UNCUT GEMS (2019) – Frenzied Tale Raw & Rough But No Gem

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uncut gems

Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, the writer/director team who brought us the frenetic thriller GOOD TIME (2017), are back at it again with UNCUT GEMS (2019), another frenzied tale, this one about a New York City jeweler played by Adam Sandler in one of his best dramatic performances ever who is so addicted to gambling he can’t go a second without trying to set up the next big bet.

And that’s pretty much the plot of UNCUT GEMS. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a jeweler who simply can’t stop gambling. It’s his passion in life, and it comes at the expense of his family, friends, business, and his own personal safety, as he constantly owes people, some of them dangerous, lots of money.

The opening moments of the film set the tone for the rest of the movie. Ratner is on his phone walking the streets of New York City chattering and swearing at an insane pace, balancing multiple deals and situations simultaneously. The film never looks back. It pretty much keeps up this frantic pace for its entire two-hour and fifteen minute running time. It’s ultimately an exhausting experience.

Ratner runs a private business, the type of place where he buzzes in his upscale eclectic clients through two doors, one made of bullet proof glass. One of his clients, Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, played here by himself, eyes a rare rock which Ratner tells him is worth millions. Garnett wants it, but Ratner tells him it’s not for sale, that he’s putting it up for auction, and that Garnett is welcome to bid on it. Garnett asks to keep it overnight, and for collateral he gives Ratner his championship ring.

This sets off a series of chain reactions, as Ratner pawns the ring, Garnett doesn’t give the rock back immediately, and Ratner owes some dangerous people large sums of money that he ultimately promises he will get them after he pulls off a monster bet on the Boston Celtics playoff game against the 76ers, since he knows Garnett is extra pumped for the game since he has in his possession his “mystical” rock.

All this occurs against the back drop of Ratner’s crumbling family life. He’s never around for his family, his wife is filing for divorce, his extended religious Jewish family has no idea what’s going on, and he’s having an affair and sharing an apartment with his beautiful employee Julia (Julia Fox) who for some reason finds Ratner irresistible.

If you haven’t noticed, Ratner really isn’t that likable a guy, and for me, that’s one of the biggest knocks against UNCUT GEMS. I didn’t like Ratner all that much and didn’t really care what happened to him, and so I was nowhere near as invested in the plot of this one as I had expected to be.

Benny and Josh Safdie have made another high-octane manic tale, but that being said, I liked their previous effort GOOD TIME much better than UNCUT GEMS. GOOD TIME was a thriller with characters who while they weren’t nice people— they were bank robbers— were involved in a story that the audience could relate to and get behind. That’s not the case here with UNCUT GEMS. In GOOD TIME, the main character was trying to rescue his learning disabled brother after a bank robbery gone wrong. In UNCUT GEMS, Howard Ratner is out for no one other than himself. He basically screws over everyone he comes in contact with, not because he’s a bad person necessarily, but because he’s focused on one thing and one thing only: the next big score. Nothing else matters to him. It’s what he lives for.

So I have mixed feelings on the screenplay by Benny and Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. On the one hand, it succeeds in creating a wild and unpredictable story that is fresh and unnerving throughout, but it fails to create characters who you give two cents for.

Adam Sandler is as good as advertised. It’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him deliver. Ever. He’s really good. Unfortunately, the character he’s playing, Howard Ratner, is an unlikable gambling addict who’s pretty much a toxic person throughout.

In spite of Sandler’s presence, UNCUT GEMS is not a comedy. I know in some circles the film is being touted as a “dramedy” but there’s little that is funny about this movie. In fact, the predominant emotion here is sadness. Ratner is on a collision course with disaster, and there’s nothing in the film that deviates from this gloomy mood. You just know where this one is going to go from the get-go.

That being said, it was fun to see Kevin Garnett play himself. And sure, by playing himself he’s not going to receive many accolades for his acting performance, but he is consistently natural and never once appears to be “acting.”

I also liked Julia Fox as Ratner’s girlfriend Julia. Other notables in the cast include Eric Brogosian as one of Ratner’s more violent adversaries, and Judd Hirsch as Ratner’s father.

The film does have some good moments, but most of these are terribly depressing. One brief light bit involves John Amos as himself as one of Ratner’s neighbors.

