hell. And then when the entity suddenly emerges from the kitchen as a 10-foot graying monster grabbing for Beverly, it provides one of the very best jump-scares in a film in years. 

All of the actors, particularly Chastain, Mustafa, and McAvoy play it perfectly. Their commitment to the melodrama works keeps us invested even when the CGI goes over the top. Unfortunately, everything pretty much does during the last 30 minutes. It becomes bigger, sillier, and loses a lot of the earnest goodwill it's built up till then. Richie and Eddie start quipping back and forth, spitting out bad lines like they're in an Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner. Blood, sand, and comic cameos overwhelm the emotions at play. Even one character vamps Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” line from THE SHINING. 

When one major character gets stabbed in the face, and another in the chest, and yet they act like they are mere flesh wounds, the credibility of it all starts to seriously wane. Worse yet, the climax goes on and on and on, overstaying its welcome and going off in too many tangents including having too many characters have run-ins with their childhood counterparts. 

There are other missteps too. While all the characters are developed well, the town itself is mostly inert. It played a much more significant part in the book and the first film, but here it’s relegated to the background. Would a run-down movie theater still be standing? And why is the dilapidated old house still standing when it was already a real estate eyesore 27 years ago? There never seem to be any other townsfolk around, or police nearby, even with a mental patient on the loose. Indeed, some judicious editing should have been supplied to the adaptation starting with the elimination of the Henry Bowers B-storyline from the book.  

IT: CHAPTER 2 looks like money and will probably make a fortune. It has more genuine scares than most horror entries these days, and the serious themes kept intact from the book make for something deeper and richer compared to most frighteners. If only the earnest approach, and some genuine discipline, remained present in the third act. It would've been better if it had.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

THE NEW THRILLER "DON'T LET GO" TWISTS ITS MYSTERY INTO A MOBIUS STRIP


Writer/director Jacob Estes should be commended for making an earnest attempt to turn the mystery genre on its ear. For starters, he grounds his new film DON'T LET GO in the middle-class black community of Los Angeles, a setting that is rarely showcased in mainstream cinema. Next, his story touches on complex topics ranging from bipolar disorder to police corruption. Finally, he attempts to rework the all-too-tried-and-true clich├ęs of the genre into a heady mix of noir, parallel planes, and spiritualism. It’s a tall order, albeit one that ultimately strains under the weight of such ambitions. Still, it’s a noble effort that manages to earn points just for making more out of a mystery.

The story concerns a devoted LAPD detective named Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo) and his relationship with his sly niece Ashley (Storm Reid). They’ve always been close, but he’s become a stand-in father figure to her due to the problems his brother Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry) has with parenting. He’s a loving husband to Ashley, as well as his patient wife Susan (Shanelle Azoroh), but his history of problems with drugs and the law has rendered him unreliable.

One night, Ashley’s dad forgets to pick her up after a night out with friends at the movies. The stranded Ashley calls her “Uncle Jack” to come to get her, and he not only is there in a jiff, but he takes her to dinner at their favorite diner too. They bond over doodles and straight talk about her dad’s shortcomings. Ashley is wise beyond her years, and Jack confides in her almost like she’s an adult.

A few days later, Ashley calls Jack, and it’s a distress call. The feed breaks up, and their cell connection ends abruptly. Jack heads over to her house and to his horror finds out that Ashley, her parents, and even the family dog, have all been shot-gunned to death. Jack is devastated and can barely utter any words to Bobby (Mykelti Williamson), a fellow detective and family friend. The force recommends that Jack take some time off, but he spends a lot of time driving by the home and that restaurant, mourning the loss of his loved ones.

So far, so good. The characters are interesting. The carnage is devastating. And we want to know what happened to Ashley and her kin because she's a fun kid. (Not to mention that Storm Reid is such a likable talent.) Then, the film takes the first of its many twists and becomes much more than a moving story about family. It becomes supernatural when Jack gets repeated calls from Ashley on his cell. It’s definitely her calling, forcing the intrepid detective to dismiss any idea that someone is pranking him. Is this her ghost, an angel, what? 

Indeed, this highly rational and cool cucumber believes whole cloth that his niece is alive somehow, especially when he asks her to paint a red X on the garage where she lived, and then one shows up there almost by osmosis. Suddenly, we’re wondering if Jack is off his rocker, or if this is all an elaborate dream or fantasy. Estes keeps escalating the thrills and chills, and in Oyelowo and Reid, he has two terrific actors wholly committed to keeping all the fantastical happenings as grounded and believable as possible. 

But as the film enters its second hour, Estes starts to complicate the mystery with too many twists, too many red herrings, and too many unanswered questions. It seems that there are dual planes at work here, or some sort of Mobius strip of a timeline, where things that Jack does in his world affect events in Ashley’s and vice versa. That’s all compelling, keeping us on the edge of our seat, wondering what it all means, but excess elements start to build up and overwhelm the story. 

