Thursday, November 8, 2018

BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Amy Ryan, Maura Tierney
DIRECTOR: Felix Van Groeningen
GENRE:  Drama

It's dark, man. I mean literally, due to the deliberate low light camera settings that were employed to create a bleak and brooding mood for Beautiful Boy--based on the best-selling memoirs of David and Nic Sheff.  (The title is a play on the John Lennon song, which gave us the immortal line: Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans). So even in the outdoor shots, there's never a presence of sunlight. A bit heavy-handed to make a point, I thought, but then the story is about the ravages of drug addiction and the devastating toll it can take on a family.

Young Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) gets addicted to crystal meth, gets clean for a while with the aid of support groups and rehab, then relapses...over and over again. It's a pattern that is slowly driving his dad, David (Steve Carell), up the wall with feelings of helplessness and bewilderment. Because he's tried everything he can think of. Like most addicts, Nic is in denial as to the magnitude of his problem, and David confronts him at every turn, trying to be the loving, concerned parent while dealing to his son a dose of reality. To no avail.

And then the epiphany...you can't heal another person. And just as David throws his hands up and opts for the hands-off approach, he is reminded by the boy's mother and his ex-spouse, Vicki (Amy Ryan), that no, you can't help another person if they're not willing to do it themselves--but you can be there for them when they need you. 

I found Beautiful Boy to be a little slow in the first half, but it builds into something that is so powerful and poignant, I'm declaring the film a MUST SEE! 

Carell and Chalamet give two blockbuster performances. The young Chalamet is already a shining star, especially after his work in Call Me By Your Name (reviewed here), and Carell is making his mark as a serious actor in a way that now outshines his affable comedy persona of the past.     

I'd give Beautiful Boy an "A" rating were it not for the low-level lighting that makes even a couple of the daytime scenes iffy to make out what's going on. But the film's message--that there is light at the end of the tunnel--is a meaningful one for anyone who has been, or is currently a member of a family.

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

The thing that impressed me about Beautiful Boy was the emphasis placed on how addiction is a family disease. How everybody—not just the addict—is sucked into the insanity. The lies, the broken promises, the hopelessness. In the past, films about addiction have mainly focused on the alcoholic (The Lost WeekendLeaving Los Vegas, etc.) or the addict (The Man with the Golden Arm, Requiem for a Dream, etc.). This film, however, pays equal attention to how it can destroy families.

Unfortunately, I knew Beautiful Boy was dragging when I started thinking about scenes I would cut: a miniscule cameo by Timothy Hutton (OrdinaryPeople) as a tell-it-like-it-is addictions doc; the endless father/son flashbacks, reminding us what a beautiful boy Nic was as a child; the incessant relapses.... By the end of the film, I was actually hoping the kid would overdose! (Which is probably the way director Felix van Groeningen wanted the audience to feel.)

My biggest gripe about Beautiful Boy was the score. Loud. Insistent at the wrong moments. The story was powerful enough to carry the film without any music at all. But we've all had some experience with an addicted family member, or friend, or boss. And for that reason alone, it's definitely worth seeing.

GRADE:  B

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, 
Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman, Jon Hamm
DIRECTOR: Drew Goddard
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Bad Times At The El Royale is one wild-ass ride of a movie--if I may speak in the vernacular--a jigsaw puzzle that slowly assembles itself into what becomes a clear picture only near the end. It's not going to be for everyone, as evidenced by the older couple I saw getting up and walking out of the theater half way through...you could tell they just didn't get it, and didn't want to wait any longer to see if the pieces were eventually going to fit together.

It's the late sixties. Four strangers show up at a seedy and otherwise deserted Lake Tahoe hotel. The shaggy priest (Jeff Bridges), a cheeky vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), a soul singing soul sister (Cynthia Erivo), a bored and uppity mystery woman (Dakota Johnson), and the slacker desk clerk (Lewis Pullman) make up our principal players. It doesn't take long to realize that none of them are really what they appear to be outwardly (including the hotel itself).  These are the surprises that develop along the way. And when what you think is going to be a major character gets taken out fairly early on, it's a wake up call that jolts you out of any notion of getting in a short catnap, and you say...ooookay... what's next???  Which is good because it carries you through a lot of backstory and some scenes that go on too long, most of which serve only to showcase the singing talents of Cynthia Erivo. It's what stretches the film to its bloated two hours and twenty minutes.

