Yesterday (2019)

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RB Score:  9/10.

This is a movie with a novel, engaging concept, that doesn’t go nearly far enough with said concept, and which is still a thoroughly enjoyable movie that everyone should see.

Filmography is excellent from the opening frame and never stops attaining this standard.  Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) works at a big box store stocking shelves, while grimly determined to become a successful musician.  His childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) who has never stopped believing in him and who is now his manager, scores him a gig at a seaside music festival where Jack plays his songs.  At the festival, Jack reconnects with his old chum Rocky (Joel Fry), who is working as a roadie.  Rocky is a lovable and loyal sidekick, and he is immediately attuned to the emotional connection that is going absolutely nowhere, between Jack and Ellie, just in case the audience doesn’t see it (which, of course, we do).

Later on the rainy night after the gig, Jack has an argument with Ellie and gets out of her car to ride his  bike home. Subsequently he gets hit by a bus.  In the moments following his accident the entire planet loses all power for 12 seconds.  Everything goes dark as Jack lies in the rainy road.  He wakes up in the hospital, with cuts and bruises on his face, missing a couple of teeth, with loyal Ellie by his side.  Our first indicator that the world is different happens when Jack quotes a Beatles lyric to Ellie and she clearly has no recognition of the reference.  He is surprised but doesn’t read too much into it, as Ellie was visiting between classes, rushing out to teach her next session.

When Jack is released from the hospital, his friends surprise him with an impromptu party at an outdoor cafe, during which they present him with a brand new guitar to replace the one destroyed in the accident.  They ask him to play a song for them and he obliges, strumming the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and singing along.  Ellie and the others are instantly captivated by the tune, just like most every other sentient human being discovering the Beatles for the first time.  But Jack is puzzled that his friends have not ever heard the song before, and is understandably frustrated.   Eventually, with the help of Google, he gradually realizes that the Beatles have now quite simply never existed.

What’s a poor guy to do, being alone with the greatest musical gifts that have ever been given to modern music?  Isn’t it more important to share these gifts with the world?  Although it’s plagiarism can anyone think of a better solution?  Jack devotes himself to recreating the Beatles discography and playing the songs to wider and wider audiences.  These are fun scenes that recreate the early 1960s Beatles magic.  Soon he is discovered by Harry (Ed Sheeran) and his unapologetically mercenary manager Debra (Kate McKinnon).  Jack starts to lose touch with Ellie after he decides to sign with Debra and moves to Los Angeles, along with faithful sidekick Rocky, to further his musical career.

However, Jack doesn’t completely fall in to the inauthentic LA lifestyle.  He travels to Liverpool, against the stern admonishment of Debra, in order to visit the places the Beatles have immortalized in their songs.  He also meets up with Ellie and spends an evening with her marked by conversation, connection and unbridled joy.  Wisely, the writers avoid ending this scene on a cheesy note as Ellie makes it clear she’s not interested in a one night stand.  They spend the night alone in their respective hotel rooms and in the morning Jack frantically wakes Rocky to help him find Ellie after she checks out, and they end up trying to find her at the train station.

Seated at a cafe near the tracks, Ellie is patient but Jack is unable to articulate his feelings and Rocky is not helping as he displays his cell phone through the window, showing a live feed of Debra ordering Jack to get out of there and catch his flight back to LA.  Rocky and Jack reluctantly leave as Ellie stays behind in the station to wait for her train home.

Things come to a head when at a performance, Jack notices a couple of fans in the last rows, waving a toy plastic yellow submarine.  He is frantic at the thought of his plagiarism being known.  When the two fans follow him to a grand festival in his hometown, and request to see him, Jack’s apprehension is outweighed by the desire to talk with someone, anyone, who understands who the Beatles were.

What he finds are two people who are simply grateful for the music being resurrected.  How do they know?  One of those compelling questions, that the movie doesn’t answer. Suffice to say that Jack isn’t the only person in the world to have been spared the effects of the planetary outage. Things get even more interesting as the woman gives him a scrap of paper with an address written on it.  Jack goes to the address, an exquisite yet humble abode on the beach, to find that the person living there is none other than an elderly John Lennon.

The power blip may have wiped out the music but also made it possible for Lennon to live to a grand old age.  It’s a deeply touching and pretty crushing reminder of the trade offs in life.  That is the movie’s genius, the capture of “what might have been”.  And, incidentally, a very nice and subtle touch that we don’t know who Lennon is married to, just that he is contentedly living by the seashore, happy with the girl of his dreams.  I do not see the disruptive presence of Yoko in this vision.  Given that in this alternate reality, the success of the Beatles never happened, it seems far more likely that the girl is Cynthia Lennon.

This is a great movie.  The failing and one point deduction is for not fleshing out the concept enough.  For example how did the power outage across the globe (why across the globe) knock out everyone’s memory of the Beatles? Did that outage erase history or just memories?  In either case please explain it a bit better!  The hints about other erasures doesn’t help (Coca Cola, cigarettes) as they don’t even cover the same historical time frames.  Granted this might provide some great discussion points for film classes, nights out with friends, or family gatherings, but it is a terribly disjointed structure.