Daniel Lopatin wrote the music score, and it’s very similar to the score he wrote for GOOD TIME. I enjoyed his GOOD TIME score more. Here, the music’s main job seems to be to add more cacophony to the already insane proceedings.

UNCUT GEMS is an exhausting and mostly depressing film. Its pace actually picks up towards the end, which is almost unbelievable, as Ratner waits on the results of the Celtics playoff game to see if he’ll win his big score. This climactic sequence is probably the best part of the movie.

But the film as a whole is uneven at best because its main character Howard Ratner embodies little else other than a one way ticket to the gutter.

It’s rough and raw, but hardly a gem.

—END—

 

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) – Doesn’t Offer Much of a Rise

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star wars the rise of skywalker

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), the final film in the epic nine movie STAR WARS saga, is indicative of what the series has ultimately become. It’s a superiorly crafted movie in which everything looks amazing but without compelling storylines and characters, there’s simply not all that much to be excited about.

Ouch!

But it’s true.

When the original STAR WARS (1977) came out, I was in 7th grade, and I absolutely loved it. I loved its sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) even more, so much so that today all these years later it remains my favorite in the series.

But then came RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). I was in college for this one, and it marked the first time I was disappointed with a STAR WARS movie. It’s not just the Ewoks either, although they were my least favorite part of the film. I thought the pacing and the way it went about telling its story was all off, especially following upon the heels of EMPIRE.

The prequels in the middle of the series, which chronicled the back story of villain Darth Vader, were meh, although I did enjoy STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).

And while the latest three STAR WARS films— THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), THE LAST JEDI (2017) and now this one, have successfully recaptured the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, at the same time introducing new characters and closing the book on some of the original characters, they have hardly been game changers.

The biggest culprit? The writing.

I don’t mean to imply that the folks writing these movies are bad writers, but rather, that good writing is not the priority with these films. In other words, time and energy is spent on the technical side of these movies rather than on the written word. As a result, very little of what happens on screen has any resonance.

Here in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, new character Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still searching for answers regarding her parentage, still training to become a Jedi, and oh yeah still busy battling the villainous First Order. Yup, she has a lot on her plate.

Likewise, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still busy with his quest to take over the galaxy, which means sometimes leading the First Order and other times wooing Rey to join him in order to become the galaxy’s all-powerful super couple. He has trouble with his past as well, since his parents are Han Solo— who he killed in THE FORCE AWAKENS—- and Princess Leia— but his granddaddy is Darth Vader. He kinda wants to be like his grandpa, only more powerful.

To complicate matters, it’s learned that the dastardly Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) didn’t really die at the end of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI but has been secretly hibernating waiting for his chance to crush the rebellion once and for all.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Yup, we’ve heard this all before. Like the TERMINATOR franchise, the STAR WARS series also suffers from serious plot redundancy.

All this being said, I certainly enjoyed STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. It’s an entertaining piece of filmmaking. It’s just not an entertaining piece of storytelling.

Regarding the two main characters, I like them both a lot, so that’s not a problem. Rey is the most compelling character in this new trilogy, and Daisy Ridley is superb in the role. She strikes a nice balance between serious intensity, angst over her unknown familial roots, and a sense of caring and strength not really seen in any of the other characters. She makes for a much more interesting Jedi than either Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, or Anakin Skywalker. And it’s refreshing to have the most powerful character in the new series be a woman.

She’s the best part of this final trilogy, and the story here doesn’t really let her down either. The answers provided regarding her parentage are adequate.

Kylo Ren has grown on me throughout the series. I was not a fan back in THE FORCE AWAKENS, but he won me over in THE LAST JEDI. Adam Driver is excellent as the tortured wannabe villain who strives to outdo the memory of Darth Vader but can’t seem to shake the influence of his parents Leia and Han Solo.

The other new characters I have not enjoyed as much. Both Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have only been okay, although they enjoy some of their best moments in the series in this movie. They’re the energetic wise-cracking resistance fighters, and they do a nice job filling in the for the spirit of Han Solo, but nearly all of their banter seems rehashed from the original series. It definitely suffers from the “having seen this all before” issue.

And of course, since this is being billed as the final film in the series, it attempts to wrap everything up nicely from all the previous movies. Sort of. There are some glaring omissions. More on that in a bit.

Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker, but don’t expect too much from him here, since he’s relegated to appearing in Force-ghost form, since the character died in the previous movie.

Carrie Fisher returns sporadically in archive footage as Princess Leia since Fisher passed away before this movie was filmed.

Old friends Chewbacca, C-3PO, an R2D2 are all back, with Chewie and 3PO getting the best moments. Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando Calrissian, who serves as a sort of cheerleader to Finn and Poe, telling them that in his day neither he, Luke, Leia, or Han, knew exactly what they were doing either, and they just relied on each other and made things happen, which is a point well taken as it inspires Finn and Poe to get off their butts and save the galaxy.

Now back to those omissions. For a movie wrapping up the final chapter of a nine film series not to include Darth Vader, Ben Kenobi, or Yoda, that’s just flat-out weird, and disappointing. Darth Vader was the larger than life villain in the first trilogy, and then the second trilogy was devoted to his back story, and for him here to receive nary a mention other than his beat-up helmet is simply odd.

As I said, the screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams fails to really resonate on any level other than the superficial. The story itself is a rehash of earlier movies— the rebellion is outmanned and outgunned, how will they ever succeed? Yadda, yadda, yadda. And the characters are hardly exciting.

The two best characters, Rey and Kylo Ren, enjoy the best moments in the film, but even these moments aren’t original. For example, Rey has her “I am your father moment” and Kylo Ren has his “I love you. — I know,” moment, but neither one is as good as the original scenes from which they’re inspired. And that’s because little that happens to these two feels new at all.

J.J. Abrams returned to the director’s chair for this one. He had also directed THE FORCE AWAKENS.  He takes great care to carve out various homage moments throughout, all the way down to the final scene, and these bits are enjoyable and appreciated.

But any emotion gets lost in an incredibly fast pace which features one action scene after another. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the kind of movie I generally do not enjoy, one that never stops to take a breath or seemingly have a meaningful conversation. The drawback obviously is the characterizations suffer mightily and you end up with a movie with characters you don’t care about. The only saving grace is we’ve met these characters before, so we know who they are, but it still makes for boring storytelling.

It’s one of the reasons the MARVEL superhero movies are generally always good. They never sacrifice character development, even in the AVENGERS movies which featured a ton of main characters. Great care is spent on these folks’ personalities so that nearly every time they’re on-screen something notable is happening. That’s not the case in the STAR WARS series.

The special effects are amazing as always, but are there memorable images and action sequences? Not really, no.  For example, one sequence featuring a raging ocean has potential, but when it plays out, it’s all so smooth and harmless, and then it’s on to the next action scene.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the ninth film in the STAR WARS series, and it seems like it. If you’re a fan of the series, you no doubt will enjoy its Jedi vs. Dark Side angst, eye-popping space action sequences, and colorful wise-cracking quips, but for those of us who see tons of movies year in and year out, these films are hardly on the meter for what constitutes the best in modern cinema.

Sadly, this wasn’t always the case.

After all, “May the Force be with you” didn’t enter the cultural lexicon by accident.

—END—

 

 

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Here’s a look at some memorable quotes from my favorite STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.

But first a word about the screenwriters.

One of the more impressive things about THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was that George Lucas, who wrote and directed the first STAR WARS movie in 1977, made the creative decision to hand over both the directing and writing reigns to other people. This was both a bold and wise decision by Lucas, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a better movie for it. By delegating these main duties to other artists, Lucas ensured a fresh take on the material.

While Irvin Kershner took over the directing duties, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay, while George Lucas received story credit. Brackett died of cancer shortly after writing the first draft of the screenplay, and rumor has it that few of her ideas survived the heavy rewrites by Kasdan and George Lucas.

Brackett was a noted science fiction author who also worked on the screenplays for such classic movies as THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and RIO BRAVO (1959). Lawrence Kasdan would go on to write the screenplay for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and THE BIG CHILL (1983), among others.

Okay, so let’s have a listen to some of those quotes from arguably the best STAR WARS movie of them all:

The liveliest quotes come from the liveliest character in the entire series, and that would be Han Solo (Harrison Ford). EMPIRE is the movie where the romance between Han and Princess Leia began to blossom, and a lot of their best scenes include banter like this:

HAN SOLO: Well Princess, it looks like you managed to keep me here a while longer.