 The more Bad Times At The El Royale goes on the more you can see it's getting ready to jump the tracks, and I was trying to think of another flick that gave me those same vibes and flashed on Dusk Til Dawn, a movie that had its moments but then got too crazy and went on for too long. Way too long. 

Still, I've got to admire the effort of a film that shoots for the moon in a quirky art house kind of way, even if it falls short and ends up crashing back into the lake. Three quarters of the way through we're still pretty clueless as to where director Drew Goddard will ultimately lead us, until a villain (Chris Hemsworth) from outside the core group appears, and it's game on for a bloody Tarentino-esque climax. Through it all there's a message about killing that emerges--it's wrong no matter what the context or justification (as in war)--which has to be brought out, of course, through a lot of the same.

Jeff Bridges is the reason why we are here in the first place (I'm a fan) and he doesn't disappoint with his portrayal of the dissipated, hard drinking priest.

Dakota Johnson, who's made her name of late in the world of soft-core kink with the Fifty Shades franchise, tries for a step up in class here and accomplishes at least that much--after all she's in a Jeff Bridges film--and opted for a part where she keeps her clothes on the whole time!  .

Bad Times At The El Royale is fascinating in the way that a train wreck is fascinating. You can't look away. But that doesn't make it any less of a disaster.

Grade:  C +

JILL'S TAKE

I'm with the older couple who left early, Tim. Only I've never, in my life, left a movie before it's over. On principle. I kept musing all through this turkey that last week I saw 'the best film of 2018' (A Star Is Born) and now I'm watching 'the worst film of 2018.' There has to be another word for slow to describe this puzzling piece of cinematic drivel.... Sluggish? Stagnant? Snail like? Those synonyms don't begin to describe Bad Times at the El Royale.

The only thing I kept asking myself throughout was "What the hell is this movie about?" (I had to read Tim's review to get the jist of what director/writer Drew Goddard was trying to convey.) The descriptive blurb on IMDb also helped "Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption - before everything goes to hell."

The only thing I really dug about this movie were the wonderful closeups of that vintage Wurlitzer jukebox. Made me miss the days when those music machines were housed in every restaurant and bar across America.

I also liked Cynthia Erivo's chops. Who is she, anyway? According to Wikipedia, she's a Brit who won a Tony (Best Actress in a Musical) in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple." What a voice! Still. It wasn't worth the reduced price I paid. In my view, 'a bad time is what you'll get if you go to this mawkish mystery."

Grade: F

Thursday, October 4, 2018

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Michael Moore, America
DIRECTOR: Michael Moore
GENRE: Documentary

You pretty much know what you're going to get with a Michael Moore film. Hard hitting, wickedly humorous satire that will bite you on the ass if you're the butt of it. That's what I was expecting in his new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9 (not to be confused with his earlier film, Fahrenheit 9/11...11/9/17 being the date when it was confirmed that Donald Trump had been elected president). And as Moore states so directly at the beginning, this film attempts to answer the question: How in the f**k did we get here?

I think that's the only time I even grinned during this movie. Moore strikes a deliberately somber tone here, and there is dirge-like music that seems ever present in the background, so you'll make no mistake where he is coming from. Because his message is that time is running out. That would be the time we have left to save our democracy--or what passes for one here in the USA--before we slide down that slippery slope into fascism. 

You're expecting it to be a full-blown hit piece on Trump, which it starts out to be, and then the road takes a detour to Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan and it becomes a hit piece on Governor Rick Snyder, whom Moore holds ultimately responsible for the polluted water crisis there.  He makes a compelling case, and it makes you wonder how this man stayed in office. 

The democrats don't go unscathed either, earning Moore's scorn primarily for how the Hillary Clinton forces rigged the nomination process in her favor. There is plenty of blame to go around for how and why we got to where we are today. 

Before he's done, Moore will hit on racism, gun violence, the loss of civil liberties, freedom of the press and more, while tying it all in with Trump again. But the juxtaposition of a Trump rally with a Hitler rally will add fuel to his critics who have branded and dismissed him as a radical.

