THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

LUCE (2019) – Provocative Tale Unlikable and Unrealistic

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Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and Naomi Watts in LUCE (2019).

Some movies try too hard to be thought-provoking and provocative. They go out of their way to push the audience’s buttons, and as such don’t achieve their intended results.

LUCE (2019) is such a movie. While it tries to tell a worthwhile story, it just can’t seem to get out of its own way. It has characters making extreme decisions that distance it from what would otherwise be a realistic story.

LUCE opens with high school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) giving a speech to his school community, his proud parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) in the audience. Luce is a talented student, obviously the darling of his school. One of his classmates refers to him as “their Obama.” Luce is black, his adoptive parents white, as Amy and Peter adopted him when he was a young child from war-torn Eritrea.

Luce has his whole positive future ahead of him, but with that, comes a lot of pressure, responsibility, and expectation, something that Luce is definitely feeling even though he shrugs it off with his smiling persona.

A teacher Luce does not like, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) contacts Amy with some troubling news about her son. Ms. Wilson explains she assigned an essay in which the students were to write from the perspective of a historical figure, and Luce chose a militant leader who believed that killing one’s enemies held the answers to life’s problems. Worried that Luce might actually believe what he had written, considering the violent childhood he experienced, Ms. Wilson searched his locker and found illegal fireworks.

Amy is shocked that Ms. Wilson violated her son’s rights and went into his locker without his permission, but the teacher assures her she only has Luce’s best interests at heart. She gives Amy the fireworks and asks her to have a conversation with her son. Amy does, and Luce’s answer is one, he wrote the essay in the mindset of its subject, not his own, and two, he and his friends share lockers, and so they often put things there that aren’t his. He also describes Ms. Wilson as the type of teacher who crosses the line, who makes examples of students, and who was responsible for getting his friend kicked off the track team.

Amy and Peter seem satisfied with Luce’s answers, although they go back and forth with different elements of his story, but when more accusations arise from Ms. Wilson, they believe that she has it out for their son.

If only the story were this simple.

But it’s not. See, from the get-go, even though Luce has all the right answers, it’s clear from watching him interact with his parents and his teacher, that there is something more going on. In short, he’s not so innocent. But just what is he guilty of, exactly? What is he doing, and why is he doing it? And hence, the thought-provoking aspects of the story come into play.

Luce is feeling a lot of pressure. Everyone looks up to him, and he feels the stress of expectation. He also feels responsible for his friends, and so when his buddy is kicked off the track team for having weed in his locker and as a result loses a scholarship, ruining his only chance of going to college, Luce is outraged that his friend is made an example of, and yet he is largely left unscathed.

And then there are the decisions made by certain characters which didn’t always seem real. Parents Amy and Peter make the extreme decision to lie and potentially ruin another person’s career to protect their son’s future.

Ms. Wilson in spite of her best intentions fails to communicate properly with her school’s administration, with Luce’s parents, and ultimately with Luce. She goes it alone which is almost always a disaster. Ms. Wilson messes up so badly it’s difficult to take her character seriously.

And Luce himself is an odd character. Supposedly the darling of his school, he is nonetheless manipulative, secretive, and downright sinister. The first two categories make him like a lot of high school teenagers, but the last one, the sinister angle, that one made him less real and far more contrived. At the end of the day, I didn’t like Luce one iota, and I also didn’t think he came off as a real person.

It’s a humorless screenplay by Julius Onah, who also directed, and J.C. Lee, based on Lee’s play of the same name. The point seems to be this is how difficult life is for a teenage boy like Luce, but Luce ultimately is such an annoying character I didn’t care how difficult his life was.

His parents Amy and Peter are just as annoying. When they lie to protect their son, they do so knowing full well that their decision will ruin a teacher’s career. Oh well. Gotta protect our son. The future needs him.

Really?

The one thing that LUCE has going for it is the acting. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Octavia Spencer are all excellent, but it’s young Kelvin Harrison Jr. who steals the show as Luce. He nails the teen’s smooth talking exterior, his inner conflict, and his unabashed self-confidence that he can do just about anything. One thing though I didn’t like was from the get-go, I did not trust Luce, and so I thought Harrison played up that angle a little too much. Harrison was also excellent in the above average horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).

I also enjoyed Andrea Bang as Luce’s girlfriend Stephanie.

And the film does have a potent hard-hitting music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury which adds to the story’s dissonance.

But that being said, there really wasn’t much else to enjoy about LUCE as it’s not an enjoyable movie, and this is on purpose. Director Julius Onah seems to be saying that life for youths like Luce is complicated and tough, and getting through it is no picnic. But the way Luce and his family go about it raises red flags throughout and removes this potential thought-provoking story from any kind of realistic conversation.

LUCE ends as it begins, with Luce delivering a powerful speech to his school community. In this speech, Luce talks about being proud to be an American, because here in America, people get second chances. They get to move on from their mistakes, learn from them, and become better people.

All well and good, except that in this case, I don’t think Luce and his family deserve a second chance because they lied and manipulated their way through the first one.

—END—

 

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.