Why not a greater point deduction then?  Because this movie is the epitome of affirmation, and captures that spirit of all things possible, in a way I have not seen many movies manage to do.  The ending is apologetically joyful and it resonates deeply.  Whether you’re holed up at home because of Coronavirus or just looking for a great movie to watch, give this a whirl and let me know what you think.

Delivery Man (2013)

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RB score:  4/10
I like Hallmark movies. Yes, I know they are relentlessly formulaic and have absolutely no connection to reality.  That’s part of why I like them.  Everyone is nice, the endings are always happy, the scenery is always gorgeous.  The cinematography sparkles with lush use of color whether we are in the city or the country.  Not only is everyone just no-holds barred nice, even the occasional villains are only marginally unpleasant people with no real evil and who come around in the end. Also, some of our favorite out of work actors and actresses can get a paycheck. What’s not to like?  If there’s a blizzard and the roads are closed, if I have the flu, or if it’s just been a bad work week, I curl up with one of these mind-numbing visual exercises in escapism and do just that, escape.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I know the movies are not only not particularly artistic, or original (did i mention that plagiarism abounds) but potentially harmful:  chocolates aren’t really good for you either and these are like eating an entire box of them instead of actual food.  It is crucial to maintain some awareness that just as excessive sugar isn’t good for you, blind allegiance to these movies isn’t healthy for your mind.
There are definite disturbing undercurrents in Hallmark movies.  Most notably, there are a surprising number of dead mothers.  Yes, dead.  I’m rather surprised more women are not disturbed by this.  Often, either the heroine or the hero will have grown up without a mother, or the prospective romantic partner did.  Or the prospective male interest is himself a widower (never divorced) raising a child alone. It’s impossible not to notice the body count if you watch enough of these movies.
So what does this have to do with Delivery Man?
In a very real sense, Vince Vaughan is starring in the ultimate Hallmark movie, for a male audience.  He plays David, a lackadaisical 40ish delivery man, who drives a truck for his family’s meat business.  David has close to zero sense of responsibility.  He owes money to the mob and he spends money right and left that he doesn’t have, all the while devoting scant attention to, or time at, work. Since his father is the employer we can understand why he hasn’t been fired.  His girlfriend Emma played by Cobie Smulders is a police officer who has grown weary of David’s lack of maturity, and is ready to give him the heave-ho although she is carrying his child.  His best friend Brett, played by Chris Pratt, is a harried father of four who evidently lost his law license but nevertheless is the only person available to represent David when he is named in a class action suit by 124 of the 533 children who were born with his sperm, which he sold during his younger years. The offspring would like to learn the identity of their biological father. “I need a real lawyer!”  David tells Brett, who replies with the obvious, which is that David doesn’t have the money for a real lawyer.  Incidentally, Chris Pratt’s portrayal of Brett garners 2 of the 4 points I give Delivery Man.  Vince Vaughn and Cobie Smulders can do better.
On first blush this would appear to be radically different from a Hallmark movie.  Certainly the humor is more cutting, the plot is less wholesome (to say the least) and the references to sex and violence would simply not ever appear in a Hallmark movie which all adhere to a formula that ends in a kiss (either before or after they get married depending on, presumably, how radical the filmmakers are feeling).  But the oddly sinister undercurrent that appears in Hallmark movies is front and center in Delivery Man:  where are the mothers of these hundreds of kids?  For that matter, where is anyone’s mother in the movie?
David, having been presented with an envelope containing the profiles of the 124 plaintiffs, embarks on a haphazard stalking mission of sorts, to look them up in person. The children are all young adults now.  The first profile David reads is of a son, who is now a professional basketball player.  David positively hotfoots it over to Madison Square Garden to cheer on, in the most rabid fan style possible, his newly discovered offspring.  Another child plays his guitar on the street for money and David entreats passersby to throw money into the guitar case.  He saves another child, a daughter, from a drug overdose and waits the next morning to see that she reports to her new job on time.  He watches a coffeeshop for one son so that the son can go audition for a part.  Basically, the audience sees that David takes his role as a father with a newfound sense of urgency, caring and responsibility. This leads him to spend even less time at work, but as we have seen, the script for this movie was not tasked with demonstrating normal or even minimal accountability.
How can this premise possibly turn out well?  Again, we return to Hallmark.  First of all, this wildly implausible storyline is wrapped up in a gift box every bit as neatly as the Hallmark films in order to ensure that sweetly satisfying ending.  Emma takes him back.  His father gives him money to pay off his debts.  Brett wins the court case but David decides to reveal his identity to the kids anyways.  I can’t even really call these spoilers since you know ahead of time how every single Hallmark movie is going to end.
The real kicker though?  The reason I call this the ultimate Hallmark movie?  This movie completely ignores the identify of 533 mothers!  You can’t kill them all off, I suppose, so let’s just ignore their existence. We don’t learn a single solitary fact about any of the mothers who brought these kids in the world, in fact the sperm donor is credited, in so many words, as the only reason they exist.  No other women in the movie exists either.  Brett has 4 kids, but we never meet either their mother or his mother (who he is always complaining about).  David’s family business has no women or girls working there.  No, the only woman allowed to have an actual identity is the one that David is currently in a relationship with: Emma, who delivers baby #534 at the film’s end.  Hopefully they never make a sequel; if they did, you can bet that Emma would no longer appear in it.
The message according to Hallmark and the Delivery Man:  Women, you are a uterus and that’s it.  Once you’ve given birth, your usefulness as a human being is over.  You may or may not be killed off, just don’t make any mistake thinking that you have any purpose on this earth other than breeding.  And that, my friends is why I’m actually being generous in scoring this movie a 4, and why I should probably swear off Hallmark movies too.

