THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) – Story of Down Syndrome Youth One of Year’s Best

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Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON (2019) is certainly a feel-good movie.

It tells a winning story, and with its talented, experienced cast, it delivers the goods.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is the story of a young man with Down syndrome named Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his film debut). His family abandoned him, and so he is living in a retirement home. Even though he receives attentive care from his case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak is unhappy.

He continually watches a video featuring pro-wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) which advertises the wrestler’s pro-wrestling school in North Carolina. Zak wants to travel to that school, meet his idol, and become a wrestler. With the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes.

On the run, Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who’s on the run himself, fleeing from some undesirables who are out for revenge after Tyler purposely damaged some of their property. Tyler is an unhappy man who’s trying to exorcise some personal demons, most involving the death of his older brother. Tyler initially wants no part of Zak, but after saving Zak from a bully, he changes his tune and listens to Zak’s story of wanting to meet The Salt Water Redneck.

Tyler promises to get Zak to North Carolina, and the two embark on a journey to fulfill Zak’s dreams, while being pursued by the men who are after Tyler.

Meanwhile, Eleanor learns that the retirement home is not going to report Zak’s disappearance to the state, and they task her with finding him herself. Furthermore, the home intends to transfer him to a facility which houses some rather dangerous occupants. When she finally catches up with Zak and Tyler and sees the bond which Zak has formed with the drifter, she’s not in any hurry to bring Zak back to an uncertain future with the state, and so she joins the two on their quest to make Zak’s dream become a reality.

It may sound sappy, but it’s not. Far from it, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a heartwarming film that has a lot to say about relationships and how to treat people with disabilities.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Eleanor first catches up with Zak and Tyler and instantly becomes very protective and parental with Zak, and Tyler tells her to stop acting that way, that Zak is more than capable of taking care of himself. In fact, Tyler teaches Zak how to swim, how to shoot a gun, and most importantly, how to believe in himself.

I really liked the way Zak was depicted in this movie, and I thought the portrayal of a man with Down syndrome here was extremely accurate.

The film does such a powerful job with its story elements, that the film’s climax, which involves Zak’s finally getting his chance inside a wrestling ring, at the same time that the men chasing Tyler close in for the kill, actually produced audible gasps from the audience. It’s been a while since I experienced that in a theater. [Okay, it hasn’t been that long, as there were plenty of gasps at the end of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), but before that, it had been a while!]

The cast here is awesome.

Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, makes his film debut here and is flawless in the role of Zak. He obviously nails the authenticity of the role, but more than that, he possesses a screen presence and timing that someone who does not have acting talent would not have been able to do. When Tyler asks him to repeat Rule #1 to him, and Zak says “Party!” not only is it a fresh moment in the movie, but it was also ad-libbed by Gottsagen.

I’ve never been a big fan of Shia LeBeouf, but he knocks it out of the park here, in a role that was originally intended for Ben Foster. It just might be the best screen performance I’ve seen LeBeouf give. He makes Tyler real, gritty, and earthy, and he makes him just as authentic a character as Gottsagen makes Zak.

Dakota Johnson is also perfect as Eleanor. I’ve enjoyed her in other movies, films like BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) and NEED FOR SPEED (2014), and I’m so glad she’s moved on from the awful FIFTY SHADES OF GREY movies. She’s a talented actor, and I can’t wait to see what she will do next. Here, in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, she creates in Eleanor a character who’s sincere, well-meaning, and also cognizant that the state isn’t really the best provider for a person with Zak’s needs.

Thomas Haden Church also does a fine job during the film’s climax as Zak’s wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck. And any time you can have Bruce Dern in a movie’s cast, even in a small supporting role, it’s a major plus. He only has a couple of minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of it, similar to what he did earlier this year in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019).

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and they do a phenomenal job. The characters are all sharply written, no clichés here, and the story moves along at a solid pace that keeps the audience riveted to the story throughout. It’s also beautifully photographed, in the southern waters of Georgia and North Carolina.

The Peanut Butter Falcon refers to the name Zak chooses to be his wrestling alter ego when he’s in the ring.

I really enjoyed THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON.

It’s one of the best movies of the year.

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ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

—END—

 

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BOOKSMART (2019) – Raunchy Teen Comedy Has Its Moments

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BOOKSMART (2019), the new R-rated teen comedy by first-time director Olivia Wilde, has a lot of things going for it: a fun premise, sharp comedic and oftentimes poignant writing, a talented cast, and energetic direction.