LEIA: I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it’s dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they’ve activated the energy shield.

HAN SOLO: That’s a good story. I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.

LEIA: I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.

CHEWBACCA laughs.

HAN SOLO: Laugh it up, fuzzball.

 

Then there’s this exchange with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels):

C-3PO:  Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.

HAN SOLO: Never tell me the odds.

 

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Yoda also have some memorable exchanges.

LUKE: All right, I’ll give it a try.

YODA: No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

 

LUKE: I don’t, I don’t believe it.

YODA: That is why you fail.

 

LUKE: I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.

YODA: You will be. You… will… be.

As you can see here, it’s Yoda who gets the best lines in these exchanges, which is no surprise, because Luke Skywalker— and for me, this has always been a fundamental flaw in the STAR WARS series— is— well there’s no other way to say it— he’s boring. In fact, all of the Jedi are boring. It’s why the series struggles so often, because at its core, it’s about main characters who are about as exciting and interesting as that mannequin in a store front window. Don’t get me wrong. I love STAR WARS. But their heroes put me to sleep, except for Han Solo.

It’s also why Darth Vader became so insanely popular. He’s the most interesting character in the series, which is why the prequel trilogy is all the more tragic: they were about the series’ most interesting character, and they still failed to be compelling, except for the third film. REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).

Anyway, here in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Darth Vader (David Prowse) gets a lot of memorable lines, like after he chokes one of his captains to death:

DARTH VADER: Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

And in this exchange with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams):

DARTH VADER: Take the princess and the Wookie to my ship.

LANDO: You said they’d be left at the city under my supervision!

DARTH VADER: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

But the two most famous quotes come from two of the movie’s most famous scenes. The first is when Han Solo has been captured by Darth Vader and is about to be frozen in Carbonite. Before succumbing to his fate, Han has this exchange with Princess Leia:

HAN SOLO: (To Chewbacca) No! Stop, Chewie, stop! Chewie! Chewie this won’t help me! Hey! Save your strength. There’ll be another time. The Princess. You have to take care of her. You hear me? Huh?

(Han and Leia kiss.)

LEIA: I love you.

HAN SOLO: I know.

I saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at the movies upon its initial release in 1980 in a packed theater, and that line brought down the house, a combination of the emotion of the moment and Han’s cockiness on full display, even as he was about to be frozen alive. That line, “I know,” was evidently suggested by Harrison Ford.

But the most famous scene in the film is of course the film’s climactic reveal, which is a spoiler, I guess, if you’re one of the few people on the planet who has never seen THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So, if you haven’t seen it, I guess skip the next sequence of dialogue:

DARTH VADER:  There is no escape. Don’t make me destroy you. Luke, you do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

LUKE: I’ll never join you!

DARTH VADER: If you only knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

LUKE:  He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

DARTH VADER: No. I am your father.

LUKE: No. No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!

DARTH VADER: Search your feelings, you know it to be true!

LUKE: No! No!

Yep, and there you have Darth Vader uttering the most famous line in the entire series, I am your father, and what does Luke get to say in response?  “No, no!”

Poor Luke.

Anyway, STAR WARS is an epic series, a fun series, and it does have its share of memorable quotes, a lot of them coming in the second film in the series, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which remains, for my money, the best of the lot.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES and that you’ll join me again next time when we look at quotes from another classic movie.

Thanks for reading!

Michael

QUEEN & SLIM (2019) – More Love Story Than Crime Story

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queen and slim

In QUEEN & SLIM (2019), the two main characters are referred to once in the movie as “the black Bonnie & Clyde.” This really isn’t accurate. Bonnie & Clyde were criminals with a violent agenda. The two main characters here have no agenda. They just happened to shoot a cop in self-defense.

When they go on the run, they find themselves unexpectedly with a following, as people see their action against an aggressive white police officer as justified and necessary, and worthy of both applause and protection.

The strongest part about QUEEN & SLIM is what it says about society in the here and now, that folks are so distraught and afraid of police brutality, they find themselves rallying around folks like the two main characters in the movie. This part of the movie resonates throughout. Black Lives Matter is a real movement, and this movie taps into those emotions.