Kate and Leopold (2001)

In honor of:  Paul’s Blogathon

Meg Ryan’s appearances with Tom Hanks, have been cherished by audiences and have become classics.  “Kate and Leopold” pairs Meg with Hugh Jackman and together they create a chemistry that’s reminiscent of Hanks-Ryan magic… yet unique, because just as Leopold is a nobleman, the respect and affection between he and Kate is something from the pages of history and transcribed onto modern Manhattan.

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Leopold is the Duke of Albany, the Lord Mountbattan, caught in 1876 between his own scientific innovations and the pressures from his family to marry someone he doesn’t love.  He crosses paths at the Brooklyn Bridge with the modern day scientist Stuart, played by Liev Schreiber, the ex-boyfriend of Kate and a somewhat acerbic but brilliant personality, and both men accidentally stumble on a time portal that lands Leopold in the present day.  Leopold gallantly takes on the obstacles in front of him by gallantly taking on the personalities – not only Kate and Stuart, but Kate’s brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer) an out-of-work actor who frequents Kate’s apartment.

This is a time travel story so it’s not all slice of life, it’s partly science fiction.  More importantly it’s about the emotions that have connected people, torn apart others, and cemented relationships that were meant to be.   The reason that all of the Ryan/Hanks vehicles work so well is that the audience is drawn into the emotional relationships between the leads.   When Meg Ryan’s Kate climbs through the window of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment she once again effortlessly draws you into her world.

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The romantic ideal is improbable, if not impossible.  For the many of us who are content to let cinema show the way to what could be possible, still improbable, the vast majority of romcoms will suffice.  If you are bound and determined on idealizing the impossible because real life has proved to be too painful, dive right in to a movie that brings in time travel with its romantic elements because what you feel now and what you have always felt in your life defy time and convention anyway.

This is a draft post for Paul’s blogathon  🙂

I, Tonya (2017)

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Movies can be said to fall into one of two categories; those you will see again, and those you won’t.  Based on real life controversy involving US figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan,  I, Tonya tells the story of a gutsy, gritty young girl who lived to skate and had nothing else.  Certainly nothing resembling a family structure that was even remotely functional.  The movie will hold special fascination for fans of the sport, especially those old enough to have memories of what happened then.   However, viewers of any age, skating fans or not, will enjoy this film – it’s so well done.
The “mockumentary” style is tricky, I believe, and carries risk of the project taking on “reality TV” overtones.    Here, the characters are deftly presented at the beginning with the quickest of brush strokes and the story is off and running.  You need only to see the actors and hear them speak for a few seconds and the stage is set.  There’s Tonya, her mother LaVona, (Best Supporting Actress Allison Janney) her ex-husband Jeff Gilooly, and his caricature of a sidekick, Sean.  Bobby Cannavale plays a hard-bitten reporter type from “Hard Copy” and Julianne Nicholson plays Tonya’s coach, gentle yet with steel in the spine.  Actor Sebastian Stan, who played Jeff, probably should have been nominated for something as he brought life and dimension to an unlikeable character in a way I’d have never dreamed possible.  Then again, this entire movie is a study in exquisite nuance.
Tonya overcomes the very significant obstacles from her station in life to become a skating powerhouse, athletic and skilled, in fact the first woman in the US to land the Triple Axel jump in competition.  I’m glossing over the heartbreaking childhood and first foray on the ice because I can’t easily summarize what is depicted onscreen. This remarkable, and for the viewer, enjoyable progression eventually starts to unravel as Tonya’s achievements are eclipsed by  a media nightmare.
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The story is familiar to many, Tonya’s career eventually disintegrated, and Kerrigan won the Silver medal in the Olympics.
Production quality in this movie is superb.  The characters break the 4th wall, which can be discordant if not done well; here it’s spooned in so smoothly both as resolution and segue, that the movie progression is nicely enhanced.  The soundtrack use in the film is a slam dunk, (there isn’t a skating term I can think of that captures how skillfully the music tracks were woven in).  Tracks were chosen for the lyrics and melody, and thus were only loosely representative of the time period being covered.  Sometimes the music was used for literal reasons and sometimes for irony, with the result as a viewer/listener you are pulled in different directions.
Probably better than half of the Best Picture nominees, with a good case to be made for production design, cinematography and direction.  Easily Best Actress for Margot Robbie and Supporting for Allison Janney.  Yes, I know Robbie didn’t win the Oscar but she should have.  Her brash appeal in this film is based on a skillful portrayal that hints, somehow, at the magic of screen legend Michelle Pfeiffer, combining porcelain beauty with a gift of physicality and timing.
I sat there, numb, in the theater as credits rolled, and all I could think of  is when I would be able to watch this movie again. RB score is a solid 10/10.