A late-breaking B story concerning police corruption that may involve Jack’s boss (Alfred Molina, always terrific) starts to take center stage. A couple of shoot-outs happen with a significant character who unbelievably still manages to run around even after getting severely wounded. Ashley is involved in some breathless chases, insisting on riding her kiddie bike when running away would be faster and allow her to hide with greater ease. Even a third plane of existence seems to be tossed into the mix and it renders the narrative all the more difficult to track.

Making a film that has multiple storylines that shift and move and turn around on itself is tricky business. Applying such twists to the all-too-predictable world of procedurals was an inspired idea, but Estes starts to lose control of his material in the last act. DON'T LET GO strives to usurp narrative convention in ways similar to David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE and Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, but there was more method to the madness in those films. Estes doesn’t need to explain why Ashley still exists on some plane of the universe, but it would be helpful if there was more order in such an existence. 

Ultimately, Estes has made an earnest, compelling, and well-acted film that may be too ambitious for its own good. There is much to applaud here, but also far too much that will make you scratch your head as well.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

“BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON” IS A CHARACTER-DRIVEN COMEDY THAT'S A SURE-FOOTED DELIGHT

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jillian Bell in the title role of BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. (copyright 2019)

Some movie comedies play as minor miracles. Those are the ones whose scripts zig when you think they’re going to zag. Their characterizations earn the laughs, rather than rat-a-tat punchlines. And they go to the darker places that you usually only find in dramas. Such films are a rare breed, but BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON is one. Its humor never feels jokey or hokey. The central character is much pessimistic than most leads. And despite the title, that namesake race isn’t the film's big finish. Throughout, this is a summer movie that consistently surprises and delights, never losing its footing throughout its running time. 

Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a drifting woman, cresting into her 30’s with no career, no ambition, and nary a friend. When she visits her doctor, feeling sluggish after too much fast food and partying, he informs her of a dangerous Body Mass Index and potential heart problems. Brit’s doc advises her to drop 55 pounds, which she dryly quips is like pulling a Siberian Huskie out of her. Brittany is resistant to the change, defaulting to smart-ass quips to avoid responsibility. Still, she doesn’t want to have a stroke or heart attack, so she starts an exercise regime. 

With that as the premise, there are so many predictable ways that this comedy could have gone. Fortunately, at almost every turn, writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo chooses the atypical. It starts with his approach to the main character. Instead of casting a cute-as-a-button ingenue and dressing her down, and then ensuring that she turns into a swan by story’s end, he goes with a far more exciting choice. Jillian Bell is a very talented and attractive actress, but she’s not a star (yet), and she has an ‘everywoman’ quality to her that both grounds and amplifies the material. With Bell in the title role, the film succeeds as a laugh-out-loud comedy, as well as a more in-depth and moving, character study.

Colaizzo usurps convention too by surrounding Brittany with a more unique supporting cast as well. Usually, a character like her glamorous roomie Gretchen (Alice Lee) would emerge as a key player, providing able support and comic zingers. Instead, Brittany recognizes social media butterfly Gretchen's selfishness early in the game and forges ahead to find a better support system. Indeed, part of Brittany’s journey of self-discovery is not only determining what she can do as an individual but in eliminating those who are already obstacles as well. 

Brittany makes new friends out of two fellow participants from the running group she’s joined. Catherine (a superbly underplaying Michaela Watkins) is a successful artist with a troubled past who lives in Brittany's building, and Seth (Micah Stock), a gay man who shares Brittany’s love/hate relationship with exercise. She also bonds with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an acerbic house-sitter she meets. All of these characters could have been stock ones, but Colaizzo writes them with more depth and surprising character attributes and flaws. Like Brittany, they’re three-dimensional people, not always likable, but still relatable.

And while Brittany sets up finishing the New York City Marathon as her ultimate goal, the movie isn’t as interested in it as the title would suggest. It’s all the other parts of Brittany’s momentum that become the focus of the story, a tale of incremental progress. She finds a decent job, but not a great one. She learns to open up with people, but not entirely. Brittany also loses weight but doesn’t transform into the belle of the ball. 

Even more realistically, she hangs onto a lot of her self-loathing and sarcasm, occasionally taking two steps back for each move she makes that propels her forward. People can change, the film tells us, but not in the wholly transformative ways that movies about underdogs so often suggest. 