 We revisit the enormous march on Washington that resulted from the Parkland high school shootings, and the ballsy kids who organized it and spoke so eloquently at the rally. It's a powerful thing to watch on the big screen, and it strikes the hopeful tone (there's always one near the end of a Michael Moore film) of people power in action. But this time it comes with a dire caveat: Time is running out.

Grade:  B + 

JILL'S TAKE

Let me start out by saying I'm apolitical to a fault. I'm also a big Michael Moore fan. I heard him speak once a few years back at a film festival in Sedona, AZ and love his acerbic wit. That being said, my biggest complaint with Fahrenheit 11/9 is its length. Come on, Michael... Two hours and eight minutes of dire warnings would make even the most rabid anti Trumpster squirm. I realize he had a lot of territory to cover. But audiences get weary after awhile....

Still, I must give this Michigan native high marks for his use of background music. My favorite bit (and this won't ruin the movie for you) was at the beginning. The music he chose for Hillary awaiting victory was uplifting, hip and high-spirited. Then, as Election Night progressed, we cut to Donald Trump somberly walking out on stage, accompanied by an equally somber family, to give his acceptance speech. What music did Michael choose for this moment? The famous aria from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." A brilliant move on his part!

But the movie is misleading. Even the poster with with a pudgy Trump hitting a golf ball and the subtitle "Tyrant, Liar, Racist, A Hole In One" makes you think it's going to be a hatchet job on our 45th president. Far from it. Instead, it's a hatchet job on the state of our country. Not a message that lends itself to humor. And I sorely missed that aspect of Michael's personality.

I also felt the ending was weak. I won't go into detail (out of respect for those folks who want to react in their own way) but for me it ended with a whimper rather than a bang.



Grade: B -

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

LIFE ITSELF (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa
DIRECTOR: Dan Fogelman
GENRE: Drama

If I had to distill Life Itself down to one sentence, I'd say: It's a big, ambitious film filled with the small moments of life. A multi-generational saga that can seem, at times, like it's abandoned the entire narrative you were following and started up a different film altogether. Then just when you think what movie am I watching, anyway...what does this have to do with anything?...it connects the dots and there you have your AHA! moment.

Brilliant.

The plot revolves around Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), a mentally unstable screenwriter and his young and very pregnant wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). Will had been committed to an institution, but he's out now and trying to piece his reality back together with the  help of his therapist (Annette Bening). Twists and turns and unanticipated moments of high drama ensue as we are placed on alert to expect the unexpected, journeying through the multiple spin-off lives that follow. To give you more would reveal too many spoilers.

I never quote Rotten Tomatoes, but I had a feeling that Life Itself was going to get panned by a lot of critics, and I was right. When I checked  the site, the film had an approval rating of just 12 percent among critics. But get this--it had a full 80 percent audience approval rating! Well, that tells you that critics are pretty much full of shit, aren't they? Yes, I said it. Why? Because critics are cynics. They think their job is to dissect something and tear it apart, when oftentimes it would serve them better just to get in touch with some genuine human emotion. And that is just what Life Itself is imploring you to do. 

Director Dan Fogelman has gotten his impressive cast to buy into this one all the way--as evidenced by the many sincere and powerful performances.

So the question is, can you handle a film that is unabashedly saying something to you in a straightforward manner without couching the message in cryptic terms that are supposed to make you scratch your head to try and figure it out?  For those who answer in the affirmative, Life Itself is a full box of tissue movie. You know what that means. Bring one or you'll be sorry.

Whether your response to Life Itself is positive or negative...whether you think it's brilliant or corny as hell...I'm betting you'll come away thinking, like I did, that you've never seen anything quite like it.

Grade: A


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

WHITE BOY RICK (2018)



Rated: R

STARS: Matthew McConaughey,  Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh,  Bel Powle
DIRECTOR: Yann Demange
GENRE: Drama

If you like drugs and drug dealers (in the movies, I mean)...junkies, crooked cops and dedicated cops, and a little shoot-'em-up--all played out against the bleak backdrop of the seedier side of Detroit, amidst the height of the hysterical drug war in the mid eighties...then White Boy Rick is for you!