Table 19 (2017)

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RB score:  9/10

The bride allocated the “randoms” to Table 19, the table farthest in the back of the room, even farther away from the action than the kids’ table.  The cast of this movie is even more random, with Anna Kendrick playing Eloise; the rejected girlfriend of the best man and brother of the bride; Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow as a married couple who manage a diner, bored with life and each other;  June Squibb as the elderly former nanny of the bride and her brother; Stephen Merchant as a glib but somewhat fragile former prison inmate, now struggling to fit into society somehow, and Tony Revolo as a lonely teenager trying to meet girls while having his mother control every facet of his life, and call his phone continually to offer advice.

At first, the interactions among the people seated at Table 19, both among themselves and with others, are predictably, and amusingly, awkward, then the movie takes a screwball turn as Eloise has a messy confrontation with her ex, Teddy (played by Wyatt Russell).  Eloise convinces us, herself, and eventually her tablemates that she doesn’t care anything for Teddy, and from what we see of him we don’t know what she saw in him to begin with.  Then Eloise, who has been spending more time away from Table 19 then sitting there, has a chance encounter with a very handsome stranger which turns into conversation which turns into a turn around the dance floor.  Jo, the nanny, picks up on the magic between Eloise and the strange man, and also is the only person at the table to observe that Eloise rushed from the table sick because she is pregnant.

Here is where the skill of the screenplay and the cast really start to take off.  You had to wonder at the beginning of the movie what would be involved with a cast of such experienced comedic actors such as Kudrow, Merchant and Robinson.  Only comedic actors know how to walk the tightrope between comedy and emotional connection, that is required for the ensemble to form a believeable bond during the day of the wedding… which they do.  When the others at the table learn that Teddy dumped Elaine when she told him she was pregnant, they stage their own confrontation with Teddy, who, as it turns out, tells a different version of the breakup.  There is no reconciliation during this scene, although there is mayhem and a ruined wedding cake.  The five tablemates look very gloomy as they leave the reception area of the hotel and ride the elevator back to their rooms.   While the movie’s threads also seem to unravel in a random fashion, at first, and new and odd revelations start to surface about each of them, these random threads become that connection that gives way to respect and compassion for each other, and an emotional investment for the viewer.  

To give more plot points is to give away too much and spoil for the viewer, the satisfaction of watching the progression as it unfolds.  I can’t think of another movie that better captures the risks and joys of simply living life, of how other people are always someone more than how we perceive them, whether we’ve known them for minutes or years, and how we often have to make glaring mistakes, even repeated mistakes, and definitely a mess or two, in pursuit of our lives.   Underneath the comedy and the emotions, the movie brings home how inaccurate perceptions of the past influence one’s state of mind more than any actual events or people do.  

You’ll never show up at a wedding reception with quite the same frame of mind ever again.  9/10, maybe 9.5/10.  Deduction is for making the teen boy character overly one dimensional.  Still a great film, and one which will merit many re-viewings.

 

This Side of Insanity

Couple of very interesting and watchable films that touch on the topic of mental health.   Two very different protagonists, two very compelling  examinations on the sometimes finer line that can exist between us, and them.

Hello, My Name is Doris (2015)

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This movie, I thought, was a rather novel take on the formula of “the mentally ill person is the sanest person in the room.”  Sally Field’s character, while certainly functional and able to hold down a job, lives a life no one would envy and is clearly not the sane person in the room.  However, she is extremely sympathetic and engenders a strong feeling of compassion from the audience.   She is one of the older employees in a youth oriented office environment, has been taking care of her elderly mother until her death, and has limited social interaction outside work, although she does have a close, and reassuringly nonjudgmental, friend played by Tyne Daly.

The movie opens with Doris at her mother’s funeral.  Almost immediately the facets of her mental disorders are uncovered and manifest in loneliness and extreme hoarding.  The home that Doris shared with her mother is overflowing with clutter.   The lack of supportive family environment is shown to be a contributing factor.  Doris’ only sibling is an overbearing brother with a selfish and impatient spouse, who reveals her true colors almost in the same moment when she is trying to be pleasant.   It is completely sane and understandable that Doris avoids them and spends as little time with them as possible.  DNA does not necessarily a family make.

Meanwhile, at work, a new young executive smiles at her in the elevator and Doris is instantly transported into a world where the 20something man is secretly harboring feelings for the 65 year old woman, and unlike the family situation, here you wish Doris would wake up and realize how out of touch with reality her imaginings are.   This is emphatically not a remake of Harold and Maude, which was a strange but mutual relationship that ended on a very affirming note (and one of the greatest films of all time).   In this case, although a curious friendship develops between the two, it is not romantic except inside Doris’ head.

The way in which Doris slowly comes to terms with her own mental challenges is written and crafted in a realistic and believable way, with the help of a very patient and understanding therapist.  None of us can confront our emotional baggage and mental hangups, simply because other people say we should – we can only move forward when (and if) we are ready to take that step.  Despite a somewhat weighty underlying message, the movie is by and large the opposite of bleak:  it is endearing and humorous, light and bright, with consistent brilliant delivery from Sally Field.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

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Like other movies that touch on or dive into this topic, there are those moments where the mentally ill person is indeed, seemingly the most sane one in the room, and other moments where the dividing line between sanity and insanity couldn’t be more sharp or bright.  The movie opens with Pat’s mother arranging for his release from the facility where he has been institutionalized for 9 months.  He is seen pretending to take his medication, and the impression you’re supposed to have is that he doesn’t belong there.  It doesn’t take long for the audience to appreciate that he actually is not functioning all that well.   Thus, the movie starts off with a restrained quality containing a spark that only hinted at the development that was to come later.