On the other hand, since the two main characters really just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their story, in terms of dramatic impact, the longer it goes on, doesn’t work as well, and the film struggles to reach its final reel with the same edge with which it began.

Another reason the drama diminishes is the two characters aren’t interested really in the movement they’ve created. They were just out on a date. Their story arc has less to do with societal matters and much more to do with simple survival, and the fact that they find themselves liking each other a lot, so much so, that by film’s end, they’ve fallen in love.

In a way, QUEEN & SLIM is much more a love story than it is a crime story, although you can’t really take the crime out of the plot. Without it, the date ends, and Queen and Slim probably don’t see each other again.

QUEEN & SLIM opens on a first date between Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) at a restaurant in one of the film’s best written scenes. Indeed, based on the writing alone, the movie gets off to a strong start.

On the car ride after the date, the couple gets pulled over by a very aggressive white police officer who we learn later shot a black man and was found innocent of any wrongdoing. This officer eventually pulls a gun on Slim and shoots Queen in the leg. In the ensuing scuffle, Slim shoots the officer. Dead.

Not knowing what to do next, the couple just decides to drive away, and they pretty much make things up as they go along. The rest of the movie follows their efforts to elude a nationwide manhunt. While doing so, they fall in love.  They eventually decide to flee to Cuba, and to get there, they receive lots of help from folks who see them as heroes.

I liked QUEEN AND SLIM for the most part, and I definitely enjoyed the first half better than the second. The plight of these two characters, who didn’t ask to be in the situation they find themselves in, simply isn’t strong enough to carry an entire movie.

It ultimately is a very sad story. It’s also quite maddening. Right after Slim shoots the officer, his first inclination is to stay there and call the police, to do the right thing. But Queen tells him if he does that, he won’t survive the night. This advice generally makes no sense. However, in this case, could anyone argue that Queen is wrong?

And that’s the best part of the screenplay by Lena Waithe. It taps into real racial tensions that are prevalent throughout the film. It also boasts really good dialogue, especially between the two main players.

I really enjoyed the two leads, Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen. Kaluuya was excellent in GET OUT (2017). I think his performance stood out more in that film, but he’s nearly as good here.

Jody Turner-Smith delivers a potent performance at Queen. Her character has a devastating back story, and Turner-Smith captures the brokenness of the character. She and Kaluuya work well together and share some strong chemistry. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he takes her dancing at a local club. Sparks fly between them.

Bokeem Woodbine has a field day as Queen’s Uncle Earl. He enjoys some of the liveliest bits in the movie.

Director Melina Matsoukas keeps the film riveting early on, but towards the end things slow down a bit. There are some really impressive sequences, from the initial tense traffic stop with the combative cop, to the aforementioned dance scene, to the sequence where a community marches against the police in protest, to the sequence where Queen and Slim have to jump from a very high second story window.

But things do slow down towards the end, mostly because Queen and Slim aren’t really protagonists. Instead, they react to events around them, as they lay low from the authorities while trying to escape to Cuba.

As QUEEN & SLIM moves towards its inevitable conclusion, things become sadder and more tragic, but they also become slower and less compelling. Don’t expect shoot-outs from characters who suddenly embrace violence to get their message across.

The only thing Queen and Slim are interested in embracing is each other, which is highly commendable, but not exactly a gold mine for riveting storytelling.

—END—

 

BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019) – Me Too Movement Horror Movie Makes Its Point

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black christmas

The scariest thing about BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019), the new horror movie about sorority girls being terrorized by a supernatural killer, is its subtext— that men prey on women and get away with it.

It’s the scariest part because it’s largely true. You don’t have to look far to realize this, from who’s president of the United States in 2019, to the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Justice hearings. BLACK CHRISTMAS is driven by the overwhelming frustration women feel in the battle with abusive men.

It’s also the scariest part because the horror elements in the movie really don’t work all that well.

But its subtext works and works well, in spite of the fact that the film hits you over the head with its theme time and time again, to the point where it’s so blatantly obvious it almost defeats its purpose. Almost. It doesn’t because, as I said, it’s based on truth, and truth works.