—END—

 

BRIAN BANKS (2019) – Inspirational True Story of One Man’s Fight to Clear His Name

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BRIAN BANKS (2019), based on the inspirational true story of Brian Banks, a black man wrongly imprisoned for rape who fought his way back to clear his name and eventually play football in the NFL, offers no surprises.

None.

The story plays out exactly as you expect it to, and yet, this hardly seems to matter because at the end of the day, BRIAN BANKS is a solid, well-told story that makes its point and moves its audience to tears.

Sure, it’s safe and sanitized, the type of movie that easily could have been the TV movie of the week back in the day. It’s not gritty. It’s not R-rated. Some would call this inferior filmmaking, missing an opportunity to tell a story well and make an impact. For me, it all comes down to how a film is executed. I like safe sanitized movies as well as hard gritty ones, as long they do a good job telling their stories. BRIAN BANKS tells its story well.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was an up and coming football star, breaking school records and attracting attention of college football scouts. But when he was 16 years old, he was accused of rape, a crime he said he did not commit. Encouraged by his attorney to plead “no contest” which would be the same as “guilty” but would most likely mean no jail time, the youth agreed, only to watch in horror as the judge slapped a six-year jail sentence on him, as well as requiring him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Most of BRIAN BANKS takes place after Brian has been released from prison, although his prison experience is shown via flashback. As a young man in his twenties, an ex-con and registered sex-offender, Brian struggles to find work, as no one will hire him, and he lives with his supportive mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). He also has to contend with an overbearing parole officer (Dorian Missick) who constantly reminds Brian when he’s too close to a school or playground.

Brian finds it next to impossible to move on with his life, but he knows he’s innocent, and so he contacts attorney Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) who specializes in fighting for people who have been falsely convicted of crimes. Justin empathizes with Brian, but tells him that unless he can come up with some new and extraordinary evidence, his case will not be overturned, and so Brian sets out to do just that.

As I said, BRIAN BANKS offers no surprises. You know where this one is going to go, but since it’s going to a satisfactory place, the predictability of it all is not a problem.

At first, the screenplay by Doug Atchison raised an eyebrow. As Brian tells his story to Justin Brooks, he explains that he and the female student went to the section of the school known as a place where students make out, with the express intent of making out with this girl, but when a teacher walks by, it spooks Brian and not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes his future career, he changes his mind and walks away, leaving the spurned girl to make up the charge of rape.

Well, that’s believable.

Not.

You walked away? On your own? And the girl made the whole think up?

I don’t think so!

But the film covers its tracks by having Brian’s current girlfriend Karina (Melanie Liburd) be a sexual assault victim herself. When Brian first tells her his story, she apologizes and then leaves him alone at a restaurant table. But as she gets to know him, she finds herself believing in him, and eventually falls for him.

BRIAN BANKS really isn’t about the he said/she said of sexual assault. The film never really calls into question Brian’s innocence. He’s innocent. The system failed him. That’s the message of the film.  What BRIAN  BANKS really is about is resilience.

In prison. an angry and bitter Brian meets a wise old man, played by an uncredited Morgan Freeman, who becomes Brian’s mentor. He teaches Brian to let his anger go, and presents him with a creed that states that life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life’s adversities.

And that’s really what BRIAN BANKS is about and why the film ultimately succeeds. Brian Banks is a man who simply refuses to give up, who believes that the one thing he can control is how hard he fights for his freedom, and it’s a fight he refuses to give up on. As depicted in the movie, Brian really is an inspirational character.

Doug Atchison’s screenplay deals with sexual assault and the failings of our legal system but largely avoids race issues. The fact that Brian is black is hardly mentioned in the film. More than a story about race, it’s a story about perseverance and the pursuit of truth.

Director Tom Shadyac takes what could have been a hard-hitting gritty story and sanitizes it to the point where it could have been made by Disney. But since Banks’ relentless pursuit of the truth is so admirable, it hardly seems to matter. Shadyac is a director known for his comedies, films like BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994). There’s nothing comedic about BRIAN BANKS, and Shadyak seems quite comfortable telling this story.

Aldis Hodge is solid and sympathetic in the lead as Brian Banks. He captures Banks’ spirit and makes his journey a believable one. Hodge has been in a bunch of things over the years, from HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) to the TV shows BLACK MIRROR (2017) and THE WALKING DEAD (2014) to name just a few.

Likewise, Greg Kinnear is very good as attorney Justin Brooks, who eventually is won over by Banks and decides to take his case. Although Kinnear has been working steadily, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on the big screen. I believe for me it’s been since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Both Sherri Shepherd as Brian’s mom and Melanie Liburd as his girlfriend also turn in strong performances, as does Xosha Roquemore as Kennisha Rice, the woman who as it turns out falsely accused Brian of rape.

Likewise, Tiffany Dupont makes her mark as Alissa Bjerkhoel, who works for Justin Brooks and who was instrumental in encouraging Brooks to take Brian’s case.

And Dorian Missick is very good as the hard-nosed parole officer Mick Randolph. Missick has also been in a ton of things, from playing “Cockroach” on LUKE CAGE (2018) to appearances on LUCIFER (2016) and BETTER CALL SAUL (2015).