A variety of triggers would release Pat’s intense reactions, such as when he woke his parents up in the middle of the night to rail against the invisible enemy that was his own mind as he fiercely raved on about the shortcomings of Hemingway classic “Farewell to Arms”  and everything that the book stood for.   Where the movie dropped all pretense that it wasn’t going to take hold of your soul was the scene where Pat arrives at his therapist’s office, hears Stevie Wonders’ “My Cherie Amour” played over the PA for him and flips out.  Leaving aside the somewhat questionable ethics of this therapist in deliberately provoking his patient, the song’s wistful and beautiful melody that has always stood on its own,  becomes downright mesmerizing and chilling, one of those movie moments that you can’t shake off.  It’s even more remarkable how it was used considering the audience doesn’t yet know the reason Pat was so affected.   Not long after we experience that torture with Pat, his budding friendship with Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence,  punctures the absurdity of such emotional intensity in the way she tells him it’s a song and he’ll have to get over it.   The character development is slow and rewarding; by this time, you’re in it with them, and the weaving together of what everyone has on the line creates a movie with emotional impact.   Getting DeNiro to contribute his magic as Pat Sr. was also a stroke of casting genius.

Bradley Cooper redeemed himself a thousand percent in my eyes.  If I were him I would burn all existing copies of “Aloha” and keep this film at the top of my resume. The one odd note to me was the seeming promotion of medication compliance in a movie that featured refreshingly strong personalities that almost don’t exist in today’s medicated society.  But maybe I get the wrong takeaway.  Wouldn’t be the first time.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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RB score: 10/10

Bridge of Spies is an A+ project.  Based on the well known 1962 event with the official exchange of a captured US Air Force pilot with a captured Soviet spy, this is a work so anchored in the brilliant collaboration that is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the attorney, that the Oscar actually eluded both for the simple reason that both are such masters of their craft,  audiences and Academy alike have taken this mastery for granted.  There is no other explanation.  I’d go so far as to say there’s no other actor who could have done what Hanks did with that role, and no other director who could have matched Spielberg’s execution.

British stage actor Mark Rylance did take home the Oscar for his supporting performance, as Abel, the Russian spy.  Rylance doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, but his exceptionally skilled and understated portrayal commands your attention whenever he is on screen.

The movie opens in late 50s/early 60s Brooklyn, NY.  The viewer is immediately placed into a scene where Spielberg’s architecture captures all the details flawlessly.  You notice the period cars, the judicious use of color and lighting, the sounds, the people.  A side street, a few cars, and Spielberg takes the audience to the exact time and place where they need to be.  The mesmerizing level of attention to detail is present in every setting throughout the movie.

In general, having any knowledge of the true events will add to audience enjoyment.  It’s true here as well; and this film is also completely watchable on a standalone basis.

There is a scene in the jail, when Donovan is conferring with Abel, and the music of Shostakovich is playing on a portable cassette player.  It’s typical Spielberg-crafted setting,  with no detail left unattended.  For a moment, the beauty of the music fills the room.  Then Abel shuts it off, as he says, musingly:  “A very great artist, Shostakovich.”  Here , even if the viewer is not familiar with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, or the significance of his works, the scene works as a moment in time where the Russian is acknowledging the artistry of his countryman, perhaps also subtly reminding the audience how the arts and music bridge gaps of understanding among people rather than driving them apart, as do politics and war.    Yet the scene has other, deeper dimensions, that are not overtly explained.  If you have some familiarity with the composer, and some of the debate that exists over the meanings he may or may not have tried to convey to an audience without the Communist party understanding in the same way – if you can muster an appreciation for the desperate tension that was felt by people in that time and space, then this scene hits you with an additional layer of impact. Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, (highly recommended listening) in 1937 under some duress and it was received with a standing ovation.

Musically it’s clear there was something going on.

In Bridge of Spies, there is always more going on.  How subtle for Abel to comment, “and they care for you!?” to Jonathan Powers,  referencing the false coin with the cyanide laced pin.  He’s got a point.  Outside of what you can say about the differing systems, when it comes down to an individual level, do either of them care?

For those interested some fascinating backstory on the subplot involving Fred Pryor, the American student who was made part of the capture:   http://michigantoday.umich.edu/the-spy-who-never-was/

My own theory is that Spielberg, not the type to leave important details unattended, was respecting the wishes of the real Fred Pryor by not contacting him.  Still, choosing to live a life away from sensationalism, should not necessarily mean foregoing the courtesy of a phone call, since Spielberg did elect to use his real name.

It’s a great film achievement and not to be missed.  Easily the best picture of the year, regardless of the slings and arrows of Academy voting.  Not only Best Picture, but Director for Spielberg and Best Actor for Tom Hanks.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

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RB score:  8/10

Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, are lifelong best friends who headline their own magic show at Bally’s Las Vegas.  We first meet them as lonely, bullied middle school students.  They become friends after Burt receives a magic kit as a birthday present from his mom, who works around the clock as a single parent to support her son.  Burt and Anton become bonded as amateur magicians, and soon discover that their ability to do magic tricks buys them social acceptance at school.  Years later, they have been able to parlay their hobby into a lucrative career.  They’re wowing audiences in Las Vegas, they’re living the high life.  What can possibly go wrong?