Based upon the true--and truly sad and appalling story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), the film comes about its title due to the fact that Wershe was the youngest undercover FBI informant ever--at age 14--who hung around exclusively with black folk (at least in the movie) because all the dope dealers in this film are black (does that make this a racist film?), and thus he came to be affectionately known as "White Boy Rick."

Rick's dad, Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), is an unscrupulous firearms dealer who sells AK-47s to the drug dealers through his son. The FBI gets wind of Junior's extra-curricular activities and recruits him to become a dope dealer himself in order to infiltrate the big boys of the trade, rat on them and take them down. 

As good as McConaughey and newcomer Merritt are in this film, the Kickass Performance Award goes to two supporting cast members: Jennifer Jason Leigh as a totally jaded and weary FBI  agent...and young British thespian Bel Powle, who plays Rick's junkie sister. Powle is perfectly cast in this role; her eyes are so naturally haunted it's scary (and Halloween is coming up!)

Also notable is Bruce Dern as Grandpa, but only because he's been reduced to bit parts as a curmudgeonly old bastard--popping up higgledy-pigleddy, just enough to make you say: hey, that's Bruce Dern...what the hell's HE doing in this film???

Like most movies based on true events, White Boy Rick proceeds at breakneck speed, leaving you at a loss to keep up at times, with a hip-hop soundtrack that could have been better if any of the songs were recognizable. But on the strength of the gritty performances, I'm giving it a decent rating. You may or may not agree, depending upon how chemically altered your brain is at the time. 

Grade:  B

JILL'S TAKE

I'm thinking maybe Tim's recent hiatus from movie reviewing has made him go soft. (oh oh)  Sad as the story of White Boy Rick is, I'm getting fed up with the idea that just because something is based on a 'true story'  makes it cinematic gold. Wrong!

If you're looking to spend one hour and fifty-one minutes being depressed, feeling a sense of unrelenting hopelessness, then this is the movie for you. I have to hand it to cinematographer Tat Radcliffe whose visions of Detroit in the 1980s are enough to make any young man sell drugs just to get out of there!

I suppose, if I had to pin-point the problem with White Boy Rick (a grabber title, by the way), it would be that it's riddled with nothing but losers, including the FBI agents. I'm not suggesting that some Hollywood knight come charging in on a white horse to rescue everybody.  But a film with nothing but bad guys in it risks being too much of a downer. At least it was for me.

Maybe my negative reaction had more to do with the toothache I was experiencing at the time.  I think not...


Grade:  C -

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SEARCHING (2018)



Rated :  PG-13

STARS:  John Cho, Debra Messing
DIRECTOR: Aneesh Chaganty
GENRE: Suspense/Thriller

If your head is buried in your phone or computer screen for essentially every waking hour, then you'll feel right at home with Searching and it's gimmicky visual presentation. If that isn't you, then the caveat is that every shot in the entire film is viewed through the filter of some technological device--whether laptop, phone, webcam or what have you. It's a gimmick to make a statement about technology being a double-edged sword--as potentially dangerous as it is magical. I found it distracting, and a heavy-handed way to make a point, but not to the degree of where it ruins the film, which I became increasingly absorbed in as it picked up speed and raced toward it's you-didn't-see-this-coming conclusion. 

John Cho is David Kim, whose 16 year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La), has disappeared. As the clues to her possible whereabouts pile up like Jenga blocks, David becomes increasingly frantic and hot-headed, accusing one individual and then another (including his brother) of having something to do with her disappearance. When the story goes viral, police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. Her first instinct is to tell David that his daughter has likely run away. But when Margot's car is discovered submerged at the bottom of a lake, things start to point toward a tragic outcome. The answer to the mystery lies--where else--in Margot's laptop.

Lots of twists and turns along the road to the ultimate revelation in this one. But like many a suspense thriller these days, where the bad guy always turns out to be the one you'd least suspect, Searching falls into the trap of getting too cute...s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the bounds of plausibility and believablity. 