But what it doesn’t have is a strong sense of realism. While I enjoyed most of BOOKSMART, I can’t say that I believed in much of it, which is too bad because parts of this movie have a lot to say.

With BOOKSMART, director Olivia Wilde takes the coming of age stories found in films like EIGHTH GRADE (2018) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and turns them into a raunchy R-rated comedy. The good news is the film never deteriorates into mindless vulgarity, but the bad news is it never reaches the level of truth and sensitivity found in the aforementioned movies either.

In BOOKSMART, high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of graduation realize that their classmates who goofed around through high school still got into the colleges of their choice, and so they decide if their classmates can do both, that is party and still get into top colleges, then they can as well, and so they decide to party hearty for one big night just to say they did before they graduated high school.

The film follows their attempts to find the huge class party (since they weren’t invited) which leads to one mishap after another since they’re not very good at this sort of thing, but they’re determined, and do eventually make it to the party to end all parties where they hope to finally engage in the relationships they only thought about during their four years of high school.

BOOKSMART is lively and energetic from start to finish. At times, the girls’ mishaps on their quest to find the elusive party reminded me of the situations in the HANGOVER movies, although nothing here reaches the level of insane comedy found in that series, although this film certainly tries. Director Olivia Wilde lets everything fly, even including a hilarious scene featuring Amy and Molly as animated figures.

The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman is very funny. The best part about the humor is it takes the usual drug and sex jokes and keeps them honest and prevents them from being cliché. Indeed, the humor works best when the situations are honest. For example, one of the funniest sequences involves Amy’s long-awaited and first sexual encounter with another girl.

The party scenes are also a cut above the usual mindless shenanigans of drunk teens. But not all the humor works, as some of the situations like when the girls try to hijack a pizza delivery driver to get the address of the party, simply aren’t taken far enough to be truly funny. Still, there are a decent number of laugh out loud moments.

BOOKSMART is a female driven movie to be sure, with its woman director, four women screenwriters, and predominantly female cast. As such, this film has a lot to say about young women and their relationships. Probably the deepest part of the story is Amy’s dealings with her sexuality. The discussions regarding gender and sexual preferences are spot on. The problem is the film doesn’t go there enough. These topics take a back seat to the raunchy comedic parts of the story.

The bigger culprit though is the believability factor. The bottom line here is most of the students in this film simply didn’t seem all that real to me. Sure, the story takes place in California, and the characters here are all from an affluent west coast neighborhood, but they certainly didn’t seem like they were living in the real world. And at the end of the day, this lack of realism works against the movie and what it’s trying to say about the life of high school students, especially female high school students, in 2019.

The cast was excellent. Both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein stand out in the lead roles as Amy and Molly. These two did seem like real people, and I enjoyed watching this story about the two of them and their lifelong friendship. Dever has already had some notable roles in films like DETROIT (2017), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), and BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018). Her role here only adds to her impressive resume.

Beanie Feldstein impressed in LADY BIRD (2017), playing lead character Lady Bird’s best friend Julie.

Other notable performances in the young cast include Victoria Ruesga as Ryan, Mason Gooding as Nick, Skyler Gisondo as Jared, Diana Silvers as Hope, Molly Gordon as Triple A, Eduardo Franco as Theo, Austin Crute as Alan, and Noah Galvin as George. All these actors have key moments in the movie, and they’re all very good.

The cast also includes veteran actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, as well as Jason Sudeikis as the school principal.

While BOOKSMART is certainly funny, it never reaches the level of all-out hilarity it needed to be really memorable. Likewise, while its script and story do possess moments of sensitivity and insight into the teenage condition in 2019, these moments are sporadic at best. And while the dialogue is realistic and raw, unfiltered to a fault, the situations the two leads find themselves in are more often ludicrous than real. As such, while I had fun with BOOKSMART, I can’t say I believed most of it, which works against the stronger thematic elements of this comedy.

I liked BOOKSMART, but had it been a tad smarter, I would have loved it.

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FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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THE FAVOURITE (2018) – A Period Piece With An Edge

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Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE (2018).

THE FAVOURITE (2018), the latest film by acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos, is on many critics’ lists as one of the best films of 2018. While I liked this one well enough, I wouldn’t call it my favorite. Heh-heh.

THE FAVOURITE is a period piece with an edge. It takes place in 18th century England, and is as raunchy and vulgar as a modern-day R-rated comedy, only it presents these raw elements with much more dignity and grace.