A few things, as it turns out.  Complacency sets in.  While Anton retains a sense of humbleness and appreciation for what they have, Burt eventually starts to believe in his own hype, becoming an arrogant, self-important womanizer.  The act relies on having an attractive female assistant, and the current assistant, Nicole, becomes exasperated with the backstage animosity and quits.  Apparently, this was getting to be a pattern.  Anton reminds Burt that this was the second Nicole to quit in the last month alone.  Unfazed, Burt presses one of the technical staffers into service as their newest “Nicole” – a smart young woman named Jane, played by Olivia Wilde.  Jane finds herself squeezed into the previous Nicole’s tight stage leotard and blonde wig, as she fairly ad-libs through a performance and snubs Burt’s advances.

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However,  adding Jane to the act doesn’t address the other problems between Burt and Anton, or the increasing staleness of their routine.   Soon, ticket sales start to lag.  We see many empty seats in the once-packed auditorium, and the audience members are mostly elderly.  Burt and Anton are called into the office of Bally’s owner Doug Munny, played by the late James Gandolfini, in true Vegas-mobster style.  Munny tells the duo that they have to update their act if they expect to stay employed.  He wants them to bring in a younger demographic.  Do we expect Money… er, I mean, Munny…to be anything other than a mercenary?  They weren’t terribly subtle with the character’s last name.

At the same time, street performer Steve Gray, played by Jim Carrey, is making a splash with his cable show and large internet following.  Burt and Anton scoff at first, but their boss, who only sees dollar signs, is impressed.  Gray’s act primarily consists of self-mutilation in various forms, and audiences love it.  People cry, even vomit, but they always applaud.

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

 

Little bit of a jab here at reality-show brand of entertainment and the audiences who love them.  The technique – the prompting of audience self-reflection – works in the sense of inviting that self-check, and it’s uncontroversial.  Those who most need that self check will not perform one.  When taken to the extreme as it was in “The Big Short” (another Carell vehicle) it is downright alienating.  Here, it’s one of many understated devices that ride underneath the film’s main themes.  I like it as a film device, I have no faith in it as a means to affect human beliefs and behaviors.  There I think you need facts.  Education.

As Steve Gray enjoys more success, Burt is forced to vacate his posh Bally’s suite, and Anton, who was badly injured in a stunt where he and Burt were trying desperately to compete with Gray, has taken up philanthropic efforts, distributing free magic kits to starving children in Cambodia.  Burt had first gone to Jane’s apartment looking for a place to stay for a while, but he behaved so obnoxiously that Jane threw him out, and he moved into a seedy off strip motel.  Comedian Brad Garrett turns up in a small role as Burt’s lecturing accountant, who of course, Burt never listened to, with the result that Burt’s now got nothing.  No savings.

Burt finds work entertaining at a senior citizens’ living facility, where evidently, many of the old time Vegas entertainers live out their retirements.  There, Burt becomes acquainted with his childhood idol, magician Rance Holloway, played by Alan Arkin, who helps Burt regain a semblance of humility and rekindles a sense of connection he used to feel for both his audiences and his craft.  Jane turns up at the retirement home to visit her grandmother, and Burt discovers to his chagrin, that she has gone to work for Steve.

Eventually, Anton returns from overseas,  Jane tires of Gray’s extremism and the three reconnect and decide to work together.  At this point, I suppose the movie could have simply wound up being the contrived and predictable vehicle some critics complained about.  But damn it, in order to say that, you have to ignore what actually happens!  And even though spoilers abound, I don’t give them as a policy.  Suffice to say that this is one of those endings where I have to remind myself to close my jaw, several times over.

There are two things that I think really alienated the critic ranks.  One, a common complaint was predictability.  Critics thought it all too predictable.  In a sense, I see what they’re getting at; if the viewer focuses on the top notes – basically, the friendship, the love interest, the treatment of elderly by society – the story elements are not terribly original and in that sense, predictable.  But this movie uses those top notes almost as a smokescreen – much like the magicians do to the magic show audience at the end.  The layers underneath the basic storyline contain numerous blink-and-you-ll-miss-it elements that question everything  depicted in the movie.  Why did Burt’s mom work on her son’s birthday, leaving him home alone and loney, with a boxed birthday cake?  Not, as one critic said, because Burt was neglected.  His mom was a single working parent and was forced to work a double shift that day – that’s an indirect slam at American corporate culture.  Blink and you’ll miss it.  When Anton decides to do something redeeming (reminding the audience of the normal, human side of these characters) he takes magic kits to impoverished children who need food and clean drinking water.  It’s a reminder that magic is all that Anton really knows anything about, but also a satirical look at misguided philanthropy.  There is a quick cut to a girl biting the corner of one of the kits – blink and you’ll miss it.