At times, Colaizzo over-emphasizes various plot points in both words and direction, but they’re not serious stumbles. And Bell always keeps us rooting for Brittany, even when her awful side is in full tantrum. All in all, the film is a funny, frank, and earnest presentation of a woman who discovers that being an active and passionate participant is the purest form of victory, whether it's in a marathon or everyday life.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

THE EARNEST ACTION OF “ANGEL HAS FALLEN” FALTERS IN THE THIRD ACT


Time was, straight-up, modest actioners like ANGEL HAS FALLEN were quite common. They thrived in the '80s and '90s especially and turned Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme into superstars. Now, such films are usually 100 million-dollar tentpoles, filled with extravagant CGI, and almost cartoonish action. (Ahem, the FAST & FURIOUS films.) So, it’s rather pleasing to find a franchise like this one still plugging along with a more earnest approach. Gerard Butler isn’t quite the macho presence as those above four, but he grounds such fare with his acting skills, and his authoritative manner even lends gravitas to all the shenanigans. ANGEL HAS FALLEN is not a great film, but it dots its I’s and crosses its T’s pretty well for the better part of its two-hour running time.

In the world of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler), someone is always trying to take out a president or a world leader or two. Here, another secret cabal is plotting the demise of the American President, only this time it’s Morgan Freeman, reprising his role as Allan Trumbull. (Trumbull's gone from Speaker of the House to Veep to POTUS over the trajectory of the three films in the franchise.) Good thing Banning is still in the field, pulling duty right next to Trumbull. 

Trumbull likes Banning so much, he wants to promote him to top dog at the Secret Service, but the crusty vet is resistant. He’s a doer, not a desk job kind of guy, plus Banning doesn’t entirely trust anyone around the POTUS, not after all he’s seen. And he's there to provide the only cover he wholly believes in - his own. 

Interestingly, this film also finds Banning fighting age, his beaten-down body, and the imploring to spend more time with his baby daughter by his wife Leah (Piper Perabo, replacing Radha Mitchell who played the part in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and LONDON HAS FALLEN). Butler plays the inner turmoil well, using his stoicism to advantage as he chews over such issues.

And, whether by choice or by nature, Butler does look considerably older than his actual 49 years in this film, and doesn't try to hide his wrinkles and middle-agedness. This B story lends the proceedings and the character of Banning a new air of vulnerability this time out. Not that the A story isn't enough already to overcome. Here, Banning's troubles begin when the president is attacked during a fishing retreat by a multitude of high-powered drones. They take out the entire Secret Service detail, except for Banning and the POTUS whom he saves by diving with him into the drink.

Later, in a DC hospital, the president is in a coma and Banning finds himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. The FBI wonders why Banning is the only survivor and the top Fed, played by a no-nonsense Jada Pinkett Smith, suspects him of being part of a conspiracy. You’d think the Bureau would be smart enough to realize that all the evidence they find pointing the finger at Banning is planted,  but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Before you know it, Banning escapes and the movie really gets going. The middle section of the film is the best part of the action as things take on the flavor of that Harrison Ford classic THE FUGITIVE from 1993. Banning runs, jumps, and drives all kinds of vehicles to stay a few steps ahead of the hordes of cops after him, and truly lives up to his code name “Angel.” Even though he’s almost over the hill, he can still take flight, evading his captors, and earning cheers from the rapt audience in the Cineplex.

The best 10 minutes of the film showcases Banning outsmarting two yokels trying to make a citizens arrest at a gas station, followed by a well-shot and tense pursuit along various roads involving a semi-truck. Meanwhile, back in DC, his wife frets, the FBI fumes, and the POTUS still sleeps. Banning is a man against the world.

The big twist in the film that comes next doesn’t involve the villain ex-pat Jennings, slyly underplayed by perennial bad guy Danny Huston. Nor does it occur when the FBI's detective work leads to them realizing that Banning is innocent. No, the gobsmacking surprise comes when Banning shows up on his survivalist father’s doorstep in the deep woods, and the film takes a distinct turn towards comedy. His dad is played by Nick Nolte, and his interactions with his estranged son turn what was a taut piece of action into a film bordering on silliness.

Granted, there is a certain ludicrousness to these types of films anyway, but the third act here often becomes an eye-rolling farce. Do the booby-traps set by Nolte's dad that kill all of Banning's enemies in the woods have to be so bombastically cartoonish? Does one of the final fights in the movie need to have two macho men throwing down their weapons to "solve" things mano a mano through fisticuffs? And does the ever-serious Banning have to fall into "Odd Couple" interplay with his cranky old man? 

Perhaps director Ric Roman Waugh, and his co-screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, plus story contributors Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, felt the need to goose things this third time out. It mars the tone though and throws good will away. They can't even resist a cornball post-credit sequence that seems like an outtake from GRUMPY OLD MEN. Let’s hope that if Angel retakes wing, the next film treats the story and its audience a bit more seriously. I’d hate to think that this franchise will have fallen into outright parody.