In THE FAVOURITE, the miserable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England with a depressed demeanor, and she’s melancholy because of both physical ailments like gout and emotional ones, like the fact that all her children have died. Her friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) takes care of her and helps her with both her physical maladies and with the running of the country.  Lady Sarah has a keen political mind, and she has the Queen’s ear, and so many of the decisions regarding England’s involvement in its war with France are made by Lady Sarah.

And as we come to find out, these two women are more than just friends. They’re lovers.

When a young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, she presents herself to Lady Sarah as her cousin, a woman who had been a lady but due to the fault of her father, had lost favor and had become a servant. She arrives at the castle seeking work, and Lady Sarah hires her as her personal servant.

Abigail is an enterprising young woman, and she soon works herself into the favor of Queen Anne, so much so that her presence and relationship with the queen becomes a threat to Lady Sarah. At this point, the story becomes a duel between the two women to see who will ultimately gain favor with the queen, and the only rules here are that there are no rules.

There’s certainly a lot to like about THE FAVOURITE. Probably my favorite part of the movie is that it never deteriorates into silly comedy at the expense of its story. While there is much that is funny that happens in this movie, when Abigail declares war on Lady Sarah, the ensuing battle is dark and nasty rather than upbeat and goofy. The story is still good for a few chuckles at this point, but the characters and their actions remain true to the plot.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his provocative and offbeat movies like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) and THE LOBSTER (2015), has made a much more straightforward film here with THE FAVOURITE.  I enjoyed THE LOBSTER more than THE FAVOURITE, mostly because it was such an unusual film.

While THE FAVOURITE delivers in that it successfully tells this story of these three women, it didn’t pique my interest quite the same way THE LOBSTER did. That being said, Lanthimos includes enough creative camerawork here to put his stamp on this one.

Interestingly enough, he didn’t write the screenplay here. The script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a good screenplay. The dialogue is first-rate, and it’s quick and snappy, and the characters are all fleshed out. What interested me the least here was the actual story. While I was intrigued by the way Abigail and Lady Sarah went about their business in trying to impress the queen, I ultimately didn’t care all that much. Abigail is a cunning manipulative character, and while Lady Sarah is much more honest, she’s also cutthroat and abrasive.  So, while I enjoyed watching a story about these two beguiling characters, I can’t say that I liked them very much, and so ultimately they both could have failed, and I wouldn’t have cared.

Director Lanthimos has been hailed for getting the most out of his actors in THE FAVOURITE, and I would have to agree. The performances in this movie are all outstanding, from the three female leads to the supporting male characters.

I continue to be a huge Emma Stone fan. I’ve enjoyed her in nearly everything she’s done, even those awful Andrew Garfield SPIDER-MAN movies. While I enjoyed her recent performances in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) and LA LA LAND (2016) more, she is still excellent here as Abigail, creating in this character a spirited enterprising woman who knows what she wants and what to do in order to get it. And we see her maltreated by enough men to feel empathy for her when she goes for it.

Rachel Weisz makes for an indomitable and focused Lady Sarah who throughout most of the movie is less sympathetic than Abigail, but that changes as the stakes get higher and the manipulations grow darker.

Olivia Colman also delivers a noteworthy performance as the long-suffering Queen Anne. The queen’s emotions and behaviors are all over the place, as she goes from happy one minute to shouting in anger the next, and Colman captures her unpredictability masterfully.

The supporting male characters are just as impressive. Nicholas Hoult nearly steals the show with a dashing performance as Robert Harley, a member of Parliament who is politically opposed to Lady Sarah. He’s mean and he’s manipulative, and as he bullies Abigail to help him, she acquiesces because his positions frequently align with hers. Hoult has been very enjoyable as Beast in the re-booted X-MEN films, and his performance here as Harley is even better.

Joe Alwyn is also memorable as Masham, the young man who is fascinated by Abigail and pursues her even as she continually proves herself to be his superior. Alwyn is having a very good year, as he has also been in BOY ERASED (2018) and OPERATION FINALE (2018).

And James Smith gives perhaps the most restrained performance in the movie, as the respected and honorable Godolphin.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the ending to THE FAVOURITE all that much. It’s not a bad ending, and it succeeds in making its point, but it seems to lack the dagger effect which stabbed at the rest of the movie.

I enjoyed THE FAVOURITE for what it was, an R-rated period piece showing that women can be just as devious as men in the world of politics, and it tells this tale of debauchery and intrigue in a raunchy bawdy manner that will have you chuckling far more than wincing.

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