BLACK CHRISTMAS is a remake, the second remake actually of the 1974 movie BLACK CHRISTMAS, which was directed by Bob Clark, the man who also gave us the classic Christmas movie A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). The original BLACK CHRISTMAS starred Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon, and is a highly regarded horror film, notable because as a “slasher” movie, it pre-dates John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) by four years, which is significant because HALLOWEEN is largely considered to be the movie which jettisoned the slasher movie genre.

The remake BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006) is not so highly regarded. Now comes the 2019 version, written and directed by Sophia Takai as a Me Too Movement horror movie. This new BLACK CHRISTMAS isn’t exactly getting lots of love, and I suspect a lot of that criticism is because of the film’s feminist angle rather than on its merits as a horror movie.

That being said, it’s not a great horror movie, but the point it is making is well taken, especially here in 2019. Just ten years ago the blatancy of this film would not have worked, but its raw take on the issue resonates in the here and now.

It’s just before Christmas break, and most college students are on their way home to spend time with their families, but some students remain on campus. Riley (Imogen Poots) and her sorority sisters Kris (Aleyse Shannon) and Marty (Lily Donoghue) are among those who are staying. While the girls prepare to perform a song at the big fraternity party on the last night before students leave, Riley is struggling emotionally because the young man who sexually assaulted her and got away with it because people didn’t believe her side of the story, will be at the party.

The girls perform their song, and it is a biting attack on the young men in the fraternity, especially towards the young man Riley accused of assaulting her. They are booed off the stage. Soon afterwards, they begin receiving obscure yet threatening text messages, and when some of their sisters disappear, they fear they are being targeted, perhaps by frat boys with a vendetta.

Now, there are many ways this story could have gone. The fact that it takes the most obvious and ridiculous path does not help its cause as a horror movie. See, in this story, the villains are those fraternity brothers who have somehow made a supernatural pact with the undying spirit of their sexist racist university founder, which as a result turns them into supernatural killers!

Yup. The plot is that ridiculous.

However, the subtext in this movie is not ridiculous, and that’s why it ultimately works. The lyrics to the sisters’ song at the party are spot on, and capture real frustrations and real pain.The idea that men treat women this way is not ludicrous. Men do treat women this way. Not all men, obviously, and the film covers this point by having some male characters who are above this sort of nonsense. In fact, one of them, Marty’s boyfriend, comes right out and tells them he’s offended that they would attack all men since he’s not like that, and that they’re not doing themselves any favors by doing so. He also points out that they were naive not to expect that the fraternity brothers wouldn’t target them after they performed such a humiliating song at the party. He is then promptly killed off. So much for the enlightened male!

Sure, I would have preferred a more clever plot, one that was more ambitious, where perhaps Riley and her sisters might find themselves working side by side with the frat brothers to fend off  a common enemy, the supernatural killer, but that’s not really how things work in 2019, is it? You don’t see opposing sides coming together all that often. Again, the film’s take on this issue resonates.

BLACK CHRISTMAS attempts to do with sexism what GET OUT (2017) did with racism, that is, make a horror movie with a strong and relevant theme. BLACK CHRISTMAS is far less successful in this regard as its attempts to do so, while appreciated, are way too simplistic and over the top to be completely successful. Yet, somehow, it still works.

For example, in the climactic scene where the fraternity brothers finally get a hold of Riley, and they force her onto her knees, say some very humiliating things to her, and make her say some humiliating things, it’s all so over-the-top it strains credibility. Yet, it’s a very uncomfortable scene because in spite of the ridiculousness of the the sequence’s horror elements, the things said are not only awful, they’re real. I mean, these things are said about women.

And that’s ultimately why this movie worked for me. It speaks to an issue that is real.

I like Imogen Poots a lot, and she’s really good here in the lead role as Riley. She brings to life Riley’s deep pain, her fears, her insecurities, and ultimately her strength in rising up against her attackers.

The rest of the cast is fine, although screen veteran Cary Elwes is stuck playing the very one-sided Professor Gelson, who makes it no secret to the girls that he’s out to get them because of their petition to have him removed from the University for his insistence of teaching them literature only written by white males.

BLACK CHRISTMAS is not going to win any awards for being subtle, or for being a really good horror movie. But its presence here in 2019 is a good indicator of what a lot of women are feeling and of their need to strike back against threats they see as alive and well in the here and now.