The second thing I think really riled critics was the ending.  It is a disturbing ending, and if you just laugh at the comedy, you’re not alone, several writers did.  But this is not a funny ending, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat 70s disco-era song, Pilot’s “Magic”, played as the lead characters, who, God help us, we THOUGHT we understood – are doing nameless things to the audience while the happy music plays on –  is one of the most brilliant film devices I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t say I LIKED it, I’m just impressed as all get out by the creativity that was used.   If you try to reconcile this movie’s ending with what were supposed to be the “predictable” elements;  the trio finding success again, the triumphant return to the stage – well, that bit is the only predictable aspect, and it’s secondary to the jaw dropping conclusion.   It is certainly not predictable that they’d do what they did, and it’s so jarring that it’s frankly easier to just conclude that the writers did a bad job, that it’s all out of character and a major flaw.

The thing is, it isn’t out of character.  What do any of us know about performers and what drives them, or what they think of the audiences or of mass intellect… or what people are willing to do for money and fame? Even more subtle than that, the viewer might recall that not only Anton and Burt were bulled as schoolchildren, but so was Jane!  Are the abused predisposed to grow up into something less than human?  I sure hope not, but again, blink and you’ll miss it!  The final sequence is really brilliantly done, and on top of that, it actually builds as the soundtrack plays.  I’ve replayed the Youtube clip over and over.

See it, you won’t be bored, that’s for sure.

8/10, the 2 points aren’t deducted out of agreement with the critics, but I do think the writing could have been nuanced a bit more in the direction of not giving the critics easy pickings to complain about.

 

 

 

 

Big Eyes (2014)

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RB score:  10/10

“Big Eyes” is a somewhat unusual and fascinating project, that details the true events that transpired in the life of painter Margaret Keane, played by Amy Adams, a look-alike of the artist as a young woman.  Margaret’s life work was claimed as his own by her then-husband, Walter Keane, played by Christoph Waltz in another stroke of brilliant casting.. The theme is established with the opening, a sunny scene of a California suburb in the late 1950s, as a reporter’s voice, who provides brief, succinct and unobtrusive narration, tells us that “The 50s were a great time…. If you were a man.” The settings were marvelous, from the homes, to the clothes, to the cars. Margaret is fleeing her American-dream existence, escaping an abusive husband with her little daughter and whatever she can throw into a suitcase. Notably, her paintings are mostly what she takes with her.

From there Margaret finds a job in San Francisco, painting children’s furniture in a factory. She continues to work on her craft and meets her second husband at an art exhibit. He is all waffling charm and very gracious to both Margaret and her daughter, and even with the wisdom of modern day hind sight the viewer will appreciate how a young woman on her own would be caught under the spell of a such a manipulator, especially given the stigma endured by divorced women at the time.

When Walter discovers, quite by accident, that there exists a true market for Margaret’s paintings, he gets to work maximizing the opportunity, while letting art buyers assume the paintings are his.  The audience watches as Margaret does nothing to dispel the lies, smiling demurely in the background as she watches her husband take all credit, accepting his explanation that buyers would be deterred from purchasing paintings of a female artist. Walter’s talent for self promotion and Margaret’s talent for producing art that appealed to a wide audience combines to bring the couple great financial reward.  Soon the three are seen living in a beautiful mansion where they entertain celebrities.  Actually, Walter entertained, Margaret sat alone in a small studio painting for 16 hours a day.  Only Margaret’s daughter is aware of the truth, but then she has been since the beginning – a very affecting part of the story.

The character of Walter is both baffling and universal. There is nowhere in life you can go and not encounter someone very much like him. To complicate the portrayal, most anyone can find elements of their own relationships over the years they’d like to do differently. Flashes of self doubt make us question how we conducted ourselves or how we treated someone. For the Walter Keanes of the world, the delusion is full time, never carried out in flashes with later regret.  Never any desire to learn from mistakes, mend fences, or strive to be a better person.

Director Burton accomplishes the Walter character progression with such finesse that the viewer, even knowing full well they are watching a scoundrel, is still taken aback at what the disordered personality type is capable of, and how certain behaviors, certain boundaries, are not necessarily crossed immediately but in degrees and over time.

Margaret eventually found vindication and a renewed lease on life, and as of this writing, still paints today, although she is in her late 80s.  The movie is thoroughly engrossing and so superbly well crafted, you cannot help but be drawn in from the opening until the end, which without giving spoilers, provides some interesting and satisfying closure.

Free Movie Marathon

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable three months of free movies that is about to expire, thanks to RB switching television providers and scoring the free movie trial as well as a free year of Netflix.  To that end, I’d like to share a few nuggets of gold that shone among a lot of gravel that I sorted through, and if truth be told, well I enjoyed a bit of gravel too.  But let’s start out with gold:

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Too Big To Fail (2012)  This HBO project is excellent, and the only non-theatrical release movie that I watched.  If “The Big Short” was a big disappointment, “Too Big To Fail” succeeded for the same subject matter and on every level where the big-box movie did not.    For one thing, the movie does a much better job of explaining the catastrophe in the American financial sector, the roots of which started a lot earlier than the year that gets all the attention, 2008.  The viewer is engaged while processing a lot of high level information, and the engagement is most assuredly enhanced by superb direction, writing, and editing.   You will be drawn in from the beginning and enjoy every minute.  This ride has overpowered engines in the form of a top notch ensemble cast headed by William Hurt and James Woods.  Tons of familiar faces  in delicious roles – if this is a fast ride, you’ll feel the wind in your face as the scenery flies by, as most of them have little screen time.  Having the talents of Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon, Evan Handler, Paul Giamatti and  Bill Pullman, among others, raises the impact level even more.  See it while it’s on HBO!