BRIAN BANKS is the type of film that at first seems difficult to recommend. It’s pretty straightforward, and the direction its story takes is pretty much a no-brainer.

But what it does do well is create a sympathetic and inspirational character, albeit based on a real life person, in Brian Banks, so much so that you can easily buy into his plight, feel his pain, and celebrate his victory.

—END—

 

 

 

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.

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TOLKIEN (2019) – Unimaginative Look At Imaginative Author Tolkien

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For a bio pic about imaginative author J.R.R. Tolkien, TOLKIEN (2019) isn’t all that imaginative.

In fact, it’s slow moving and often dull, but it sure looks good!

Director Dome Karukoski, who hails from Finland, has made a handsome elegant production that hearkens back to the Merchant-Ivory classics of yesteryear, at least in appearance anyway. It’s well-acted by its principal leads, but its script lacks the necessary emotion and imagination to carry its audience through to the end. In short, its 112 minute running time seemed much longer.

TOLKIEN tells the story of author J.R.R. Tolkien, known of course for the epic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it does this by focusing on three phases of his life: his childhood, his time at school where he developed close friendships with a small group of students, and on the battlefields of World War I. While the film intercuts between all three of these periods, the bulk of the movie is spent on Tolkien’s time at school.

It’s at school where Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) meets his three closest friends, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). The group becomes friends as youths where they declare they will change the world through art, and they stay together as they move on to Oxford where they continue to develop their “fellowship,” a word and feeling that will linger in Tolkien’s mind and heart long after he has finished school.

At home, Tolkien becomes friends with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who plays piano for their adoptive benefactor. The two become very close and eventually fall in love.

With the start of World War I, Tolkien finds himself on the battlefield, a brutal and unforgiving place that changes his life forever.

I guess.

That’s the thing about TOLKIEN. Its story never really resonates. Part of it is it’s not that captivating a story in the first place. Sure, Tolkien suffered on the battlefields of World War I, and friends were lost, but it wasn’t for these reasons alone that he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

The film hints that this is the case but never really hammers the point home. I mean, there are times on the battlefield where Tolkien hallucinates about dragons and other mythical creatures, but these images are shown fleetingly, and the connections to his later literary work are only implied.

I had a funny reaction watching TOLKIEN. I liked the main characters and enjoyed watching them, but the conversations and situations were so subtle, lifeless, and dull, that in spite of this I was rather bored throughout. It was akin to spending time with people you like but man, was the conversation flat.

Which is ironic since Tolkien was all about words, and here, the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford is superficial at best. It tells its story but without energy, imagination, or inspiration. And as I said, it’s also not much of a story. Tolkien was an orphan, yes, but the film paints a picture of a decent childhood, and he and his friends at school enjoyed quality times together. There didn’t seem to be much adversity.

The World War I scenes make their point regarding the brutality of trench warfare, but it’s all rather sanitized and doesn’t provide the necessary impact to show that such horrific warfare scarred or shaped Tolkien in any major way.

The love story between Tolkien and Edith Bratt is a good one, but again, there wasn’t a lot of adversity to overcome.

I did enjoy the acting, though. A lot.

Nicholas Hoult, who’s been playing Beast in the recent X-MEN reboots, and he’s been doing an excellent job in the role, is superb in the lead here as J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of the script limitations, he captures Tolkien’s love of words and the arts, and he makes the author a likable person. He embodies Tolkien’s love of learning and quirky intellect, and at times Holt channels a Benedict Cumberbatch vibe with this performance.

Hoult’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Hoult was also memorable in last year’s THE FAVOURITE (2018).

Lily Collins was also excellent as Edith Bratt. In fact, Collins, who’s the daughter of singer Phil Collins, was probably my favorite part of TOLKIEN. In the film, Edith Bratt is portrayed as probably the person who influenced Tolkien the most. She’s a strong and articulate presence, and Collins does an outstanding job bringing these qualities to life and also being adorable as well. It’s easy to see by Collins’ performance why Tolkien fell in love with her.

For a movie that was strangely devoid of emotion, Edith Bratt was one of the few characters whose scenes were frequently moving, and Lily Collins’ performance was directly responsible.

Strong emotions were few and far between in TOLKIEN. One of the more powerful scenes in the movie comes near the end, when Tolkien sits down with the mother of one of his slain friends, and she admits she never really knew her son. The way Tolkien explains her son to her is one of the more emotionally charged sequences in the movie.

It was fun to see Colm Meaney in the movie in a key supporting role as Father Francis, a priest who Tolkien’s mother left in charge of her sons’ welfare. Meaney of course played Chief Miles O’Brien on both STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999).

And Derek Jacobi shows up briefly as language Professor Wright.

There also just wasn’t a whole lot of connections between Tolkien’s life story as told here in this movie and his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sure, things are hinted at, and connections are made peripherally, but you have to connect the dots, which isn’t a bad thing, but what is bad is there simply aren’t a lot of dots to connect.

I enjoyed TOLKIEN well enough because I liked the performances and the look of the film, but for a story about J.R.R. Tolkien, it was all rather lackluster and subdued, and not at all an imaginative take on its very imaginative subject.

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