—END—

 

 

THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Scorsese’s Latest A Showcase for De Niro and Pacino But Not Among Director’s Best

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the irishman

I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, so it goes without saying that I’m somewhat biased towards Scorsese’s latest movie, THE IRISHMAN (2019), which stars both De Niro and Pacino.

In short, I really liked it.

That being said, as much as I liked it, it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year, nor is it one of Scorsese’s best.

How could it be? With films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990) in his canon of work, he’d be hard-pressed to match the quality of those masterpieces. Of course, there are a lot of folks out there right now who claim that he has, that THE IRISHMAN indeed ranks as one of Scorsese’s best. I didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, I enjoyed some of his other latter releases better, films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), HUGO (2011), and THE DEPARTED (2006).

THE IRISHMAN chronicles the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whose lifelong association with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) led him into a relationship with teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). And while Frank and Hoffa became lifelong friends, Frank’s mob ties led to his involvement with Hoffa’s infamous disappearance.

THE IRISHMAN is long and sprawling, clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Produced by Netflix, in addition to its limited theatrical run, it also premiered on the streaming service, and since I’m not made of money, I opted to watch it inside the comfort of my own living room on Netflix rather than pay for a movie ticket.

It takes its time telling its story, but to its credit it never drags or comes off as boring. I pretty much enjoyed every one of its 209 minutes. The story itself, told in flashback by a very old Frank Sheeran as he looks back at his life, covers events over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a lot of the film occuring in mid 1970s. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is as compelling as it’s comprehensive. The story is fascinating throughout and the characters convincing. Of course, it helps that it’s based on real people, and that it’s being acted by giants of the field.

Zaillian has an impressive resume, having written the scripts for such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Much of the hype surrounding THE IRISHMAN regarded its special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Since the story takes place over so many years, rather than hire actors to play these characters at different ages, Scorsese decided to use a combination CGI and motion capture effects to film the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at these different ages. The results are a mixed bag. I thought the changes made to the actors’ faces by far was the best. I have little to complain about here. However, both De Niro and Pacino are in their 70s, and so while their faces looked younger, their bodies and their movements did not. To me, they always appeared like older actors portraying younger men, in spite of the digital enhancements to make them look younger.

As expected, the acting in THE IRISHMAN is powerful throughout. Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since his supporting role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and his best lead role in years, for me, since RONIN (1998). In fact, watching De Niro in this movie was by far my favorite part of this film.

Al Pacino is also excellent as Jimmy Hoffa, and he enjoys many fine moments as well.

One drawback, however, is that both De Niro and Pacino here are portraying characters who are not Italian, and yet they’re surrounded by the Italian mob. I found this distracting and had a difficult time buying their take on non-Italian characters here.

THE IRISHMAN also features notable performances by acting heavyweights Joe Pesci— who came out of retirement to make this movie— and Harvey Keitel. Ray Romano also delivers an impressive supporting performance as mob lawyer Bill Bufalino.

As much as I liked THE IRISHMAN, I can’t place it up there with Scorsese’s best. It’s fascinating and compelling but rarely disturbing. For a mob movie starring the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, that’s saying a lot that you can watch this film without breaking into a nervous sweat.

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DARK WATERS (2019) – Somber Story of Dupont’s Negligence Revealing and Grim

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dark waters

DARK WATERS (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who goes after the Dupont chemical company for knowingly dumping poisonous chemicals into the water supply of a West Virginia town is one somber movie.

It’s grim because one, it’s based on a true story, and two, Dupont’s negligence as described in this movie goes well beyond contaminating the water supply of one small town. With their Teflon marketing for cookware, they knowingly put the entire nation at risk and beyond. Indeed, Dupont’s callousness reached a global scale.

Enjoy your popcorn!

So, yes, DARK WATERS deals with some very heavy subject matter, and it does it in a way that is unassuming and direct. Its style reminded me a lot of another somber movie which starred Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT (2015), which chronicled the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like SPOTLIGHT, DARK WATERS simply allows its story to unfold. It doesn’t get overdramatic or fill its screen time with forced bells and whistles. Its story is damaging enough on its own.

In the mid 1990s attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at his firm which specializes in representing large companies like Dupont. So, when he is approached by a farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking him to represent him in a case against Dupont, Robert tells him he needs to find another attorney.  But Tennant tells Robert he’s a friend of his grandmother’s, and so, out of respect for his grandmother, he pays Tennant a visit.