 

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The Rewrite (2014)  If there were ever 2 actors who embody the concept of easygoing charm, it has to be Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei, even more so together as costars on an interesting sort of back-to-school concept.    Grant plays a once-successful screenwriter named Keith Michaels, who, unable to sell a script takes a job arranged for him through his agent’s connections, teaching a screenwriting class at Binghamton University on the east coast. To say he’s not looking forward to the career change is the height of understatement as he leaves Los Angeles for upstate New York with a mixture of resignation and dread.   Tomei is single mom Holly Carpenter, with 2 daughters and 2 jobs, who also attends school part time. As the two characters become friends amidst a series of bad decisions made by Keith, the movie’s extensive use of dialogue lets the viewer engage with the emotional connection being formed between Keith and Holly.  The movie has lots of comic elements but is really more of a character study and even a mood piece in certain places, thanks to some mesmerizing photography and a graciously inviting soundtrack.   For lovers of dialogue-driven movies, “The Rewrite” is a dream come true, complete with characters who quote Shakespeare.  The solid supporting players include J.K. Simmons as Keith’s new boss, the always dependable Allison Janney as the department head, and Chris Elliott as a fellow faculty member.  It is also an excellent companion piece to “Liberal Arts” from 2012, also reviewed on this blog.  If you enjoy one, you will certainly enjoy the other.

 

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Paradise (2013)   Ah, but here is where I fear the viewer might find more gravel than gold.   Julianne Hough and Russell Brand failed to win critical acclaim in this imperfect but nevertheless interesting and largely watchable project.  RB is predisposed to liking any movie with a Las Vegas backdrop, and is not blind to the movie’s weaknesses.  It’s just that I feel the stronger elements outweigh the problem areas.  Hough’s character, named Lamb, is raised by conservative, religious parents in a small town where the church dominates all aspects of society.  After Lamb survives a plane crash, she scandalizes the congregation and her parents by voicing disbelief in a God that put her through months of agonizing surgeries.  These opening scenes are hilariously done and the good comic timing continues as Lamb sets out for the land of sin, Las Vegas, in order to partake of forbidden pleasures.  Money is not an object – there was a pretty large settlement from the plane crash.  Russell Brand was surprisingly endearing in his role as the not-so-sleazy William, a bartender who befriends Lamb.   Together with an acerbic lounge singer played by Octavia Spencer, this extremely unlikely trio sets out together for a night on the town.   A major strength of  “Paradise” is capturing the essence of human friendships, often forged due to circumstances and often a replacement for a less than ideal family structure.  In a city like Las Vegas, those who work for a living amongst rich tourists are deftly portrayed by Spencer and Brand.  The movie’s framing device where Lamb is a product of her upbringing, alone in Sin City, works well on the whole however there are few scenes that do seem to lose their sparkle and I think this is the major flaw.    It shouldn’t deter anyone who might otherwise enjoy this film – the character of Lamb in particular has more depth and integrity than what appears at the beginning, and there was a key moment where the movie veered towards a cheesy interaction between Lamb and William, and then veered cleanly away – avoiding a cliche and cementing the integrity of both characters.  It’s really quite enjoyable to watch, you just have to approach with a different frame of mind than you would for “Too Big To Fail”.

 

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In Good Company (2004)   Dennis Quaid, in an exquisitely underplayed performance as Dan Foreman, a 51 year old ad executive being replaced by a young upstart, carries this somewhat reflective charmer of a movie, on his experienced and capable shoulders.  Dan is happily married with two daughters, a contented family man with an unshakeable inner core.  His coping mechanism after the workplace shakeups consists primarily of stark honesty, and is overall enthralling to watch.  Rampant ageism was becoming evident in the American workplace in the early 2000s but relatively unexplored in movies. While the concept of aging out of a job isn’t original, and the gradual takeover of corporate culture has been the subject of many a film, “In Good Company” takes a less dramatic turn and relies more on humor to communicate its messages.  I was impressed with much more than the dialogue and comic timing, though – the cast also conveys a lot through the use of nonverbal cues and body language. Scenes from the workplace with all of the competing agendas were especially spot on.   The new kid on the block, Carter Duryea, is played by Topher Grace, who imbues enough humility into the character to lend some added texture, keeping the formula from ever being stale.   Scarlett Johannson appears as Dan’s oldest daughter, a freshman at NYU and eventually who becomes involved with Carter.  These developing relationships and how they impacted each other are the backdrop of the story but I think the strongest messages have to do with how people, even those closest to us, are not always what they seem to be, or how we want them to be.  The audience appreciates that while Dan and his wife are the real thing, his children may grow up to be individuals in their own right – and that’s OK.  My favorite example, though, is the character Morty, played by David Paymer.  We see how Morty is ridiculed by a coworker for being a sycophant, and so, we judge him the same way.  But as the movie progresses, Morty’s minor role takes on the significance of a different perspective – is it possible he’s a genuine nice person whose outlook pays off in the long run? You decide…  as you enjoy a movie that glisters and is gold.