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:
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!
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.
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”.
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.