Robert sees firsthand the damage done at Tennant’s farm. Nearly all his cattle have died, and Tennant wants Dupont investigated because he believes they have been spilling chemicals into his land via a neighboring landfill. Robert agrees to take the case, and as he explains it to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) he believes it will just be a matter of opening Dupont’s eyes to a mistake made by some of their local workers. They’ll fix the mistake, and that will be the end of that.

Hardly.

What Robert uncovers is that Dupont knew exactly what they were doing, and that their disregard for the dangers uncovered by their own research went back decades. Of course, once he discovers this, he is met by fierce resistance both by Dupont and his own firm who see it as bad business to take on a giant like Dupont. But Robert is undeterred, and he continues to wage his battle against the chemical giant, even as it takes its toll on his family and his own health.

I really liked DARK WATERS, even though watching it was certainly not a pleasurable experience. Quite the contrary, it was as disturbing a cinematic experience as I’ve had in a while. The ramifications of its story reach deep into the heart of its audience as it sheds light on an issue that is still with us today. In short, the “forever chemicals” carelessly dumped into the environment by Dupont are already in all of our bloodstreams. Forever chemicals are those which the human body cannot break down. The damage is already done.

Director Todd Haynes, as I said, does not get in the way of this story, nor does he try to sensationalize it. Even though Dupont is viewed as an “evil company,” the focus throughout remains on main character Robert Bilott and the toll the case takes on him. The emphasis is on the human element, how these chemicals harmed the folks in that West Virginia town, and beyond.

Haynes heightens the direness of the story by filming it in dreary drab grays. The countryside is depicted under cloudy skies. The sun is hardly seen. There’s a cloud hanging over West Virginia, and its name is Dupont.

Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is simple and to the point. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to overemphasize things, it does enjoy some rousing moments, like Tim Robbins’ speech as Tom Terp, where he’s listening to his fellow attorneys at the firm cautioning against taking on Dupont, and then he explodes in anger, saying what Robert has uncovered is a travesty, and that the folks at Dupont need to be called out for their recklessness, that American business is better than that, and that how everyone at that table should be chomping at the bit to take on Dupont.

Mark Ruffalo is excellent at Robert Bilott. He delivers a powerful performance and he does it in a way which goes against what you might expect. He doesn’t deliver fiery emotional speeches or become more energized the deeper he gets into his investigation. No, it’s the opposite. The investigation nearly kills him. Instead of rousing speeches, he speaks less and less, as if the horrors of his findings are overwhelming him into silence. He grows more and more unhealthy, and Ruffalo does a remarkable job capturing the descent that Robert takes, all the while never backing down..

Anne Hathaway spends the first half of the movie in the thankless role of the stay-at-home housewife, but she turns it on during the film’s second half. Whereas Robert is beaten down, Hathway’s Sarah Bilott steps up for her husband, and she enjoys one of the movie’s better moments as she gives Tim Robbins’ Tom Terp a piece of her mind.

Tim Robbins is very good as Tom Terp, the attorney who sincerely wants to support Robert, and says as much several times during the movie, but as the senior partner at the firm, he has to look out for its best interests, which puts him at odds with Robert the longer this case drags on, and it does drag on. In fact, the end of the movie states that Robert Bilott continues his fight even today.

Bill Pullman shows up for a couple of brief scenes as the lively attorney Harry Dietzler, and he enjoys some fine moments helping Robert take on Dupont’s attorneys. And Victor Garber is sufficiently icy as Dupont head Phil Donnelly.

But my favorite performance in the film belongs to Bill Camp. His portrayal of farmer Wilbur Tennant is as authentic as you can get. Plus the character is integral to the story. He’s the man who first contacted Robert, and he’s also the man who speaks the truth throughout. It takes Robert a while to catch on to this, but when he does, he becomes all the more dedicated to helping Camp and his family, who like his animals, have also been diagnosed with cancer.

DARK WATERS is not a fun movie, and it’s not supposed to be. It tells a story that should be viewed and considered by as many people as possible.  And it serves as a reminder of what happens when large companies are allowed to operate unchecked, and more importantly, what can happen when even one dedicated person decides enough is enough and it’s time to fight back.

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