Grade:  B -


JILL'S TAKE

If I could retitle this snoozer, I'd call it "The Computer Training Manual." I spend enough time at home staring at my monitor. Do I really need to do it in a movie theater? The opening setup was very original. We see, on a giant computer screen, photographs of a close knit family at various stages (baby pix, dad being pounced on in bed, mom and daughter playing a duet on the piano, etc.) including the decline and eventual death of one of its members. Like I said, very original.  But after 15 minutes of nothing but a cursor scurrying across the screen and text messages between dad and daughter beeping endlessly, I began to fidget.  

I also wondered what viewers who weren't that  computer savvy would think of this Google-driven who-done-it.  No doubt it made the cost of making Searching a whole lot cheaper.  But it was a steep price for me to pay as my eyelids kept getting heavier and heavier.  

Tim has already outlined the plot which, by the end, seemed ridiculously unbelievable.  I won't ruin it for those of you foolish enough to want to see this movie but it was all I could do not to guffaw when the true villain emerged. 

At least casting Asians in these roles was believable. Then again, maybe it's just me and my resistance to technology. I don't know how to text, selfies are beyond my skill set and I'm the only person I know who doesn't own a cell phone.  

Grade: C -

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

JULIET, NAKED (2018)



Rated:  R

STARS: Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd
DIRECTOR: Jesse Peretz
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

When a great song from the sixties (in this case Marianne Faithful's "Come And Stay With Me") pops up in the middle of a film that is already beginning to win you over, you get the reassuring feeling that yes, they're going to bring it all home. And bring it home they do in the quirky (mostly) British romantic comedy, Juliet, Naked.

Annie (Rose Byrne) plays second fiddle to her flatmate Duncan's (Chris O'Dowd) obsession with a minor cult figure, musician Tucker Crowe, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since making his brief splash in the early nineties. Duncan interacts with an online community of about 200 diehard Tucker fans--and when, in her exasperation, Annie posts a review of her own that is less than complimentary, she gets a personal response back from the real Tucker, who surprisingly agrees with her observations. Annie and Tucker begin an online dialogue, and at this point we know they are destined to meet, even though he lives in America and she's in England. Duncan learns nothing of his partner's budding friendship with his idol, until...until he does...at which point the comedic complications set in.

The irony is that nothing in Juliet, Naked is laid bare, save for our roller coaster emotions as we follow Annie and Tucker through a gauntlet of twists that involve, for one, when a bevy of kids that Tucker--like any rock musician doing his duty--has spawned from different mothers, show up. Annie likes kids, and wants to have one of her own, but will this be too much of a dose of reality for her? 

At the end, we're urging Annie not to make the wrong decision--it seems perfectly clear-cut--but we won't get the answer till the closing credits are ready to roll.

Ethan Hawke's Tucker is as affable as they come--for a flawed character; Rose Byrne gives an understated performance as Annie, content to be upstaged by O'Dowd's alternately priggish, confused, awe-struck, and righteously indignant Duncan.

 As movies go, Juliet, Naked may be the most fun you can have with your clothes on!

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

I knew it!  I knew Tim would react the same way I did to this sparkler of a movie.  I went to see it with some trepidation since Ethan Hawke has done some pretty talky, overly self-indulgent films. (Before MidnightBefore SunriseBoyhood).  This time, however, the pace was just right and Hawke captured the character's quirkiness to perfection.  Hawke has played another real life musician in a movie I really dug titled Born To Be Blue about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.  So this Austin-born actor knows what being on the road can do to man, his talent and, in particular, his relationships.  Even though the character Hawke portrays has been pretty damn irresponsible all his life, you like the guy anyway. 

I have to also tip my hat (if I was wearing one!) to director Jesse Peretz who also knows about the musician's life having been the bass guitarist and founding member of The Lemonheads, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based band formed in 1986.  As I read through Peretz' directing credits, I noticed one of my all-time favorite TV series listed:  Nurse Jackie.  The man definitely knows how to keep the story moving and the audience engaged.
I guess if I had to criticize anything about Juliet, Naked it would be the title.  Yes, it was the name of one of the character's albums,  Still, it seemed a choice to draw in audiences rather than anything intrinsic to the plot.  (It drew me in, that's for sure!)
You gotta go see this one!

Grade: A